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.

George Phillips


24 Responses to “How To Save Pole Day At Indianapolis”

  1. If I want to watch slow cars parading around a track, I’ll watch NASCAR. Sheer speed is what sets Indy Car racing apart.

  2. Now Oilpressure hates Ryan Briscoe.

  3. H.B. Donnelly Says:

    I hate to harp on something that’s been said seemingly a million times, but these engines are so anemic on superspeedways. I heard a top official with a good team during practice week this past year say he’d take the wings off the car if the series would let him; they had so much negative downforce dialed in that, if they went any further, the wing would just be creating drag. The HP/downforce mix has ’em too planted; notice that there were virtually no incidents at IMS until they turned up the wick on the turbos for Pole Day (not saying incidents are good; they indicate how on-edge the cars are).

    The more R. Miller says “1000 HP and no wings”, the more I’m inclined to listen to him. Speed would actually be reduced through the turns, but we’d be glued to the telemetry to see who had the chutzpah to hit 250 on the straights before lifting.

    • 100% agree w you HB, for Indy especially. In the 70s with 900hp+ AND huge wings, they would still lift a fair bit approaching 1 and 3. What separated the best drivers from the good ones was seeing who could drive in the deepest and maintain their momentum best.

  4. Carburetor Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with this post. I’ve been telling anyone who would listen to me that speed sells–it is the element of risk that makes racing what it is and separates it from other sports. I don’t hear of anyone attempting to slow down downhill skiers so that they can have a safe and comfortable ride down the slopes. I am unaware of speed limits being applied to drag racers.

    Let’s face it, you can be killed at 100mph almost as easily as at 200mph. I’m all for safety, but to me Indy Car represents the top of the hill when it comes to skill and courage and only the best should race. Ultimately it would be the driver’s nerve/courage that would limit how fast they would go.

  5. IndyCarla Says:

    Your line of thinking is scary and irresponsible and is typical of the older and uninformed IndyCar fan. Young teens are dying every day in the “pursuit of speed” that you cherish so. IndyCar can be a safe and enjoyable sport without the machismo of chasing speed records. Speed doesn’t sell. Speed kills!

  6. I’m on the fence about this one. As Indycar has slowed down on the track, Nascar has left it in the dust. The obvious difference (in the past) was how much faster Indycar was. And that was one reason pole day was more popular. And going for a record would still be great for pole day.

    I just can’t see them actually competing in the race at higher speeds. Driving one car around the track at those speeds is a whole lot different than driving 33, isn’t it?

  7. billytheskink Says:

    There is no denying that track records (or the possibility of them) added tremendously to the appeal of 500 qualifying.

    I’m reminded of a Sam Posey segment that aired during a late 1980s 500 broadcast, and was subsequently made a part of the “Live and Drive The Indy 500” videotape released to mark ABC’s 25th year broadcasting the race.
    Posey recounts the track record speeds over the years, using Ray Harroun’s 75 MPH 1911 race-winning speed as a baseline. It took all the years until Parnelli Jones’ 150 MPH lap to double Harroun’s speed, but a much shorter amount of time to triple it (one of Rick Mears’ poles, I think). Posey closes by remarking how lap times have now (then) dipped into the low 40 second range, and if a driver could lap the Speedway in 30 seconds, they would be topping 300 MPH.
    “Sound impossible?” Posey smirks, “What do you think Ray Harroun would think of today’s speeds.”

  8. My first pole day at IMS was in 1988 and that was about as exciting as any race I’ve ever attended! Carnegie said those magic words more than once that day and I’ll never forget it. 2012 pole day had no track records, but when Hinchcliffe approached 228 on his warm up lap the (albeit smaller) crowd went totally nuts. The close competition and edging out the other qualifiers makes for plenty of excitement, with or without an absolute record being broken.

    As for the speed=popularity equation, NASCRAP cars are over 40mph slower than IndyCars at IMS and other tracks, yet the stock car series attracts more viewers, so there must be more to it than just speed.

    Maybe the new track records at IMS died along with Tom Carnegie, for while I’d love to hear those words again, I’d rather hear them come from him. Perhaps us die-hards will have go on with the knowledge that we were witness to an era that has passed, like the roadsters and riding mechanics. And while we wax nostalgic for those good ol’ days, at least we can say, “We were there.”

  9. Daniel R. Says:

    I think it’s worth pointing out Randy Bernard said that he wanted new track records to be set before the 2011 Las Vegas Race. I never heard him say anything about track records after that and I don’t think we should hear anything about going 230+mph again for a while. NASCAR hasn’t broken track records at Daytona or Talladega or any other major track in over twenty years and they still draw fans to the tracks and to televisions. Their are just certain speed thresholds that I think are too danger to cross: for stock cars, 200mph is the cutoff number and Indycar 230mph. If we start letting Indycars go over 230mph again I think you will have a lot more drivers packing up like Mike Conway and leaving the sport (at least for ovals).

