The Sounds Of Racing

Last Friday, longtime reader and commenter, Ron Ford, brought up a very interesting question that I had not given a whole lot of thought to. He asked if anyone knew what the sound of the new engine for the 2012 IndyCar would sound like. As far as I know, only a handful of people have ever heard the engine fired, but that will all change next Monday at Mid-Ohio when Dan Wheldon shakes the new car down for the first time – that is assuming the media is allowed to witness the test.

Ron makes a good point, though. Since the new engine is turbocharged, we are all expecting a return to the days when the pleasing sound of a turbocharged Ford-Cosworth or Chevy-Ilmor filled the air at tracks during the early to mid-nineties. There was no mistaking the high-rev sound combined with the slight whistling sound of the turbocharger. It was music to the ears of most open-wheel fans.

As trivial as it may seem to some, the sound of the engine is extremely important to the marketing and overall enjoyment of the sport of auto racing. Along with mostly no-name drivers; part of the turn-off of those early days of the IRL was the atrocious sound of their engine. While CART was still racing the beautiful sounding turbos, the IRL came out with a 4.0-liter naturally aspirated engine that may have been the worst sounding racing engine ever invented. It was loud and growled at low revs, and had the strangest sounding flat drone at speed that you had ever heard.

From 1997 until 2000; that horrible drone permeated every track on the IRL schedule. Instead of sending chills throughout your body, it made you wince. I chose not to attend the Indianapolis 500 during those years, but I did make it to one of the IRL races at Charlotte in that time. I can recall my brother saying that these things didn’t even sound like IndyCars. He was right. The cars looked mostly what an IndyCar should look like, but they sounded more like a garbage truck driving down an alley.

It just didn’t seem right. Watching it on television made you think that they had dubbed the sound of another engine in like a bad Japanese movie. That sound just wasn’t supposed to come out of that car – sort of like the first time we heard Jim Nabors sing in his normal voice rather than his Gomer voice. That’s probably a bad example because we’ve obviously grown accustomed to his real voice over the years, whereas I never got used to the flat sound of that IRL engine.

Fortunately, in 2001 that started to change. Many of the engine builders (there weren’t leases in those days) made changes to the engines, including going from a 180-degree crank to a 90-degree. I say that like I’m a gear-head that knows what I’m talking about. I don’t. I just remember hearing that as one of the major changes to the engines. The result was a much more aesthetically pleasing sounding engine. Many people gripe about the sound of today’s engine, but when it’s at speed – it sounds good compared to that grimace-inducing sound of the late nineties. The Firestone Indy Lights engine had that same drone as recently as 2009, before they gave it a more pleasing sound. Suddenly, I find myself watching their races a lot more often now.

My biggest complaint about the sound of the current Honda engine is the sound of it at idle. Keep in mind; I grew up hearing the sound of an Offenhauser warming up in the pits at Indianapolis. To hear an Offy revving from the old garages was a sound that carried all the way out to the track. It would be a loud rise to a high note, then a split-second of silence before a backfire followed. I haven’t heard that sound in nearly forty years, but I can still remember it like it was an hour ago.

To hear Tony Hulman give the command to start engines, followed by thirty-three Offys and Fords roaring to life was a sound that was almost indescribable. That’s why I think the turbines were met with such opposition. It wasn’t their perceived unfair advantage – it was the sound they emitted. No one wanted to hear thirty-three jet engines taking the green flag.

Today’s Honda engine sounds more like a sewing-machine when it is at idle. It doesn’t sound powerful or intimidating. It just sounds…efficient, which doesn’t really get the blood pumping.

I am probably one of the youngest people that can say they’ve heard a Novi engine race at Indianapolis. I was six years old at the time, but I can certainly remember a certain engine that seemed to rip my eardrums apart every time it passed. My brothers explained that it was the Novi. I didn’t know what that meant, but it was a relief when Bobby Unser’s Novi went out on Lap 69 so I no longer had to hold my ears when it went by. Even though it was loud, it was such a distinctive sound that I remember it as clearly as my recollections of the Offy. Although today’s Honda engine is an improvement over the first IRL engines, I think it’s safe to say that not many kids of today will be fondly recalling its sound forty-six years from now.

The sound of racing is that important. It’s part of what draws us to this sport. That’s why I’m not sure green technologies will ever be fully embraced by the racing community. There is something very underwhelming about the sound of a Nissan Leaf. IndyCar fans like their engines to sound dramatic, yet finely tuned.

So that brings us back to Ron’s question – what will the new engine sound like? Hopefully, it will resemble the sound of the 1995 Honda engine – as opposed to the 1994 version. The 1994 Honda engine was the giant automaker’s first foray into CART. Not only was it woefully underpowered, it may have sounded even stranger than the first IRL engine. It can be best described as a loud version of George Jetson’s space vehicle. It hit a strange note as it went by. I can recall showing up for opening day of practice at IMS in 1994. We parked in the infield. As we made our way to the old Tower Terrace seats, you knew when that Honda of Rahal-Hogan Racing was on the track – it was that distinctive. Fortunately, they redesigned the engine for 1995 to make it much more competitive and also to sound much better.

