The Pursuit Of Speed

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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.

George Phillips

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13 Responses to “The Pursuit Of Speed”

  1. I really, really like the idea of challenging the track record. At the same time I’m very concerned about the safety aspects.

    I think perception of racing has changed over the years. In the old days drivers were looked at as death-defying test pilots and the risks and dangers–while tragic–were a part of the job.

    I think today’s drivers are seen more just as athletes participating in a sport. A sport where injury and death are no more acceptable on the track as say, a football field. And anything that increases the likelihood of real bad wrecks could actually be quite destructive to the series.

    Then again–to paraphrase Graham Rahal–there’s not much difference between hitting a wall at 220 or hitting it at 230, it’s still bad news.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    “As Kevin Lee has said many time on Trackside, there is no way anyone can sit in the stands and tell the difference between a 215 lap and a 235 lap.”

    I’ve never been to Indianapolis, so perhaps that is applicable there, but at the other ovals I’ve been to a 20 mph difference in qualifying or race speed is pretty obvious when watching a lap or two. Heck, CART’s ludicrous speeds at Texas weren’t 20 mph faster than what the IRL was qualifying at there, but I recall discussing with other folks in the stands about how much faster it looked like the CART guys were running (except for Max Wilson and his “Phoenix”-Lola).

  3. I’m of two minds here:

    1) My heart says, “Go for it!” The 500 really hasn’t been the same since the days when track records falling was a distinct possibility every year, and that is part of racing, after all. Also, it’s a dangerous sport, though we do tend to forget that from time to time, what with there being so few fatalities in the last decade.

    2) My head says, “Let’s think about this for a minute.” The fact is that the difference in kinetic energy of a race car going 230 MPH instead of 220 MPH is not just 4.5% (the amount that 230 is greater than 220), it’s 9.3%, because the velocity is squared in the energy equation. A race car going 240 MPH carries 19% more kinetic energy than one going 220 and 8.9% more than one going 230. I’ll submit to Graham Rahal that there is a fairly big difference between hitting a wall at 220 and hitting one at 230.

    This is the part where you all say, “OK, whatever, dork”, but in the event of a crash, that kinetic energy has to be dissipated by the wall, the fence and the crash structures within the car. Will the fence and the Dallara’s crush structures hold up to nearly an extra 10% more energy than they’ve ever been subjected to before? What happens if a car gets airborne at 240? Could we see a car clear the fence? We did, after all, see Mike Conway get quite a ways up the fence last year, and he was probably only doing 215 at the time.

    Look, don’t get me wrong. I love speed. It’s right there in my username and everything. I just want to make sure that all of the numbers are run before we open things up again at the Speedway. Killing a driver or four in 1950 was one thing. A car in the stands in 2011 would be something on an entirely different planet. Something like that could spawn lawsuits that could shut the place down permanently. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen, that’s all.

  4. I think they need to do it this year. I know the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500 is a big deal, but as the lame duck year of spec Dallara/Honda’s that are dominated by Red Cars, they’ve got to do something to make the race feel special and add a little extra excitement, and I can’t think of anything better than breaking the Speed Record. If it was managed in 96, I’d imagine in the era of the SAFER barrier it could be achieved today. As for 2012, breaking the speed records set this year would be even easier. According to Cotman, all the series will have to do is raise HP a little at Indy, and then the speed records broken.

  5. Two other thoughts today.

    Driver’s are concerned about Bernard’s announcement of double-file restarts on ovals. They say it’s too dangerous because cars could force cars into the marbles and there will be more wrecks. I think that’s bogus. No matter what you think of double-file restarts, driver’s should be professional enough to deal with it.

    And a thought about INDYCAR as a name. I didn’t care one way or the other at first, but now I think it’s kinda real smart. Given that the majority of race fans in the US are NASCAR fans, calling it INDYCAR is sort of saying, hey–there’s two racing series in the US…NASCAR and INDYCAR. It sort of elbows everyone else out of the way. And is more memorable to the casual sports fan. As far as it not meaning anything, I wonder how many Nascar fans realize that it stands for “National Association of Stock Car whatever?” I think they think it’s just a name. Like INDYCAR.

    Okay–this is me shuttin’ up for today.

  6. Great post and I liked your reference to Vukovich’s comments. Very interesting. Maybe most people can’t “tell” between a 215 and 235 lap (I beg to differ personally, and I think that other very seasoned fans can do the same) but they can when the numbers and the excitement start to fly around. It’s like in baseball…a 350-foot homer is worth cheering about, but a 450-foot bomb is what brings fans out of their seats.

