INSIGHT: How IndyCar drivers aim to beat Iowa heat

The forecast for the Hy-Vee IndyCar Race Weekend calls for temperatures nearing 100 degrees at its worst and mid-80s at its best as 26 drivers prepare to roast among the Iowa cornfields.

If the extreme heat and high humidity wasn’t enough to deal with, the trip to the little Iowa Speedway oval serves as IndyCar’s only doubleheader of the year. With maximum downforce applied to the cars on the 0.894-mile short oval, drivers will have more than 4500 pounds of aerodynamic loading to contend with through their steering wheels as the oval’s four corners flash by with each sub-20-second lap.

Thanks to the absence of power steering, Iowa is renowned for the extreme physical toll is takes on the IndyCar field under normal conditions; with the sun bearing down on the track and the related spike in cockpit temperature due to the aeroscreen safety device, the 250-lap race on Saturday and 300 to follow on Sunday will be nothing less than grueling.

Colton Herta, the first driver to win an IndyCar race using a cooling system that circulates cold water through tiny hoses sewn into a custom t-shirt worn beneath his firesuit, expects to see cool shirts put to regular use this weekend to try and combat heat-related exhaustion.

Herta’s cool suit (note hose hanging from his hip) served him well in St. Petersburg but the heat challenge in Iowa looks to be on another level. Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

“It’s gonna be brutal, no matter what, cool shirt or not,” the Andretti Autosport driver told RACER. “It’s gonna be a tough one and it’s gonna be interesting to see how the cars handle the heat. There may be 10 to 15 degrees difference between Race 1 and 2, and that’s going to make a big difference for car balance, too, so we might see guys are gonna go backwards for that.”

“I don’t think I’ll use the cool shirt for [Friday’s 90-minute] practice; I can handle the heat for an hour or whatever doing 10-lap runs or whatever we’re doing, but for the race, it’s gonna be on, for sure.”

Beyond mandating the use of the cooling vents — nostrils — at the leading edge of the noses on the spec Dallara DW12s and the side scoops that feed air to every driver’s helmet, teams have the option to install the “topside duct’ as it’s called by the series which mounts atop the front of the aeroscreen and channels air down onto the driver.

IndyCar also allows the installation and use of team-developed cool shirt systems which add approximately seven to eight pounds to the car. The extra weight is not subject to equalization, meaning that teams which elect to run without the system are not required to add 7-8 pounds of ballast. It’s here where some teams will look to run without the driver cooling systems to gain an advantage by running lighter than those who mount the devices to their cars.

Ed Carpenter Racing’s Conor Daly isn’t sure if his team will run its new system; there’s a concern how the weight might affect their cars’ handling.

“We don’t want to sacrifice any performance, obviously, so we’re still on the fence on that because without a doubt, I don’t want to give away performance,” said Daly, “but it’s going to be awful in the car. So we are planning to have the cool shirt available, but if we go out there and all of a sudden the balance is off, we’re gonna rip that sucker out of there.”

The larger question to consider is whether the performance gains brought by leaving the cool shirt system off the car is greater than the risk teams face if a driver begins to overheat, lose strength, stamina, and focus. Simply put, if running without the system brings a 0.1s improvement per lap due to the car’s lower weight, but the driver starts losing that amount of time or more due to heat exhaustion setting in during the latter stages of the 250- or 300-lapper, what’s the smarter call to make?

“It seems silly, right, to worry about adding that little bit of time loss per lap, but what if in the last 50 laps, you’re dead and then you end up losing time every lap just because you can’t do it,” Herta said. “But, I also feel like this is a good time to like just shout out to PitFit and all the training we’ve been doing because as far as I’m concerned, every time I’ve hopped in the car, I’ve been prepared and mentally and physically have been there. And even with all of that, it’s still gonna be a problem.

“Everyone talks about how physical Iowa is. Then you have two races and then you have 95 degrees with 80-percent humidity or whatever. It’s kind of insane. If this was the first race of the year, I think guys would be absolutely out of it. But luckily, we have already been in some hot races, and we have calluses built up on our hands and have stamina built up. But it’s still gonna be brutal, for sure.”

For Daly, who has struggled to keep his core temperature from overheating in Iowa-like conditions since the aeroscreen was introduced, he’s left to hope the situation is tolerable once the doubleheaders get under way.

“Realistically, every driver is different, so some drivers are completely fine with everything and being hotter than the sun because everyone’s body works differently,” he said. “You see guys like Will Power, even [Josef] Newgarden use the cool shirt; super fit people are going towards it because we’re cooking and it’s just so physically hard to drive these cars.

“And then guys like [Alexander] Rossi, and half the real big elite athletes, they don’t sweat. They’ve been born different. I’m just as curious as I think anyone else is to see who is gonna run the cool shirts and who will go without them. And then we’ll have to see how everybody ends up.”