Ask rookie NTT IndyCar Series driver Callum Ilott about the savagery in the cockpit of his 750hp Dallara DW12-Chevy chassis. He'll turn over his palms.
“This is the hardest car I’ve ever driven,” Ilott recently said after completing his first St. Petersburg Grand Prix. The 100-lap race held on the Floridian street circuit exacted a stomach-turning toll on the English rookie, a Ferrari Formula 1 test driver who’s giving American open-wheel racing a shot. “I’ve got five chunks of blisters taken out of my hands. I felt them starting to bleed 30 laps before the end.”
Without the aid of power steering, driving a modern Indy car on a road or street course has become a punishing test of physical strength and endurance. And, as the newcomers learn each season, a test of mental fortitude as the pain caused from shredded palms is both real and routine.
Producing nearly 5000 pounds of downforce, IndyCar’s Dallara DW12 chassis—mated with 750hp engines twin-turbo V6 engines from Chevy and Honda and wide racing slicks from Firestone—is nightmarishly fast in the corners. At the heart of the controls are the drivers charged with using their cores and biceps and forearms to resist the ungodly forces at play.
It’s in the constant grappling and fighting with the steering wheel where grip strength comes into play, and with the absence of hydraulic or electric assistance within the steering rack to tame the immense downforce and lateral Gs, the steering wheel can become a torture device in the fastest corners.
At St. Petersburg, where constant transitions between left and right turns are the norm, the grinding friction and clamping force needed to rotate the steering wheel generate blisters. Factor in St. Pete's bumps and divots and the frequent pounding that comes from driving over curbing, and kickback through the wheel causes further damage.
Digging into the data, an IndyCar team provided Road & Track with a graphical depiction of the phenomenon. Using a torque sensor installed in the steering column, teams use the information to quantify the twisting forces being applied by their drivers. Here, at St. Petersburg, the section where the greatest turning effort is required comes in Turn 3 wherein rotating the Indy car through the quick corner onto the long back straight requires a peak of 32.1 lb-ft of torque from the driver.
On its own, 32.1 lb-ft might not look like an imposing number. The average torque rating for a lug nut on a passenger car wheel is nearly triple that figure, but with a socket installed on the nut and a long lever to apply the weight of your body to torquing the nut, the force required becomes manageable.
Strapped into a seat with a six-point harness, their arms mostly extended and without significant leverage, cranking out upwards of 32 lb-ft with deft precision leaves many IndyCar drivers with muscular exhaustion and mangled hands.
The data also shows that while Turn 3 produced the highest steering torque figure, it’s the constant physical demands of turning the car that lead IndyCar drivers to train extensively, focusing on upper body strength and endurance.
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg took one hour and 51 minutes to complete. This weekend’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach will be nearly identical in duration at the 11-turn Californian street course. Without the benefit of power steering, it’s not uncommon to see drivers climb from their cars—where high cockpit temperatures can sap strength and will—and look like they’ve just fought twelve rounds in a sauna.
From last year’s Long Beach race, data from steering wheel torque sensors in an Indy car and one of IMSA’s DPi prototypes which have power steering paints a fascinating picture of how differently the drivers are treated by the cars.
Weighing just over 1800 pounds, a Dallara DW12 Indy car chassis comes in about 300 pounds below a DPi, and yet, with the DPi’s steering torque data shown in red and the Indy car’s in green, the relative ease of turning the bigger and heavier sports car is made plain thanks to its power steering. The lighter Indy car, with its driver bearing the full brunt of rotating the machine with their limbs, spends the lap sending rapid-fire shots into those hands and arms and shoulders with no concern for its operator. For the DPi driver, power steering removes the harshness and leaves their hands intact.
In fact, by zooming in on Long Beach’s fast Turn 9, where its customary to crash over the curbing on the inside of the right-hander, we can see how the IndyCar driver goes from no torque applied just before the turning starts to a lightning-fast jab of force into the steering column. The punches coming back into their palms are trying to rip the wheel from the drivers' hands.
Imagine this happening over and over again in the race, and there’s a reason why the average physique and training regimen of an IndyCar driver is unlike anything their counterparts in Formula 1 or NASCAR have come to know.
Even with top-end racing gloves separating skin from the steering wheel, the protection being offered is minimal. It took the nasty outcome from St. Petersburg for Ilott and other rookies to learn about some of the tricks used by IndyCar veterans to minimize blistering; applying athletic tape to their hands in a similar fashion to the taping method used by boxers and MMA fighters before a match. That's the first step.
Another method involves having custom molded grips made and installed on the steering wheel to allow Illot grooves to lock his fingers into, and flared ridges at the top and bottom of the grips to stop his hands from sliding up and down—massively reducing friction with the palms—when kickback occurs.
If tape and custom grips aren’t enough, IndyCar front-runner Colton Herta, winner of last year’s Long Beach race, has a recommendation for Ilott and the other rookies with an alternative hand-saving regimen that might be worth a try.
“I think the best way to do it is to use dumbbells when you workout because they build calluses,” Herta says. “Use the dumbbells; don't do calisthenics and bodyweight stuff. Get in the gym and use the dumbbells and that will toughen up your hands, build up some calluses. That helped me a lot when I started doing it. After the Barber [road course race] last year, I had a big hole in my hand; biggest I've ever had, and I had to come up with something to help it. You can tape your hands up, but that isn’t enough for my hands, which can get really aggressive blisters freakin’ quick. Like, literally after one time your calluses are already forming. So the dumbbells beat up your hands; don't use gloves when lifting and it'll roughen up your hands for sure.”
Granted, Herta was willing to offer advice after St. Petersburg punished the unknowing rookies. If he truly had their best interests in mind, he would have shared the hand-care tips before the first race.
“They're rookies, right, so they also don’t know what they don’t know, and they might not even know about these things and what they can do, so I'll let them figure that out on their own,” he adds. “I like watching them suffer. It's something that you learn in that first year, and especially the rookies this year, they are very scrawny, kinda like how I was when I got into IndyCar. So give them a bit of time to get their hands figured out, get their workouts figured out, and they'll be good."