Indy 500 is Sunday

Sunday, May 24 is the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500, what has come to be known as The Greatest Spectacle in Racing in what is being called The Centennial Era of 2009 to 2011. The very first series of races was run at the track after its completion in 1909, but financier Carl Fisher decided he wanted to run one long race. At the time, 500 miles was the distance that could safely be run in daylight.


The first Indy 500 took place in 1911 and the winner was Ray Harroun, an Arab-American who was working for the Marmon car company. His entry was painted yellow and black and thus was called The Marmon Wasp. The average speed for the 1911 race was 74.6 MPH, with top speeds well over 100 MPH.


The fastest qualifier for the 2009 Indy 500 was 2-time winner Brazilian Helio Castroneves who took the #1 starting spot with a 4-lap average of 224.864 MPH. Today the track is smooth asphalt, but in Harroun’s day it was paved with 3.2 million bricks! Imagine that ride for more than 6 long hours.


Why is the track in Indianapolis?


That city was the center of the automobile industry in the early 20th century and Fisher, who was making a fortune from the Prest-O-Lite headlight company, decided to build a test track/race track for the cars being manufactured in the city. Originally it was supposed to be 5 miles around, but Fisher was unable to get all the land he needed, and thus today it is 2.5 miles.


Besides being the most famous race course in the world, the track is easily the most dangerous. Designed before high speeds and advanced engineering techniques were common, Indy is simply a rectangle with rounded corners.  Thus it does not have the engineered turns, spiral curves and steep banking (only 9 degrees in the corners) that have made other more advanced tracks much easier to drive. “Indianapolis will break the biggest guys,” said driver John Andretti. Castroneves has compared it to driving a road course.


By dint of its design, drivers simply have to hold on tight in the quarter-circle, quarter-mile turns and pray that the car’s aerodynamics keep it glued to the track. During the race, they will often be entering the turns at up to 220 miles per hour, and will lift off the throttle only up to 3%. Those without the guts to run full tilt haven’t got a prayer of winning. And because of the track’s rigid geometry, those unfortunate enough to lose control in the primeval corners run the risk of simply sliding across the apex of the turn and smashing the wall at horrifyingly acute angles.


Cars may fly into a million pieces in such shunts, but the crashes are much safer than they appear. In fact old-fashioned race cars, which were built rigid and did not fly apart, were much more dangerous at even lower speeds because they transferred shock directly to the driver. Today’s energy-absorbing infrastructural chassis forms and sturdy carbon-fiber fuselage shatter in premeditated fashion, dissipating impact before it reaches the chauffeur.


“Don’t blink, you may miss something” is common advice for Indy. One of the physical ailments drivers experience during the 500 is dry eyes. Even blinking for one-tenth of one second at such velocity can catch a driver out. In that time he covers 30 feet, and thus blinking is avoided as much as possible.


It is through the track’s sheer size; advances in racecar design, engines, aerodynamics and tire adhesion; and drivers’ physical stamina and intense concentration that modern vehicles, with their computer-controlled 650 horsepower powerplants and wind-tunnel contours, can loop the unsophisticated “Brickyard” at average race speeds of more than 210 MPH.


In 1996, 2-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk established the closed-course world speed record of 239.620 MPH in a practice lap at Indianapolis, long regarded as home to world speed. Since then, the record has been taken by Brazilian Gil de Ferran on October 28, 2000 of 241.428 MPH at a shorter course, the 2-mile California Speedway, which has steeper engineered turns (14 degree banks) and highly conceived spiral entrances and exits that are more accommodating to speed. California is based on a design by Charles Moneypenny who also designed the famous Daytona NASCAR speedway in Florida. California is an unusually elegant D-shaped oval that looks like a piece of modernist sculpture from the air.


Indianapolis Motor Speedway is notoriously deceptive. It is said that to win at Indy you race not your fellow drivers but you race the track itself. Indy is only 60 feet wide (California is 73 feet wide) going down to 50 feet in the turns, although the cars start the race uniquely three-abreast (originally five.) But it works on your mind, they say of both Indy’s challenge to speed and of the intense pressures to perform in the most scrutinized race in the world, the Memorial Day Classic, the Indianapolis 500.                    

Spring winds push vehicles all over the race surface. Aerodynamic turbulence experienced at high speed shifts the pedigreed cars nervously, offering little margin for error. Track conditions fluctuate under the fickle skies of May. IMS is so big that it can rain on Turn 1 while the sun shines in Turn 3. Even its massive, packed spectator stands (race attendance is said to be 450,000) are said to sabotage raceday drivers who practice and qualify and thus make conscious and subconscious landmark notes while the place is relatively empty.  At speeds like Indy’s, every cue counts.


Even its four identical 90 degree left-hand turns, which would seem utterly predictable, can be highly disconcerting. Buddy Lazier, winner of the 1996 Indy 500 said: “Turn 1 is the hardest corner in racing. You see the wall ahead and know the track turns 90 degrees, but the turn itself is softer.” Thus the driver knows some things intellectually and may see or perceive others. Distinguishing the difference is one of the keys to Indy. Thus experience pays. 


There are three four-time Indy 500 winners – the irascible Texan AJ Foyt; Albuquerque, New Mexico’s Al Unser Sr.; and Bakersfield, California native Rick Mears (in only 15 attempts!). The Unser family – Al, brother Bobby and Al Jr. – have nine victories among them. The most famous family to be cursed by Indy is the Andrettis. In more than 50 races among Mario, son Michael, grandson Marco, and Mario’s nephews John and Jeff, the family has only one victory, Mario’s 1969 win. Michael holds the dubious distinction of leading the most laps (431 laps, in 16 attempts) for someone who has never won the race. In 2003, long after his retirement, Mario decided to take a spin for old-time’s sake around the speedway. He hit a piece of debris and did the most miraculous accident in the history of auto racing, flipping in a graceful arc end-over-end backwards four times and landing on his wheels. He was unhurt.


There are three women in the race this year, including the much-ballyhooed Danica Patrick. She could win, but that is unlikely. There are at least six better men drivers in the race who have all have the male “crazy gene” that makes them much more likely to risk it all to win.


Indy is the biggest sporting event in the world. You may enjoy watching it, but for many outside the ‘spectacle’ of auto racing, it looks like a bunch of guys going around in circles.


Yes, perhaps. But to those of us who love Indy, it is much more. We fasten our seat belts just to watch it.