    As I mentioned in my post about this subject, the idea is whether or not it can be done safely. I think at Indy that is now the case.

  7. Comparing people who prefer safety over speed to people who believe in a flat earth or moon landing conspiracies? That’s just wrong, because a round earth and man walking on the moon are facts, while safety vs. speed is an opinion. Trying to draw an analogy like that is rather false because you’re comparing people you believe to have misguided opinions to those who are wrong about the facts, and it’s rather condescending as well. The CART race at Texas is a very good argument that there are limits to safe speed. You make a solid argument otherwise, but I don’t think comparing safety-conscious fans to people considered “loonies” really helps your case.

  8. George, keep typing IndyCar. Curt Cavin does, for example.

  9. While I think that there is added risk in running speeds that are 10 mph higher on average than the cars are running now, there are several thigs on the safety side that are also different. IndyCar has made changes in the nose of the cars to reduce lower extremity injuries, there is the HANS device, and the SAFER barriers, just to name three. Those things are fine, and I have said several times that with the safety advances that have been made, it’s time to quit trying to run everyone within a mile and hour or two: Let’s see who wants to risk blowing up a Honda engine to get a little more speed.

    My big concern in so doing is that we have a field full of drivers who are unfamiliar with higher speeds. THis includes a LOT of “ride buyers.”This phenomenon is unlike the situation in the past. If a driver back then was good, he got a ride. Instead, now we have the main qualification being if a driver can bring enough (or the right combination of) sponsor dollars. (Goodness knows, I really don’t WANT to see Milka Duno trying to run 230+.)

    In the “olden days” there were relatiively few major jumps in speed, one being in the early 70′s with the advent of the wing, and at least one other due to track resurfacing. As speeds inched up the charts, the whole field basically inched up with them. (And let’s not forget, one of those “jump” years was 1973, a year most of us old-timers would rather forget, with the deaths of Art Pollard and Swede Savage as well as the horrendous first lap accident involving Salt Walther.)

    Also, when you start trying to challenge the records nowadays, you are talking about a number of drivers, some of whom aren’t particularly comfortable on ovals, trying to really “hang it out there,” in order to make the field. What you may end up with is a much wider range of speeds in the starting field, with the “haves” (this time in terms of experience, guts, or whatever) running off and leaving the “have nots.”

    What I believe needs to happen in that case is to EXPAND not contract practice time. Let everyone work up to the higher speeds with more practice. One thing is certain: IF Bernard has his way, “fast Friday” might be really fun again.

  10. The Texas race is a great example that there is a limit. But Indy isn’t a high banked superspeedway like Texas. It’s a flat rectangle. At Texas they were always turning, hence the vertigo. I might be wrong, but don’t think that would be a problem at Indy. Break records at Indy, but it’s probably a good idea to have different rules there.

    • 100% true, Steve. The big problem with Texas was the banking. The way I understand it, even though the CART cars were only going maybe 15 MPH more than the IRL cars of the day, that was enough to increase the level of G-forces to the point where teh CART guys were starting to flirt with the point of black out (from what I’ve heard, there’s a pretty defined limit where the human body can’t stand more G-force, and you go from “basically OK” to “out cold”). With the increased radius of the turns at Indy and the much, much flatter banking, this would not be an issue there. The much bigger issue, to my mind, is the question of the cars and the fence (though not the wall/SAFER barrier, as I’m certain those are fine to even much higher speeds than what we’re talking about) being able to handle impacts at 235-240 and beyond, and the problem of keeping cars out of the grandstands. As far as I’m concerned, if somebody can run the numbers and prove that those scenarios carry a relatively low level of risk, then by all means, let’s open things up.

  11. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    There is no question that powerplants, even the little normally apirated de-tuned Honda are capable of generating enough power to break the speed record. The safe way to do so, would be to ensure that there is a corresponding increase in balanced fore and aft aero downforce, with an associated additional amount of mechanical grip. It is simply a matter of allowing the aero, suspension and tire package to be tweeked, unrestrict the RPM’s on the Honda and you will have people breaking records in droves. Heck, Helio put on a good display this past year during qualifying without any other modification, aside from reducing downforce to the bare minimum and some amazing qual-driving prowess.

  12. Great post George and some very good comments. My thought is more about how higher speeds could affect the quality of racing. I may be wrong but I think cars flying around faster will only make the passing areas smaller and shorter. I would much rather see a very competitive race than 10 more miles per hour on pole day.

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