‘One-Off’ Drivers Face Unique Challenges & Preparation At Indianapolis

Story By: NICK GRAZIANO / INDYCAR – SPEEDWAY, IN – Marco Andretti, Sage Karam and Stefan Wilson will see the clock stop at 11 months, 29 days and more hours than they’d probably like to count at the 106th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 29.

That’s how long it’ll be since they last competed in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES after the 2021 Indy 500. However, not necessarily the amount of time they had to prepare.

While Andretti has run the Indy 500 every year since 2006 and Karam every year since 2014, knowing well in advance they would be back in 2022, Wilson’s first back-to-back return to “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” was announced May 5, in a joint effort between DragonSpeed and Cusick Motorsports with technical assistance from AJ Foyt Racing.

Even with the short time frame, Wilson said he still feels more prepared this year than last.

“I think last year, coming back, that was the first time I raced anything for years,” Wilson said. “I feel way more prepared than I did last year, mainly because this is the first time I’m coming back to the “500” in consecutive years, and I’ve also been racing in the IMSA stuff this year. So, it’s not the first time I’ll be racing. I’ve already kind of shaken some of the rust off and sharpened my skills.

“I feel really ready to attack the Month of May. I really want to do a good job for this organization we’ve kind of put together last minute between DragonSpeed and Cusick Motorsports.”

The 11th-hour decision for DragonSpeed and Cusick to team up for the Indy 500 meant a refocused training regimen for Wilson. While he’d already been in the gym every week training for his IMSA duties with Cusick, the 500-Mile Race brings different challenges, requiring him to ramp up his workout program. In the couple of weeks after he learned he would run the “500,” Wilson said he’s already lost 5 to 6 pounds.

For Karam, after eight straight years of running the Indy 500 – five of them one-offs – he noted having a training program that trains his muscles to recover during a caution or pit stop cycle has been key. Karam is driving the No. 24 AES Indiana DRR Chevrolet for Dreyer and Reinbold Racing.

“The guys that are really, really good that are really well trained are those guys that have their muscles and their mind recover more in that short amount of time,” Karam said. “I’ve been trying to focus on that. How do I get my heart rate down, get my muscles to recover when I only have 30 seconds coming down pit road or three, four minutes under a yellow flag?

“It’s hard to train when you’re not racing all the time. So, I’ve kind of learned what hasn’t been working, what has worked and what I need to improve on. I’ve worked on that over the years. I feel like I have a good formula for what I know going into that race physically and mentally. Yeah, it’s a lot of experience and laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to figure all that stuff out.”

Like Wilson, the Indy 500 won’t be Karam’s first race of the year. He’s made two NASCAR Xfinity Series starts this year, which he said should be a benefit. He and Andretti also got laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Open Test in late April. Wilson did not participate, as his team announced its plans to run the “500” after the test. Plus, the car he’s driving was in use by A.J. Foyt Racing for road course events, including the GMR Grand Prix.

Andretti and Karam also have the benefit of having worked with their Indy 500 teams for several years – Karam running all but one Indy 500 with his Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team, earning a career-best Indy 500 finish of seventh last year, and Andretti having been with Andretti Autosport since his first “500” in 2006, when he nearly won the race in his rookie season before settling for a runner-up finish. Wilson, whose best finish at the Indy 500 is 15th, will learn a new team. But, for the first time, he won’t have to learn a new car.

“In 2016 we had the aero kits,” Wilson said. “Came back in 2018 and at that point, the aero kits are gone, and we’ve all got the IR18. And then coming back in 2021, we got the aeroscreen. This is the first time coming back, it’s the same exact package I drove the year before.

“The experience from last year, learning what I like, some of the changes we made to get what I like from the car, that’s something I can implement over here with this group and allows us to make progress quicker through the week and develop a car I think we can race with.”

This year marks the first time Andretti has gone a full year since last racing with the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. He admitted in a recent video there were questions about how that would affect his performance, but it didn’t take long for them to fade away after driving in the No. 98 KULR Technology/Curb Honda during the Open Test.

“This is the first year it’s almost not a continuation because I ran a full season in (2020), so I was still active at the end of that year, where this is a full year off,” Andretti said. “And I actually had some questions of how long it would take. It took one lap to be flat. It was like riding a bike.”

With 33 cars entered for the 33-car field this year, the trio can shed the anxiety of trying to qualify their way into the race and put more focus on their race trim – a luxury that could put them all a step ahead of where they started last year after 11 months, 29 days and probably more hours than they’d probably like to count of waiting.

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