How To Save Pole Day At Indianapolis
In the comment section of last Friday’s post regarding the start of the 1973 Indianapolis 500, “Bob F” made an interesting point that the speeds in that time were much slower than the speeds of today. The remainder of his quote was “…speed is not the problem. Racing did and will always have risk. We need to make the sport as safe as reasonably possible. But not by slowing down the cars.”
It’s been a very cold weekend. There is still one tiny bowl game left tonight and we are in the midst of the NFL playoffs. I thought it would be a good time to look ahead to the month of May and think about what might be done in years to come to bolster Pole Day attendance. It used to be that the stands along the front straightaway on Pole Day didn’t look much different than Race Day. For the past fifteen years or so, there have only been a smattering of people in the main grandstands. The Pit Road Terrace seating area is sufficient to hold the crowds nowadays. Perhaps "Bob F" is on to something. Maybe slowing down the cars in the name of safety has been a mistake.
For comparison’s sake, Johnny Rutherford’s pole speed in 1973 was 198.413 as opposed to Ryan Briscoe’s pole speed this past year of 226.484. twenty-eight miles per hour is a fairly significant difference, but it is not dramatic. Still, I get his point and I completely agree with it.
For years, there has been an ongoing battle between the engineers and the rule-makers. Rather than spend tons of money through research and development to find new safety features; the rule-makers figure that the quickest and easiest way to make a car safe is to slow it down. This is usually accomplished either aerodynamically, by making a physical change to the chassis or tires or restricting the engine. Whatever they do, the engineers usually find a way to get the speeds at or near their previous levels fairly quickly.
There has not been a track record set at Indianapolis since 1996, when Arie Luyendyk set the new standard in his Reynard-Ford on his fourth qualifying lap at a speed of 237.498. The following year Luyendyk sat on the pole at 218.623. The closest anyone has gotten to Luyendyk’s sacred record since then was in 2003, when Helio Castroneves won the pole with an average speed of 231.725 – nearly six miles an hour slower than the record.
This current seventeen-year stretch without setting a track record at IMS is the longest such stretch in the 104-year history of the track. Former CEO Randy Bernard was criticized for saying he wanted to see new track records return. Those criticizing him said he didn’t understand how unsafe it was to pursue track records.
Well, I hate to say it – but I agree with Randy Bernard and Bob F. The pursuit of speed and records is what built this sport. Yes, there were major political reasons for the drop-off in Pole Day attendance, but is it just a coincidence that the lack of interest in qualifying came at the same time that speeds became slower and stagnated? For the past ten years or so, speeds have fluctuated between 221 and 226. Yawn!
Tom Carnegie retired after the 2006 race. His last eleven years at the microphone for the IMS PA system was spent without uttering his famous “…It’s a new track recorrrrd”. Consequently, that’s when Pole Day crowds dropped from close to an estimated two-hundred thousand to less than a fourth of that. I was at Pole Day in 1995. The weather was rainy, cold and foggy. The skies were so gloomy that the caution lights placed at various parts around the track stood out like beacons. Yet the inclement weather did nothing to hold down the crowds. The place was packed, even though the first qualifying run did not take place until around 4:45. Scott Brayton won the pole with an average qualifying speed of 231.604, just a little off of the existing track record at the time – 232.481 set by Robert Guerrero in 1992.
Unofficial practice speeds in 1995 had eclipsed the record by one and a half miles per hour, and everyone endured horrible weather all day for the chance to witness a new track record being set. It didn’t happen, but the anticipation is what brought everyone out. Had the weather conditions been ideal, chances are that the huge crowd would have gone home happy. I’ve heard the argument that even the hard-core fan can’t tell the difference between 230 mph and 210 mph when cars are going by. The sport is about relative competition against others on the track. That may be true, but we get excited during qualifying when we hear 235 mph each lap as the car approaches Turn Two. We are indifferent to 225.
It is easy to assume that if the speeds are higher, the sport is more dangerous. But just as the engineers have figured out how to make cars faster than the rule-makers want – designers have continued to make cars safer and safer.
When cars first started racing at the turn of the last century, the general consensus was that anyone racing at speeds over 100 mph would surely have all of the air sucked out of their lungs and they would die instantly. Obviously, that was a flawed theory. The 100 mph barrier was eventually broken by seven drivers in qualifying for the 1919 race. Not one had their lungs emptied of oxygen.
When Jack McGrath put his car on the pole at 141.033 in 1954, the pole speed had increased by almost eleven miles per hour since 1948. That was an astonishing jump in speed in such a short period of time and the “experts” were certain that the old brickyard had reached the maximum speeds it could hold. There was just no way cars could go any faster without them flying off of the track. Eight years later, the 150 mph barrier was broken by Parnelli Jones in 1962. Three years after that, AJ Foyt had the pole in 1965 at 161.233. In three more years, Joe Leonard would sit on the pole for the 1968 race in a turbine powered car with a record speed of 171.559.
The largest single jump in speeds took place in 1972, when the large wings were allowed to be bolted on directly to the cars. The pole speed in 1971 was a record –setting 178.696 by Peter Revson. In 1972, the pole speed jumped more than eighteen miles per hour from the previous year. Bobby Unser sat on the pole at an unthinkable 196.940 mph. Of course, the 200 mph barrier finally fell in 1977 – just fifteen years after the 150 mph barrier was broken – when Tom Sneva turned his first qualifying lap at a speed of 200.401.
So why the history lesson in speed? To show that the so-called experts may not always know what they are talking about. I am not an engineer and don’t pretend to be one. But if the engineering experts were so wrong in the past by saying that speeds had reached their limit, why should we believe them today?
In the movies and advertising, sex sells. In motor sports, speed sells. The entire premise of motor racing is based on not only going faster than the other drivers, but going faster than ever. I understand that this is a different sports market than what we had in 1995. I also realize that Pole Day at Indianapolis will probably never again be the world’s second largest sporting event. But I also think that the mere possibility of setting track records will bring out a lot more fans than any Fast-Nine Shootout will.
Fans want to see speed. Record speed. For my money – I think watching a driver attempt to go faster around the historic oval than anyone in history ever has, is much more intriguing than watching Ryan Briscoe win the pole at a speed eleven miles an hour slower than a seventeen year-old track record. But that’s just me.