MADISON, Illinois – When Tony Kanaan returned to Gateway Motorsports Park in May for the first time in 14 years, he had to acquaint himself with the entrance.
“When we came here before, there wasn’t even a tunnel,” Kanaan said. “I didn’t even know how to get into the track. It was funny. I struggled with it. I did a couple of laps around the outside of the track just trying to figure it out.”
He wasn’t the only one. Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Ed Carpenter had to get re-accustomed to surroundings from earlier in their racing careers when they tested at the 1.25-mile oval this spring in advance of this weekend’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline. There is a tunnel, new pavement and a fresh feel to the place, and they like it.
Even if it took a while to get familiar again.
“It’s definitely changed a lot,” said Dixon, whose only previous appearance at Gateway in 2003 was the final race of a seven-year run of Indy car events at the facility, first under CART sanction and then INDYCAR. “The style of cars has changed a lot, probably more so for Helio and TK, who raced the CART car here. I imagine they were really fast here.”
The four returnees marveled at the speed around the tight, egg-shaped oval, whose repaving helped the four Team Penske drivers shatter track records on the way to a 1-2-3-4 sweep of tonight’s qualifying.
“It’s really fast – even compared to when we tested here the other day (Aug. 3),” said Carpenter, who raced twice at Gateway in Indy Lights, finishing third in 2002 and fourth in 2003. “It’s just gripping up more and more, which makes me a little worried about the race. New surfaces are so fast, and when one lane is so fast, it can make it challenging. We really don’t know. We’re still learning about this track and the surface.”
Castroneves, who won the Verizon IndyCar Series race at Gateway in 2003, has re-familiarized himself with the track’s most significant challenge: a sharp first turn that’s essential to a quick lap.
“It’s so difficult in Turn 1,” Castroneves said. “It is such a sharp turn. You really have to put yourself in a good spot so you can pass on the back straightaway. That’s going to be the hardest part of it. You have to have a very good run on the exit of Turn 2 so you can pass on the backstretch.”
After the May test, the track was repaved. Another test was held Aug. 3 to allow teams and drivers a chance to get comfortable with the new surface.
“Turn 1 is really unique because of the way you really drop into it,” Dixon said. “It’s quite daunting because it’s quite a tight corner. You don’t think the car is going to stick, but you can run some pretty massive speeds through Turn 1.”
Now that he’s got the tunnel down pat, Kanaan is working on all the other variables.
“Different cars, different downforce, different track,” Kanaan said. “It’s so awesome to have a surface that’s so smooth. I’m excited to be here.”
Saturday’s race is the 15th of the 17-race Verizon IndyCar Series season with the championship hanging in the balance. Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden leads the standings that see the top four drivers separated by 41 points and the top 15 all still mathematically alive in the hunt.
Live coverage of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 commences at 9 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.