Not All Questions Are Stupid Questions

By Susan Scruggs

Note from George – Susan Scruggs first posted an article here last June. Since then, I have given her the green light to post here whenever the mood strikes her. This time, the mood struck her over a post I had here last week that she didn’t completely agree with. I may have to re-think this green light thing – GP

After George wrote his post on “stupid questions” last week, there were parts that I had to disagree with. Yes, he’ll take time to explain the simplest things to any new fan that we take to Indy. He is very patient with new fans that have never been to a race before, I’ll give him that. But sometimes when I ask something about racing, he can make me feel like I’ve asked the dumbest question on earth before he even opens his mouth. The subconscious roll of just one eye tells me just how stupid the question was.

But looking past that, here are some of the questions that I’ve asked George over the years that he has answered – patiently or not. These are what I think are normal questions from anyone, male or female, that is a relative newbie to this sport. The TV people aren’t great at tipping all of us uneducated fans off at a lot of these. I compiled this list and asked him these simple questions again this weekend. What follows are his answers and a few of my comments. He reminded me that most of these; I’ve asked him more than once (sigh). Whether or not these are the right answers is anyone’s guess…

What’s a Gurney Flap? It’s a wickerbill. OK, what’s a wickerbill? (Now this is where he tried to get more technical than he really is.) A wickerbill is long interchangeable strip of assorted widths that can slide in and out of the trailing edge of a wing to add or remove downforce. (Hmm…OK, check that one off.)

When a car crashes into the wall, why do people refer to it as “sticking it into the fence”? Uhh…I don’t know (with a rather dumbfounded look on his face). They just do. Next question. (I love to watch him squirm when he says he doesn’t know something.)

What are marbles? They’re little balls of rubber that come off of the tires and make their way up to the less traveled portion of the track. When cars go over them, it’s just like trying to walk on marbles. I talked about it last week. (I guess I missed that one.)

Why can’t they make tires to last the whole race? 65-75 miles for a set of tires doesn’t sound like good advertising. They could, but they wouldn’t handle well at all. Tires are a compromise. A long-lasting tire would be very hard and therefore wouldn’t corner well. A very soft tire will handle great but wouldn’t last two laps. It’s a delicate balance and that’s why it will be bad if Firestone leaves. They have struck the perfect balance. We’ve seen how Goodyear and Michelin tires have held up at Indy in recent years. (This must have been a hot button. He said a lot more, but it got boring.)

Why can’t they put lights up at Indy? They can, they just shouldn’t and they won’t. Not ever. They put lights up at Wrigley Field and that never should have happened (I didn’t bother to ask why not to that). It would be bad to dump 300,000 people out on the streets of Speedway at midnight. (So it’s OK for people to be lining up in the dark at 5:00 am and turning them loose at 4:00 pm?) 

If they run road courses in the rain, why can’t they run at Indy in the rain? (There’s that look I was talking about. This was obviously a very stupid question.) At most road courses there are giant runoff areas in the turns to help scrub off speed. At Indy there is a concrete wall. Plus, the speeds on a road course don’t come close to the speeds at Indy. It would be way too dangerous. (I guess that makes sense.)

Why does it take two days to qualify at Indy, but at other tracks it takes an hour and a half? (I can tell he’s getting irritated when he shifts around in his chair). Because it does. (Not a good answer.) It used to be four days. I don’t like it that they’ve shortened it to two and I don’t like the gimmicky process they’ve thrown in. It used to be a car could qualify one time. If it got bumped, the driver had to get another car. The previous car was ineligible. The driver didn’t qualify, the car did. (Well, that sounded dumb and didn’t answer my question. I let it go.)

Why does the winner at Indy get milk? (I knew a historical question would get him back in a good mood, even though I already knew the answer to this one). When Louis Meyer won in 1936, his favorite drink when he was hot was buttermilk (gag). An official with the dairy association saw a picture of him clutching a milk bottle in victory lane as he chugged his buttermilk and thought it would be a great marketing opportunity. Hence a tradition was born. (He’s in a better mood now.)

Instead of making those wing adjustments during pit-stops, why can’t they control the wings from inside the car? Because it’s not allowed. But why not? It just isn’t. (So much for the good mood. It’s always considered a stupid question when he doesn’t know the answer.)

Why is Firestone talking about leaving Indy Car and who will take their place? (This is where his demeanor changed from irritated to serious.) That’s a good question and one that I’m not sure anyone has a complete answer for. From what I hear, this is not a decision being made by Al Speyer or Joe Barbieri. This is coming from above their level. In fact, if it comes to pass, they may find themselves out of a job. It’s a pity. I always took pride that such a prominent partner to the series was located right here in Nashville.

As to who will take their place, you’d have to look at Goodyear as a logical replacement. They were in the sport for thirty-five years until they left after the 1999 season. Other tire companies may surface, but Michelin and Goodyear both had debacles at the Speedway in recent years with their respective Formula One and NASCAR programs.

Last question – Why do we always have to leave so stinking early to get to Indy on race day? (George has pet peeves, this is mine!) Because every year, the infield parking gets smaller and smaller. Don’t you remember 2006? Some of our group complained that they wanted to sleep in and wanted to leave the hotel at 10:00. I made the foolish mistake to compromise and leave at 7:00. They closed off the infield parking while we were sitting on 16th street. We had to make a U-turn, go back about a mile and pay $25 to park, then we got to lug all of our stuff that same mile. I wasn’t happy, and I let those in our group know it – just in case they couldn’t tell. I will never let that happen again. That’s why we are sitting at 16th street and Kessler Blvd at 5:30am every year since then waiting to hear the bomb go off.

