Drivers face light-hearted scrutiny on Indy 500 media day

Updated: 

INDIANAPOLIS – Scott Dixon entered the North Chalet of the Pagoda Plaza on Thursday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a following of media ducklings, cameras and recorders in hand, waiting to document his every word.

Welcome to media day for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. It’s not as weird as the Super Bowl’s media day, but it had its moments, including a questioning puppet, a racer with a microphone joking with other racers and photographers attempting to prove that the Borg-Warner Trophy is taller than Takuma Sato. (Answer: Depends on whether he’s wearing a hat.)

Comedic elements aside, Indy 500 media day – comparatively speaking, anyway – is relatively tame. At times, it’s even enlightening.

After a quick video Q&A with NBC, Dixon, the five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner, got down to business with the print folks. Here’s the abridged version:

Q. What’s your race-day approach?

Dixon: You try to sleep in. That typically doesn’t happen. You have a giant cannon that wakes you up, and then the dogs are awake. It’s basically just staying calm and chill and relaxed.

Q. You’ve won this race before. What will it take to do it again?

Dixon: You need to have a clean day. That’s true even more so now, given how tight the competition is. If you make a mistake, it definitely makes it harder to recover. If you have a mistake, it needs to be early so you have the whole race to recover from it.

Q. Is there additional tunability in this package?

Dixon: Depending on the temperatures, you’ll see how black and white that’s going to be. One side of the fence can kind of add that stuff and not really worry about it. But on the outside, we have to be more cautious. As you add on all of that downforce, it’s going to be quite draggy and the speed’s going to drop quite a lot. It gives you a bigger window to either hit it or miss it.

Q. Do aero tweaks improve racing in traffic?

Dixon: They should, but the biggest help has been the tire, to be honest. Firestone has done a good job. Is it enough? We have seen in some (practice) days where we started to get a little bit of track temp that we’ve seen some of the characteristics of the big (aero) washout in the front. I think the racing (among) one, two and three (cars) is going to be good, but once you get fourth, fifth and sixth back in the pack, it accentuates that same issue.”

Q. You’ve been a little under the radar this month. Does that make you a good sleeper pick for race day?

Dixon: We have been very average. Our car in race trim has been really good. Most of the days when we’ve been race running, we’ve been in the top five and had some pretty good speeds. On Monday, the car felt really good. But again, you don’t really know who’s doing what.

Charlie Kimball talks to puppetHeld each year on the Thursday afternoon before the race, media day is in a large room in the Pagoda Plaza. It consists of two shifts – 17 drivers in one shift, 16 in the other – and it’s a free-for-all. Drivers sit at small tables spaced to allow media members – video, audio and print – to gather around and try to ask questions and record the answers.

And it does have moments of levity. For a time, Indianapolis sports anchor Chris Hagan tried to make Sage Karam, Charlie Kimball and others lose their composure by asking questions via a puppet. It almost worked.

A few tables away, former racer A.J. Allmendinger, an analyst for NBCSN, approached his former rival, Sebastien Bourdais, microphone in hand.

“Did you ever think guys like me and P.T. (Paul Tracy) would be asking you questions about your race car?” Allmendinger said.

Bourdais smiled. “No!” he said. “You’re just making me feel very old right now. This is wrong. I don’t know what’s going on here.”

“Well, you are old,” Allmendinger said with a laugh.

“I’m 40,” Bourdais replied.

At the east end of the room, Sato, who won the Indy 500 in 2017, posed with the Borg-Warner Trophy, which is just under 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighs 110 pounds. One observer noted that Sato is close to both measurements.

Not far away, Ryan Hunter-Reay, who will start 22nd Sunday, gave the multi-scrum media day festivities a largely positive review.

“It’s not too bad,” he said. “I get ‘you’re starting pretty far back in the pack; how do you see your chances?’ That’s a pretty common question, but naturally it is, starting where we are. Today’s been pretty good. It’s all right. I like doing it.”

For the drivers now, it’s on to Miller Lite Carb Day festivities, including a final 90-minute practice session. It airs live on NBCSN, INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network beginning at 11 a.m. ET Friday. The 103rd Indianapolis 500 airs live at 11 a.m. Sunday on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. Tickets remain available at IMS.com.

From the fans