  10. Savage Henry Says:

    I think that there are two reasons why Pole Day was such a big draw back in the day. First was the possibility of speed records. Second was it was most people’s first chance to see the new technology being brought to the Speedway that year. What would new the cars look like? How would the different engines sound? Add those two together and there was real excitement.

    Obviously, we have neither now so there’s not much of a draw aside from being at the track drinking beer on a nice May afternoon.

    I’m not sure that speed records are going to be that big of a draw without the new technologies. Even the old crapwagons could have broken the track record – see Helio’s 231.7 in 2003. It isn’t much a question of whether they can achieve a track record, but whether they will be allowed to go that fast. I think that the new technology is as big of a factor as the speed.

    I think the key to this is Robin Miller’s “1000 HP, no wings” approach. Take away the aero-dependency of these cars and make the teams come up with other solutions for speed and grip. They will start to bring new solutions to the track and cars would be differentiated. Another way to add variety would be to limit fuel (or energy) consumtion rather than outright engine performance. Let them get the most of the fuel they are provided and let the innovation begin.

  11. I think the speed limit is whenever vertigo sets in. The cancelled CART race at Texas would be the example. Perhaps Indy is square enough to prevent the problem. If so, let the speeds go up, up, and up.

  12. Jim Gallo Says:

    George, another excellent post and a topic that has debate on both sides of this issue, speed versus safety, and then there is the cost factor. Those that have, will spend and those that don’t have will be watching or not playing.
    It is easy for me and the others not risking our lives to want more and more speed. This is the very essence of motor sports from its inception. But, I am sure there are plenty of drivers out there that the thrill of driving at the edge is a pure rush that we can only imagine.
    If it were easy, what is the challenge? Technology is there to do both safety and speed. GO for it. IndyCar needs to set itself apart from the other forms of racing and IMS is the place to make that happen.
    This new leadership group needs to make this work and make it happen real soon before what is left of our fan base is gone.
    And a side note, forget the lights at IMS and spend the $$$ on speed and safety.

  13. Want to have discussions of records again? Well, you could start by giving the drivers the “apron” back that they had in earlier times. During qualifying or in emergency situations, allow the cars back down on the apron; otherwise, any driver to improve his postion by going below the line would be penalized.

    • Chri Lukens Says:

      Your comment about the apron got me to thinking. Removing the apron in essence lengthened to distance required to complete a lap. How much quicker would the new car be if they could use the “shorter” track? The difference between 226 and 232 is about one second. I don’t think you could gain that full second, but you would be quicker.

  14. The 25-50,000 fans you see on POLE DAY now are true race fans.I see no reason to hold the engineers back, but all we need is some fluctuation in the Rule Book. More horsepower equals more speed, but do not tell me running cars around this old girl without wings, will bring new track records. And I am not sure that the RACING PADDOCK wants to see it anyway. I believe they have become complacent the last few years. No wing kits now, too expensive! And maybe rightfully so, due to the economy. They, for the most part, have their guaranteed money coming in from the series, so nothing ventured, nothing gained. But all it will take is one car to fly, clear the catch fence, and you know the rest. Are you willing to pay that price? Regardless, whether you own the car sponsor the car, or own the speedway, or just get unluncky and be the people that catch that car, IS IT REALLY WORTH IT?

  15. Would love to see pole day’s prominence restored. I imagine so would the 100,000 plus who use to attend.

    Sadly, the HG family thought they had a better idea. Instead of the nostalgic days we romanticize they thought 12 chances to qualify, a racing dentist, and spec cars were better.

    Now, the clown CEO they hired can’t wait to put in a playoff no one wants and spend gobs of money improving the NASCAR event at the Speedway. Clearly, they don’t get it, and there’s little evidence they ever will.

    George, you run a heck of a blog, and I don’t mean to be a Negative Nancy. If anything, I love this sport more than is healthy but am frustrated with the current state of affairs.

    While your point about speed is valid, realistically the economy will need to turn around if we’ll ever see records fall.

    Keep up the good work.


  16. james t suel Says:

    SPEED IS WHAT HAS BEENMISSING!! Rules that allow progress and development and imagination! This is racing ,not some dam ball game! We build street cars with more horsepower than the Indy car of today. 900 hp back and you will get some repect for indycar again.Istill go to fast friday ,pole day and bump day only because of my love of the speedway and openwheel racing. 2013 will be my 53 500 all since 1960.get rid of some of the BS rules and lets race!!