There are no guarantees as to what it will sound like. It’s anyone’s guess. The new engine will be a 2.2-liter turbocharged V-6. The last time a V-6 engine ran at Indianapolis was the notoriously powerful, yet equally unreliable Buick V-6, which ran mostly at Indianapolis in the late-eighties and early-nineties before it morphed in the Menard V-6. At Indianapolis, it was granted an additional 10-inches of boost over the pure racing engines, because it was deemed to be a stock block engine. CART granted the engine an additional five inches at other tracks, but it was still ineffective.

As far as the sound of the Buick V-6 goes – I liked it. It was sort of an alto sound compared to the soprano sound of the Chevy and Ford. It was also much quieter – almost as if it had a muffler. If the 2012 engine sounds like that, I can live with it.

In my opinion, open-wheel cars should carry a higher-pitched sound to them; whether they be Indy cars from the early nineties, today’s IndyCars or even Formula One cars. All of them pretty much have the traditional sound when they whiz by. So as long as the new car sounds like most cars that have raced in the Indianapolis 500 – excluding the IRL cars of the late nineties – we should all be happy.

George Phillips


18 Responses to “The Sounds Of Racing”

  1. Jack in NC Says:

    Part of the thrill of this year’s 500 was watching and listening to some of those old cars from the past. I listened for, and heard the distinctive revving of the 4 cylinder Meyer-Drake Offenhausers as you described them: sort of “Vrooeeee – bump…Vrooeeee-bump”. Hadn’t heard that in years and it brought a chill down my spine. When the Turbo-Offys came out in 1968 that sound changed.

    I for one didn’t care for the sound of turbocharged racing engines. I much preferred the roar of the normally aspirated offys, and the scream of the 4-cam Ford.

  2. Back in the early sixties, when we would drop my sister off at her school which was not all that far from IMS, we could hear the song of the Offy and Ford engines having a go in the early Indiana May morning. My brothers and I would find our collective pulse racing.

  3. The truth for the 2012 engine (a favorite topic of mine, so thanks, George, for brightening up my Wednesday morning coffee surf with the post) is that it will probably sound like a cross between the 2.65L CART-era engines and the mid-’80s F1 turbo engines. It’ll most likely be a little quieter than the current engines, due to the muffling effect of the turbo(s, since I think the different manufacturers are planning varying configurations of single- or multi-turbos), and it’ll sound fundamentally different to the current IndyCar and 2.65L CART engines, due to the different firing characteristics of V6 vs. those V8s, but it should wind higher than the Buick V6s of yore. The Buick topped out (from my quick Google searches) around 9,000 RPM, but I’d think (and if IndyCar has announced the target redline for next year’s engine, somebody please correct me) that given the reliability of the current engines in the 10-11,000 RPM range, that’ll be about where next year’s engines will settle, or maybe a touch higher (though probably no higher than 12,000 RPM, because above that is when you’ll have parts wearing faster than you can allow for the lifespans that the 2012 engine is being designed to). Probably, the best analog of all for the 2012 IndyCar engine is the mid-’80s 1.5L V6 turbo F1 engines, one of which (and one of the most dominant) was done by Honda. Hey, there’s even a sound bite of that engine on the Wiki!

    You’ll have to scroll down for it, but I think it’s well worth your 30 seconds. And, the Honda F1 engine linked to there topped out at more like 13-14,000 RPM (again, from my quick Google search), but that should give you a decent flavor of what we could be looking forward to. Anyway, how’s that sound to everybody? Anybody opposed to 33 of something like that running at the Speedway next May?

    • Oh, and while I’m nerding out, I think I’ve got a slight correction/clarification for you, George. Most of the following is from (my increasingly hazy) memory and a couple of quick but vague Google results, so folks can feel free to correct me on any of this, but I think the odd sound of the 1994 Honda Indy V8 was also due to its being a crossplane crankshaft engine, like the early IRL engines were. Honda changed that for 1995, to a flatplane crank, which “fixed” the sound of the engine and corresponded with their increase in competitiveness (including what should have been a win at Indy…Scott Freaking Goodyear). The ’97 through 2000 (or so, I can’t remember when the manufacturers all made the switch, and my Google skills are bringing up not a lot) engines, as per the early IRL ethos, were required to be largely stock, and so had stock crank configuration engines. Since Oldsmobile and Infiniti were using 90 degree (crossplane) cranks in their respective road car engines at the time, the IRL engines were as well, producing the low, rumbling sound that we all know and loathe (well, most of us, anyway; I’m in the camp that didn’t like that sound, too). In 2001 or so, the engine regs were opened up to allow more non-stock parts, and so the manufacturers switched to flatplane cranks, giving them better rev characteristics, a higher redline and a slightly sweeter sound, which we still have to this day.

