Today's Steering Wheels Do Much More Than Turn Car Left

8/23/2004 7:36:32 PM

Today's Steering Wheels Do Much More Than Turn Car Left

What costs $10,000, lights up like a pinball game, gives out more information than IndyCar historian Donald Davidson and is closer to a race driver than anybody on his team?

That would be the high-tech, high-buck steering wheels on an Indy car.

"They do everything but drive the car," says veteran Adrian Fernandez.

"They are amazing," declares Tony Kanaan.

"They're like a GameBoy," says Dave Popielarz, chief mechanic for Dario Franchitti.

Besides turning the fate of every competitor in the IRL, these space-age wheels have become a veritable information center that is also capable of making changes in the car at speed.

In the old days, the dashboard provided the oil and water temperatures plus the RPMs, while the wheel simply carried a kill switch.

But today's steering wheel is part computer, mechanic, road map and pit board.

"I can always see my lap time and my revs and we've also got a track distance map," said Kanaan, the point leader at mid-season in the 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda for Andretti Green Racing.

"Say you go out to qualify and you know the pole is 22.2 (seconds), or roughly 215 mph, so you've got a reference point. You can see your time and speed pop up, so it either makes you push harder or sometimes try too hard.

"But you always know where you stand."

The wheel itself carries one button for the Pit Limiter, which controls the maximum pit-lane speed so a driver won't be penalized, and another button on the Hondas for Overtaking. There is also a Fuel Reset button, which a driver hits following every pit stop, and a pair of Fuel Mixture switches so a driver can regulate his mileage.

There are also three pages available to the mechanics, engineers and drivers to check data - Race Page, Mechanics Page and Practice Page.

But the most popular button is probably the Weight Jacker. Drivers can adjust it anytime to try and keep the balance of their chassis. In the old days, it was a small bar that drivers pushed forward or pulled back. Nowadays, it's simply a flick of the finger.

"It used to be a rod and now it's in the electronics and that makes it so much easier because you don't have to take your hands off the steering wheel," commented Kanaan. "The weight jacker is very critical and very powerful because you can change your car without having to wait for a pit stop.

"You can use it to your advantage; like if you wear out your tires and you've got options for oversteer and understeer. Next year we'll probably have traction control and I'd love to see a paddle shifter like Formula One has on our steering wheels. That would be real cool."

But even though the wheel does everything but tell the driver what's on the menu back in hospitality, it's not always readable.

"When we're at Richmond, you don't have time to look at anything except maybe a lap time in qualifying," said Kanaan. "But at Michigan, you've got enough time to play a video game.

"If you're out in front, of course."