STEAM CORNERS, Ohio -- Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is host this weekend for what should be the summer's biggest and best festival of road racing.
A strong twin bill featuring the American Le Mans Series Mid-Ohio Sports Car Challenge (2 p.m. Saturday, ABC) and the IZOD IndyCar Series Honda Indy 200 (12:30 p.m. Sunday, ABC) will lure a large crowd of campers and car lovers to the hillsides that border the scenic, natural-terrain road course just north of Columbus.
It's not a stretch to claim that Mid-Ohio is the best place to watch road racing in America. The compact 2.258-mile layout allows fans to walk a lap and observe from every corner during practice or qualifying. Settling in for the long haul of a race, the banked spectator areas at the Keyhole, the Esses and Thunder Valley encourage fans to spread out a blanket and take in the action in a relaxed environment that is a world apart from jammed-in stadium seating.
Drivers love Mid-Ohio too, because it demands a lot from them and their cars. With 13 turns spread over just two miles, they never really get a break, and the undulating nature of the circuit and the frequently punishing heat and humidity adds to the physical difficulty of racing there.
"The commitment level is going to be very high as a driver this weekend," said IndyCar Series championship leader Ryan Hunter-Reay. "We saw much higher cornering speeds in testing and that means it's going to be a very physical race. You hold your breath and go into every corner quicker than you think the car can stand, then hope you come out the other side."
The key change is the new-for-2012 Dallara DW12 chassis, which has produced excellent racing on every type of track this year. It's also faster than Indy cars from the recent past, and this year's pole time should fall between Helio Castroneves' IRL-specification best of 1 minute, 6.838 seconds set in 2006 and the outright track record of 1:05.347 shared by Dario Franchitti and Gil de Ferran more than a decade ago in CART-specification cars.
"I love it and really enjoy driving around there," said Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe, the 2009 Mid-Ohio winner. "Qualifying is very important and you have to race hard from start to finish. It's not the best track for passing, but that just puts so much more emphasis on being fast and qualifying is all about getting everything out of your race car and making sure you start the race at the front.
"It's old school," he added. "Fun, fast, high grip. It's very challenging."
While the drivers enjoy the sensation of driving at Mid-Ohio, the downside to its layout is the lack of a long straight and obvious passing zones, which sometimes lead to processional races that are more akin to precision driving exhibitions.
But there was much more passing than expected throughout the field in the April race at Barber Motorsports Park, a similarly tight and twisty road course. Slight disparity in the competition between engine manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda has also produced more passing this year, and INDYCAR introduced a push-to-pass feature in July that will be modified at Mid-Ohio to prevent drivers from using it to defend their position.
A 5-second delay for the function, which temporarily increases turbocharger boost and adds 200 RPM for a gain of approximately 20 horsepower, is hoped to add to the strategic element.
"They'll have to plan ahead," said Trevor Knowles, INDYCAR's director of engine development. "You can push the button before you get to the braking zone and when you get on the throttle it will be on 'overtake.' If [the trailing competitor] responds, he has five seconds before his overtake cuts in."
Each driver will have 100 seconds of P2P available for bursts of up to 20 seconds.
"We're used to conserving it," Hunter-Reay said. "It's always a trade-off at the end; you need it at the end to fight it out when the tires are going off so it's tricky. You just have to use it when you need it, and it's tough to say when that is. Only in hindsight can you determine if you used it correctly."
With four races remaining, including Mid-Ohio, the IndyCar Series championship is still up for grabs. Hunter-Reay leads Penske teammates Castroneves and Will Power by 23 and 26 points, respectively.
We are very focused on what we need to do to put the Verizon car in the championship hunt. We know we need to win races and I had some good performances there before, so now it is time to put it all together, win the race and put our team where we want to be.
”-- Will Power
"We're going to need [to win] another race win to win the championship, and that's our total focus," Hunter-Reay said. "I'm committed to working just as hard as a driver as my engineers and pit crew are working. As a team, we're 110 percent committed to bringing a championship back to Andretti Autosport."
Castroneves is in championship contention this late in the season for the first time since 2008, while his Penske running mate, Power, has been in the thick of the past two title chases against Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
"We are very focused on what we need to do to put the Verizon car in the championship hunt," Power said. "We know we need to win races and I had some good performances there before, so now it is time to put it all together, win the race and put our team where we want to be."
Four-time series champion Franchitti is 104 points behind Hunter-Reay and realistically (if not mathematically) out of contention for the crown. But Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon still harbors hope of claiming a third IndyCar Series title of his own.
Dixon is fourth in the standings, 61 points back, but Mid-Ohio is one of his strongest circuits. He won there in 2007, '09 and '11, with the 30-second margin of victory in 2009 the largest in the 16-year history of INDYCAR race sanction.
Ganassi's Charlie Kimball, who scored an IndyCar career-best second-place finish at Toronto in July, will miss the race after fracturing bones in his hand in a crash while testing at Mid-Ohio a week ago.
Kimball's replacement is Giorgio Pantano, a 33-year-old Italian who is a former GP2 series champion. Pantano has made five IndyCar Series starts, with a best finish of fourth place at Watkins Glen in 2005, also while in a substitute role for Ganassi.