      OK, dork session over. For now.

  4. Poor Bobby wasted the end of his carear driving that awful Honda engine that was reliable as our chief steward.

  5. Savage Henry Says:

    I agree with you that the sound of a racing engine should make a person become excited in a biblical way. I remember the old Offys and the turbos as being great sounding cars. I didn’t really pay much attention to the early IRL so I can’t really remember those engines. The current Honda engine is kind of disappointing – its loud enough but it doesn’t set itself apart.

    I think all racing engines should sound like the F1 Matra engines of the 70’s. I go to this youtube clip once every couple of weeks when I’m in need of some goosebumps.

  6. H.B. Donnelly Says:

    I hope I don’t get crucified for this one, but here goes: the sound of the motors brings more to the start of the BY400 and the old F1 race (especially with the V10s) than the Hondas did with the 500. NASCAR cars may be ridiculously slow, heavy, and ugly to look at, but when those big V8s rumble down the straight, then rev up when the green flies, it is reaaaally cool. At the other end of the tech spectrum, the sound of 20 20,000-RPM V10s jumping off the start line was just indescribable; those things rumbled the ground and split your ears at the same time.

    And yes…I would have absolutely no problem with IndyCars sounding like those old Renault V6s. I’m also hoping we end up with engines that sound a little different from each other while we’re at it (an old F1 V6 vs. the Ford DFV vs. the Ferrari V12, while we’re stuck on F1)

  7. Racing engine sound memories:
    Standing at Mid Ohio with my eyes closed, identifying CART engine manufacturers by sound.
    Sitting in oval turn 1 for one USGP at Indy was the first time I ever felt I had to wear earplugs at a race.
    The Mazda rotary-powered Lola (I think) sports car that won at Mid-Ohio with Jamie Bach and Guy Cosmo in ’05 may have been the most obnoxious race car sound I ever heard.
    The dlightfully loud Ford-powered Panoz roadsters…
    The nearly-as-loud Corvette sports cars that turned my wife off of trips to Mid-Ohio…

  8. Let me add my least favorite sound in racing, the one I heard today. The gate closing and locked at the Nashville Super Speedway. A most horrible sound.

  9. james t suel Says:

    Boy i think you have hit on something that will have a great effect on
    how well these cars are accepted. I long for the days of the OFFY an the NOVI.i DONT BELIVE THESE ENGINES WILL SOUND LIKE THE COSWORTH OR ILMORE CHEVY.?

  10. Ron Ford Says:

    Welcome back George. Thanks for following up on my comments about the sounds of racing. Very well done!

    There are so many YouTube and other sources for racing engine sounds that it is a bit addictive once you start. If anyone is interested here is a site where you can access the sound of the Hotel Tropicana Novi driven by Bobby Unser during qualifying for the 1963 Indy500. I don’t do links very well, but this is easy to find:

    Go to: “The Miller/Offenhauser Historical Society” website
    click on: “Photo and Sound Gallery”
    click on: “Go to Videos and Sound”
    Then scroll all the way to the bottom of the sound examples to listen to that Novi coming down the front straightaway.

    Not exactly elevator music:)

  11. Joe from Chicago Says:

    Havent commented here before but have to agree on the importance of sound. My 1st 500 was in 1982 as a member of the Purdue AAMB – so I got to hear the amazing sound of 33 cars screaming to the green flag from the yard of bricks where they used to let us stay for the first few laps. Had several “old timers” point out the difference pitches from the different engines. Drove my family absolutely nuts trying to mimic the sound when I got back home. Still the best sound in world – outside a real good drum line.

  12. This article has a recording of the 1994 Honda engine, taken during practice for the 1994 Indy 500:

    Scroll a little over halfway down. There are also recordings of the Menard V6, Cosworth XB, Ilmor and Mercedes 500i 🙂

    • Outstanding find, Kaspar. Great work. Anybody who has about 3 hours to spare (which is all of us, right? No? Just me?) should read that entire article about the Mercedes 500I on Forix. It’s basically the entire history of the stockblock engine at Indianapolis, leading up to the Buick/Menard V6s and the field killing Mercedes 500I, including the political scene in CART around the Chevy-Ilmor engines in the mid- to late-’80s, and then the aftermath of the Mercedes’ arrival and domination. It’s a freaking magnificent piece of literature.

  13. Savage Henry Says:

    Audio from Bobby Unser’s 1963 Indy qualifying attempt in the Novi. What a sound!

    Great to hear Tom Carnegie’s commentary, too.

    What did people do without the internet?

  14. Feb 2012 — I’ve been an Indy fan since ’47 and have heard the Novi quite a few times . Nothing in the world like it ! It’s great to hear it again ! Thanks for preserving this sound bite of racing history ! One hundred years old and still going — GO INDY !

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