Push-to-pass could give Indy 500 different look

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Helio Castroneves has everything he needs to win another Indianapolis 500.

A fast car, an experienced team, the pole position and a crew who seem to win the pit contest every year.

This year, Castroneves might need another ingredient for a record-tying fourth victory — good chess moves to outmaneuver the other 32 Indy drivers in Sunday's push-to-pass game.

The "push-to-pass" button is making its Indy debut this week. On Sunday, drivers will get 15 chances to use the new feature, which provides 18 seconds of extra horsepower. Drivers then must wait 10 seconds before hitting the button again.

"I think it makes the game a little more complicated," said Gil de Ferran, the 2003 Indy champ and a former teammate of Castroneves. "You're adding a degree of difficulty to this race. Typically you spend 450 miles trying to get yourself in position to win, and the last 50 miles you drive with bare knuckles."

The bare knuckles part won't change Sunday, and the button could make that final stretch even tougher.

The trickiest part is no one really knows how it will influence race strategy.

Drivers have not tested the button at Indy and will get their first chance during Friday's final practice. IndyCar officials added the push-to-pass button last season to increase passing. It debuted last August and has been used in all 11 IndyCar races since, proving most effective on the road courses.

"This is such a high-speed place anyway and now with the different rules, I think you'll probably run a little closer, so I think it will affect the race," Castroneves said. "Normally, you have 20 that last about 20 seconds, and that's half a lap here. So it's going to give you extra power, no question."

Ed Carpenter, making his first start of the season, knows exactly what he wants to do.

"The only way I'm using it on defense is if I'm leading the race," he said.

Of course, he'll need to make sure he hasn't used up his 15 shots.

The combination of an extra boost of horsepower, more drafting and tighter racing means Indy's already fast speeds could get even quicker.

"It really adds a lot to our racing," said Brian Barnhart, IndyCar Series president of competition and racing operations. "It's been interesting to watch how that plays on the road courses, but we don't run 200 laps on those like we do here."

Nor do they run on straightaways as long as those on Indy's 2.5-mile oval.

Rick Mears, one of three four-time Indy winners, has an idea of what might happen.

When he was driving in the '70s, '80s and '90s, some cars had unlimited use of a turbocharged booster knob.

"The exception is they're regulated by the number of times they can push it, whereas we could do it any number of times but we were regulated by fuel mileage," Mears said.

Come Sunday, there's only one rule — 15 shots at that extra horsepower. As for how drivers will incorporate the button into their race-day strategy is the topic of conversation in Gasoline Alley.

"If there's a whole bunch of restarts late in the race, do you use them to protect your position? What do you do?" said de Ferran, who co-owns de Ferran Dragon Racing with Roger Penske's son, Jay. "I think it's going to make for a very interesting race."

Stay tuned.