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Ben Smith

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Indy road course has strange feel

– The greatest racing driver who ever breathed air is grinning at me over there.

It’s the second Saturday in May, and, in the famous photo that hangs in my den, the late Jimmy Clark is smiling at my discomfort, or so it seems. The smile comes out of 1965, the day after Clark ran away with the Indianapolis 500 in his iconic British racing green Lotus-Ford. That’s car builder Colin Chapman kneeling beside him, squinting into the sun of a soft May morning 49 years gone.

Both of them seem to be saying this: “Hey, it’s OK. This is gonna be cool. Promise.”

But then, Clark, the pre-eminent Formula One road racer of his or perhaps any era, was never entirely comfortable on Indy’s square-jawed oval, so of course he’d be on board with the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He’d be all over an IndyCar road course race that today will turn everything about Indy in May inside-out and backward.

They’ll be hightailing it south to north on the main straightaway instead of the other way around, for one thing. Turn 4 will be Turn 1 and Turn 1 is Turn 14. Instead of 200 laps, there’ll be 82, rain or shine – and if I had to pick a winner, I’d pick Will Power, because the man from Toowomba, Australia, absolutely kills it on road courses.

Which is another thing that’s different about this, because Power usually has the luck of the devil at Indy.

But that’s on the square-jawed oval in the 500, where he’s finished in the top 10 only twice in six starts. The GP is an entirely different animal.

And one with which I’d be entirely on board, were it not for the timing.

Oh, I get what the Speedway folks are after here. They’re trying to create more buzz for the month of May in an era when the month of May is down to two weekends – and really just one day (race day), because qualifying isn’t a thing anymore now that the track record is permanently out of play.

The GP adds a third weekend, so there you go.

On the other hand, it tends to turn the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, i.e., the 500, into the Greatest Spectacle In Racing And This Other Thing. And I’m just old school enough to think May should belong solely to the 500, even if it’s not the May it used to be.

A road course race, though, makes perfect sense in an era when IndyCar is ruled by Australians and Kiwis and Brazilians, and even homegrown IndyCar types have grown up running road courses. So none of them batted an eye when it came time to hit the infield road course at Indy, slightly modified since the old Formula One days.

“It’s a nice racetrack. It’s flowing. There’s a nice rhythm to it,” Simon Pagenaud says.

“It’s a very dynamic track, very different from what we have in Indy Car. It’s a different way around, and I completely approve it,” Sebastian Saavedra agrees.

And you, Graham Rahal?

“It’s fast,” he says. “I think that’s what this place has over others. This is the fastest road course that we will go to this season. I’m pretty impressed.”

And so, yeah, bring it on. Because in the end, if you’re at all a connoisseur of American open-wheel racing, you want to see this. I am, and I do.

Just not now.

“Oh, you’ll get used to it,” Jimmy Clark is saying from over there on the wall. “Promise.”

Whatever you say, pal.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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