So there you have it. There are many more questions I’ve asked over the years, but these came to mind quickly. Besides…this is now almost as long as most of George’s posts.


11 Responses to “Not All Questions Are Stupid Questions”

  1. Susan, that was hilarious. Those were really good questions that I’m sure lots of people who are curious about racing ask all the time.

    But the best part is how you turn George’s calm, thoughtful, professorial fact-meister public persona (I mean, look at his photo–all he needs is a pipe) into a fuming, scowling bundle of frustrated emotion.

    So, good job.

  2. “Why can’t they make tires to last the whole race?”

    Formula 1 tried that once. Drivers pitted about two times in a race to refuel. So if a tire got damaged, you would lose a lot of time pitting when the rest didn’t. That’s what happened at the United States Grand Prix: Michelin’s tires were terrible and they weren’t allowed to change them during the race, so they dropped before the green lights and just six cars started the race. Anyway, short-spanning tires make cars change performance more quickly, so races are more interesting.

    “Why does it take two days to qualify at Indy, but at other tracks it takes an hour and a half?”

    It’s a tradition, you know. And it sells a lot of tickets, so why change it?

    “Instead of making those wing adjustments during pit-stops, why can’t they control the wings from inside the car?”

    First, because it’s safer. Moving parts are more likely to get lost, and losing a wing can cause a disaster. Second, because it’s expensive. Not too much, of course, but cars are too expensive already (they always are). Formula 1 will try that this year, but as a push-to-pass system. That is, drivers will have the choice to unload their cars for a few seconds to get a higher top speed to overtake other cars (or try not to get overtaken.)

  3. (So it’s OK for people to be lining up in the dark at 5:00 am and turning them loose at 4:00 pm?)

    I think Tony George, back when he was in charge, believed it to be unneighborly to cut the entire 500 crowd loose so late in the evening on a Sunday. As you know, Susan, the Speedway adjoins residential areas on 2 sides, 3 if you count the fact that residential neighborhoods are what’s on the other side of the golf course. That feeling has just stuck for years.

    At least that’s the explanation I heard. If someone knows the answer more definitively, please correct me.

  4. “Instead of making those wing adjustments during pit-stops, why can’t they control the wings from inside the car?”

    There’s nothing technical stopping a car builder from doing that; as far as I know, it’s simply against the rules to do so. There’s enough knowledge out there engineering-wise to make the cars stick to corners and still be slick enough on straights to attain high speeds, but all racing series (yes, even F1) puts some sorts of limits on their design to keep the human factor an important part of racing, as well as to keep the race from becoming nothing more than an engineering battle (although arguably, F1 is exactly that nowadays).

    Let’s also remember that, even without movable wings, back in 1996 cars were fast enough yet stuck to corners well enough that drivers were complaining about “grey-outs” while qualifying for the Texas Firestone Firehawk 600. Even the modern Dallara “crapwagon” (Paul Tracy’s moniker) can generate some serious cornering forces. My point here is that a technological marvel of design can easily exceed human capabilities to handle; the military has already seen that with their jet fighters and attack craft, and those pilots don’t pull G’s for hours at a time like an Indycar driver does (although they arguably pull more of them at any one time, and in dimensions that a car never will move in). If all-out performance were allowed, we’d be seeing larger engines with turbos (or maybe even turbine engines), huge, movable wings, and insanely wide, soft tires. But a driver would black out driving that at oval speeds.

    Personally, I’m in favor of movable wings. But I simply don’t see anyone out there making a rush to push for them because of 1. Engineering complexity, therefore cost, (think of how much even a cheap airplane costs), and 2. The purist notion that exists saying “driving” doesn’t involve managing airfoils, but only steering, accelerating, and braking. But hey, who am I? Just some random guy who “participates” in races by watching them on the couch.

  5. “Why does it take two days to qualify at Indy, but at other tracks it takes an hour and a half?”

    Susan, when the Indianapolis 500 first started, getting a car from its inventor’s garage or barn to the Speedway took some time. (That’s also why it’s the MONTH of May, and not the week of May). So qualifications were stretched out to allow all cars that entered to actually GET to Indianapolis and make an attempt. Now of course, with semis and cargo planes, you can get to Indianapolis pretty quickly, but tradition persists.

  6. Susan, that was a great posting! George better be good to you because you seem to be a real fun lady to be around. Use that green light anytime!

    • I’m really not that much fun, I insist on using my “DONATE BLOOD” beer koozie at Indy because by the time we are actually in our seats, I’m a few pints low (see section above regarding getting up at 4:30 a.m.), I also shine the headlights onto the drunks in the car in front of us in line to get into the speedway…

  7. Yep, my head is about to explode–so much knowledge in such a little space. Referring to this comment section, not my head…

  8. I put “Actually, I thought they were good questions that might be asked by a hard-core fan.” I’d love for one of my non-racing-fan friends to ask me to explain tire composition or Gurney flaps.

    The most common questions I get from new fans (which is great because it requires a bit of Indy’s rich history to answer):
    #1 why do the cars have wings – I then explain how decades of racing led engineers and drivers to figure out that these generated more downforce, allowing the cars to corner better

    #2 any question about the engines – although I usually state my disdain for Honda and wish for turbos, I explain the basic specs, the max HP and speeds, and what new engines are coming in another year.

    Only times I get annoyed is when people make fun of oval racing (I get that you think it’s boring…but last week was a road course and you thought THAT was boring to so shutup) and when they refer to the Indycar’s wings as “spoilers” (damn you, NASCAR)

  9. Brian McKay Says:

    Good post, Susan (and George!). Love this blog!

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