The Pursuit Of Speed
When Randy Bernard announced that he wanted to see the speed records broken at Indianapolis, it raised somewhat of a stir throughout the IndyCar community (I know that we are now supposed to print INDYCAR in all-caps, but I’m having a problem doing that when it doesn’t stand for anything – but that’s another subject for another day). On one hand, some of the stir that Randy Bernard caused was predictable – how would these slow Dallaras and de-tuned Honda engines suddenly produce record speeds?
On the other hand, I’ll admit to being almost appalled at some of the reaction I’ve heard from fans that are against this. At my ripe old age, most things seldom surprise me these days – but this reaction did. I guess it shouldn’t. No matter how sensible some points of view seem there is always somebody out there who is just as convinced that their complete opposite opinion makes even more sense.
Arie Luyendyk’s one and four-lap qualifying records aren’t something to be preserved in some ancient archive – they are something to shoot for. It is beyond me how people can say that those speeds were too fast. Do they secretly believe that the world is still flat and that the moon landing was actually filmed in a movie studio?
For the second straight week, I’ll reference Curt Cavin’s Q&A. On Monday, a fan wrote in saying he hoped that no one tries to reach those speeds again. He said that in the days of 235 mph speeds, he just sat there and cringed. If that’s the case, I would suggest he take up another sport. Even more ridiculous, was Tuesday’s Q&A where a reader suggested to Curt that the Speedway should consider it a track record if one of these current Dallaras (in their ninth year), eclipses their own track record – sort of a "best in class" scenario. Please.
As Kevin Lee has said many times on Trackside, there is no way anyone can sit in the stands and tell the difference between a 215 lap and a 235 lap. Still, knowing those speeds are being turned and hearing Tom Carnegie (or now Dave Calabro) announce that a driver is approaching a new track record is part of the allure of the month of May. The open-wheel split of 1996 is partly attributable to the drop-off in attendance for practice and qualifying days at Indianapolis; but the lack of drama or suspense that a new track record might be set, has a lot to do with it too. This May will mark fifteen years since a track record fell at Indianapolis. Many of the younger adult fans of today were mere children when that happened. My son is twenty-one and has no recollection of a track record ever being set or broken at Indianapolis. Even if they only flirt with breaking the records, it should bring some interest back for the entire month (two weeks).
For the past one hundred years, the reason for a driver to go to Indianapolis boiled down to one simple thing – figure out how to go faster than everyone else. Period. Nowhere in there is it said to go faster safely than everyone else.
Before automobiles could run such speeds, the scientists of the day fretted over how the human body would react to going over 100 mph – not crashing at 100 mph – just going 100 mph. Some actually theorized that all of the air would be sucked out of a human’s body and they would certainly die at such speeds. Needless to say, they were proven wrong at the early part of the last century by airplanes and racecars.
I am currently (still) reading Vukovich. In the book, Bill Vukovich and other drivers were discussing the increasing speeds after the 1954 Indianapolis 500 – won by Vukovich, his second in a row. Many drivers and fans were concerned that speeds were getting out of hand. The magical 140 mph barrier had just been broken. Many considered 150 mph to be beyond reach and would feature cars completely out of control. Some drivers felt that way as well and thought that they had achieved the maximum speed that could ever be attained on a closed circuit. They questioned the merit of even trying to go faster.
Not Bill Vukovich. He correctly predicted that one day, drivers would go flat-out the entire way around the track as he dismissed their concerns. He knew that racing was based on finding a way to keep finding more speed and pushing the limits, while sometimes crossing those limits. Almost sixty years later, we still have people saying that we’ve reached the limit.
In 1992, Roberto Guerrero set a new four-lap qualifying record of 232.482 mph. The following year, his four-lap average was 219.645. The reduction in speed was due partly to rule changes and also a change in the track configuration – the apron was gone. Still, Guerrero said his 219 speed in 1993 was a lot harder to do than his 232 a year earlier. Three years later, his record fell to Luyendyk. So long as a car and driver can do it, why not go for the record?
Racing is a dangerous business. It was in Bill Vukovich’s era and it still is today. Cars today are much safer than they were back then, but they are not infallible. Like it or not, that is why so many are attracted to this sport. They marvel while watching someone push their cars, tires, engines as well as their own bodies in order to squeeze out a little more speed. When the driver succeeds, they are granted hero status. When they fail, they are sometimes elevated to an even higher level.
Randy Bernard gets it. He knows why racing fans were so attracted to this sport twenty years ago. Brian Barnhart and Tony George seemed content to let those records stand forever and just keep trotting out the same equipment at the same speeds year after year and hope that people will keep coming. Some of us would keep coming. There are many people like myself who will keep going to the Indianapolis 500, no matter what. But we’re growing older each year. Go another fifteen years without a track record and I’ll be sixty-seven. Will they still be filling the stands at 16th and Georgetown then?
Over the past fifteen years – marketing and promotion stagnated, innovation stagnated and speeds stagnated. Consequently, crowds and interest became stagnant too. Randy Bernard has worked wonders in the past ten months. If he says that the IZOD IndyCar Series needs to go after those old records, I don’t think we should question it. It’s what racing is all about and the man has shown he knows what he’s talking about. Personally, I can’t wait.