NASCAR & Auto Racing

Indy is on the button

INDIANAPOLIS — Honda calls it "push to pass," but that isn't a completely accurate nickname for the system.

First, a shot of 20 horsepower doesn't guarantee anything, and second, push to pass can be used for defense just as easily as offense.

But this much can't be disputed: The electronic tool will have a profound effect on strategy and maybe even the outcome today in its first use in the Indianapolis 500.

"If you've got a situation like Sam and Marco in '06, it could definitely help," 2008 winner Dario Franchitti said, referring to the last-lap charge Sam Hornish made to beat Marco Andretti off the fourth turn in 2006.

"You've got to be as judicious with your uses of those things. You can't just go crazy with them."

Honda Performance Development, the sole engine supplier to the IndyCar Series, introduced push to pass at Kentucky Speedway last August. Complaints about boring races diminished quickly.

The system is built into the electronics of the engine and works by advancing the timing of the engine and raising its speed from 10,300 rpm to 10,500.

"Depending on where you are in the power range, it'll give you 5 to 20 horsepower," Jack Spurney, general manager for HPD, said Friday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "It's not huge.

"It's made the competition a lot closer, I think, the fans seem to resonate with it and the drivers seem to like it a lot."

Use of the system is limited.

Drivers will have 15 opportunities to benefit. Each time they do, the power jump will last for 18 seconds, and they'll have to wait at least 10 seconds before hitting the button on their steering wheel again.

Fifteen uses is the standard limit for races on big ovals, but most of the other events fall in the 300-mile range. The 18-second duration is the most Honda and the Indy Racing League have allowed.

Although push to pass is new to Indy, the concept is not foreign to American open-wheel racing.

Years ago, drivers could control turbocharger boost. The limiting factor then was the allotment of fuel; the driver could use only so much boost for so long before he put himself in jeopardy of running out. Also, the defunct Champ Car series had a push to pass system that was controlled electronically and operated via the turbocharger.

"You're not going to get as much of a reaction in normally aspirated engines," Spurney said. "We hope the next engine is turbocharged. That'd be really cool."

Friday's Carburetion Day final practice provided drivers with their first opportunity to use push to pass at Indy. Franchitti turned the fastest lap, but the session is less about speed than it is about checking for leaks and trying one or two more setup changes.

Drivers and teams can be cagey about their strategy for using push to pass or whether they even have a specific strategy.

"The biggest thing with the push to pass is there's times in the race you get the feeling like, 'Yeah, I need to go,' for whatever reason it could be," said Dan Wheldon, the 2005 Indy winner. "It's those critical moments that you're going to push to pass."

It is expected the "overtake assist system," as it is officially called, will come in most handy early in the race as drivers pick their way through tight traffic; on restarts, when positions can be gained and lost quickly; and in the waning laps, when millions of dollars are on the line.

"I'm not going to give you numbers, because then people are going to figure out what I'm going to do, but I think it's going to be a lot more important at the end of the race," said Tony Kanaan, the 2005 pole-sitter who will start last Sunday.

"I would hate to lose this race because I didn't have a single push to pass at the end. But I will use as much as I can."