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Charlie Kimball, left, celebrates winning the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with car owner Chip Ganassi, centre, and teammate and third place finisher Dario Franchitti, right, of Scotland, in Lexington, Ohio Sunday, August 4, 2013. (Tom E. Puskar/AP Photo)
Charlie Kimball, left, celebrates winning the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with car owner Chip Ganassi, centre, and teammate and third place finisher Dario Franchitti, right, of Scotland, in Lexington, Ohio Sunday, August 4, 2013. (Tom E. Puskar/AP Photo)

Motorsports

Smart strategy delivers first IndyCar win for Charlie Kimball Add to ...

When racer Charlie Kimball took his maiden IndyCar win on Sunday, his sometimes adviser, sometimes coach, sometimes cheerleader, and sometimes psychologist Brad Goldberg made the call that delivered the victory.

Early in the action at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, the No. 83 Novo Nordisk driver’s race engineer decided to ditch the team’s fuel-saving two-pitstop strategy in favour of an all-out approach that would allow Kimball to push as hard as he wanted and go for the win. The catch was that it would also require three stops for fuel and tires, and the additional time in the pitlane might be the difference between winning and losing.

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“We were not committed to [three stops] until he (Goldberg) saw what the guys up front were doing and where that first stop would put us,” said Kimball, who is also the first diabetic to race in the IndyCar Series.

“We actually expected the top five or six to run like rabbits, run out hard, and then if they got a yellow (full course caution with a pace car), back into a two-stop strategy. But then when it looked like everyone was trying to make the mileage for a two-stop race, we thought: ‘All right, we’ve got the pace here.’”

In the end, Goldberg’s call was so good that many of the drivers going with the conservative plan switched to Kimball’s strategy after they saw how quick he was. But, by the time they reacted, it was too late to catch the Ganassi driver.

Kimball, of Camarillo, Calif., crossed the finish line 5.53 seconds ahead of second-place Schmidt-Hamilton driver Simon Pagenaud. Kimball’s Ganassi teammate, Dario Franchitti, was third. The triumph was Goldberg’s first win in his 45 races as Kimball‘s lead engineer.

The 33-year-old has been in charge of Kimball’s car since the driver joined the Ganassi squad as a rookie in 2011. The two have grown as a pairing over the past three seasons in a complex relationship that sometimes takes as much effort as a marriage.

“We have to work together and we may have disputes and arguments, but we are all here to win races and make ourselves better and learn,” said Indiana native Goldberg.

“Like in any sport, it gets intense so you have to be able to calm down for a second and methodically go about things. It is a relationship and it can be a love-hate relationship.”

With his outfit shrinking from four to three cars this year, Goldberg gets the advantage of more one-on-one time working with the engineers behind the pair of Target-backed drivers.

At the same time, 28-year-old Kimball has benefitted from a closer relationship with his Ganassi teammates, four-time IndyCar champion Franchitti and two-time champion Scott Dixon, who is the active IndyCar driver with the most wins.

Kimball’s ability to digest the lessons and improve his performance hasn’t gone unnoticed by his mentors.

“He’s taking full advantage of it,” said Franchitti who calls Kimball “Charlie Murphy.”

“Bit by bit you see him get rid of his weaknesses. He’s smart and he’s taken full advantage of the fact that he’s a member of the team – the Ganassi team – and all the stuff that he’s got available to him, whether it’s experience or the engineering group or equipment at his disposal.”

On race weekends, Goldberg usually finds himself poring over reams of data from the Target cars, comparing Kimball’s performance against the veterans and trying to identify areas where he can help his driver find a bit of extra speed.

Sensors on the chassis measure just about everything a driver does in an IndyCar, such as the pressure used on the brake pedal, the throttle position, the amount the steering wheel gets turned, the gear the transmission is in, as well as the engine’s revs and the car’s speed. The data gets spit out in a series of graphs and then Goldberg lays his driver’s data over Franchitti’s and Dixon’s to see how Kimball compares.

“When you have teammates like we do like Dario and Scott, who are arguably two of the best if not the best in the sport, it is really cool to see the different approaches and the different results,” Goldberg said.

“We can pull up the charts and hit print and then I can say: ‘Hey Charlie, this is what we need to focus on or let’s work on this.’ For a young driver like Charlie coming up through the sport, you can’t ask for a better situation.”

For example, on the 11-turn street course at Exhibition Place in Toronto a few weeks ago, Goldberg used the data to help Kimball see that he was losing handfuls of time because he went through Turn 10 differently than Franchitti. While it wasn’t a major error, Kimball’s approach caused a cascade of trouble that affected his speed all the way down the start-finish straight to the first corner.

“What I see by looking at the steering trace is that Charlie actually turns in a little bit sooner to 10, which causes him to have to get out of the throttle and he can’t roll his speed,” Goldberg said after Friday qualifying in Toronto while looking at a graph with two lines that compare the right and left movements of the steering wheel by both drivers.

“Now that compounded with coming on to the front straight adds up. The issue here is that Dario is able to be more aggressive, which allows him to roll more speed on the exit of the corner. It also sets him up better and he rolls more speed into Turn 11.”

Much of the difference between the pair on a street course like Toronto is often chalked up to Franchitti’s experience and his knowledge of how the grip on a track changes over a race weekend as the rubber goes down.

Charlie Kimball leads Marco Andretti, Dario Franchitti and Justin Wilson through a corner during the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio Sunday, August 4, 2013.
 

And that why having such experienced teammates always helps, but measuring yourself against multiple IndyCar champions can also be intimidating. Goldberg likened it to being a National Hockey League rookie playing on a line with Pittsburgh Penguins superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

But he added quickly: “You also want to be on that line because it makes you better.”

And that fact has showed in the results this year, with Kimball upping his performance and making huge strides in 2013.

“Too see Charlie’s growth – certainly in the past year – has been fun to watch,” Goldberg said.

“His big improvements have been his braking, his aggressive rate of turning the wheel, his attack of the corner and going out and getting after it right away. His demeanour in the car has also changed: He is more assertive about what he wants when before he was more timid.”

Canadian fans might recall Kimball’s foreshadowing of things to come in Toronto last year where he took his maiden podium finish for second. It was also his first career top-5 result.

After ending 2012 with five top-10s in 14 starts and finishing 19th overall in points, Kimball easily eclipsed those numbers this season. In the same number of starts so far in 2013, he has seven top-10s and lies in eighth place overall in points.

And now he’s a race winner.

“I said at the beginning of the year that the last couple of years, we got the experience, we built the foundation, and as a team, we are ready to win, now we just need to do it,” Kimball said.

“Getting a win quiets a lot of voices, for sure, especially voices within myself as a driver.”

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone

Twitter: @jpappone

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