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.