  17. John Reid Says:

    Outside of Formula 1 and the NHRA I don’t think motorsports fans really care about qualifying anymore. The race it’s self seems to be the only thing that attracts fans nowadays and even then I wonder what the level of intrest is, you know hardcore fan, got dragged there (girlfriend, kids, etc.), or it’s the place to be? I personally think motorsports in general is at a crossroads where old fans are gettin older and not being replaced while racing series are scratching their heads looking for younger fans and wondering why nobody’s interested. The bottom line is the motorsports world needs to make racing interesting to a wider range of fan, how that happens nobody knows, but Indycar needs to figure it out and soon.

    • Savage Henry Says:

      I think that nobody is interested in qualifying now because nobody actually has to qualify. You show up, you race (with the exception of the F1 105% rule). And except for F1 it doesn’t really matter where you qualify.

      Bump Day was really fun in 2011 when some big drivers weren’t going to make the show. If it was like that more often more people would care about qualifying.

  18. I’m going to preface this comment by saying that I love speed. I would love to see records be challenged and fall again, and I really hope that we get to see that again someday. If there’s any question about any of that, just check my commenter name again. All of that said, here goes…

    HOWEVER, we’ve got some things that need to be addressed. jhall14 touched on a little of this already, but increased speed, for all the positive that it could bring, it also brings some things that we definitely do not want. For starts, if we’re talking about the drivers, once we get above 200 MPH, every 10 MPH increase brings a 10% increase of kinetic energy that has to be dissipated when the car hits something (velocity is squared in the kinetic energy equation, so it increases at a non-linear rate…and yes, I know this is nerd-talk; I only get so many chances to use this here slide rule that I paid so much for). Energy that isn’t trasferred into the wall, absorbed by crush structure or stripped off of the car by parts flying off…that is energy that can hurt or potentially kill the driver. Before we go cranking the cars up to 240 MPH and beyond, Dallara and IndyCar are going to have to confirm that 240 MPH impacts are not something that are going to kill drivers, SAFER barier or no. If 240 MPH impact = dead driver, then we are going to have nobody driving, and yes, that includes all of the “balls of steel” drivers you see at your local short track who claim they’re way braver than all of the candy asses you see on TV every week. Even those guys won’t want to strap in if they know that a blown tire means without a doubt that their kids will be orphans.

    The next piece of physics that needs to be talked about is the lift force equation. All of that stuff I just said about kinetic energy? The same goes for lift as well. We all know from seeing cars spin that when they are no longer going the direction they were intended to go (forward), they no longer make downforce, and usually they will make lift (air gets under the car, increasing pressure under the car,and the wings now do the exact opposite thing that you want them to do). Every 10 MPH gain over 200 MPH brings roughly a 10% gain in lift. You can also read that as a 10% increased chance that a car is going to do a Mike Conway special, and wind up in the fence. Or, in the worst case, from what I heard, emulate Tony Renna’s car which may have wound up IN the stands. You think IndyCar’s finances are tenuous now? Imagine them getting sued by a couple dozen families who’ve had family members crushed by a tub/engine/transmission/tires/uprights/etc. that made it into the stands. We’ll all have watched the last ever IndyCar race.

    Now, with all of that wet blanket talk out of the way, my point is this: if IndyCar wants to take on speed records again (and, again, I would like them to…very much), they are going to have to do a lot to ensure the safety of the drivers, and more crucially, the fans. If fences can be heightened and strengthened, and if the walls made even safer yet, and if the cars can be simulated to go through impact test after impact test at an even higher standard than they are now, then by all means, let’s go after Arie’s number. But not until then.

  19. One last thing (andy I apologize, George, for clogging the comments of your otherwise very interesting take), I would also like to see 1000 HP engines as much as the rest of you. I’m a car guy. I get off on that stuff. Here’s the dreaded word again…

    However, back in the days when we saw such a thing in CART, the engines were getting replaced roughly 2-3 times as often as they are now. Does anybody feel good about asking Sarah Fisher, Dale Coyne, A.J. Foyt, Bryan Herta, Dennis Reinbold, or any of the other relative IndyCar minnows to pony up an extra million or two dollars in engine lease cash, with no ironclad guarantee that their extra outlay is going to result in even an extra 0.1 TV rating (because all of this “speed sells” talk is really an unproven theory at this point…it’s never been tried in this day and age of XBox, 10,000 cable channels, 3D movies, organized kids sports out the wazoo, a million other things to do, etc., so there is no guarantee that 240 MPH is going to mean much of anything to most of America)? Certainly, we can ask Honda and GM to crank the boost and revs up to where we get to see huge speeds again, but we’re liable to see car counts go down by 6-8 or even more overnight.

    Big power and fast cars are awesome. But they are expensive. As the old adage goes, “horsepower costs money. How fast do you want to go?”

  20. Let ‘er rip!

  21. I do not really agree about this frantic desire that some people seems to have to see a new speed record…in my opinion, the speed that we saw ant the end of the 90’s (237.498 Luyendyk Indy record or 241.428 De Ferran absolute record) are the physical limit for an open wheel race…I don’t see the need to overcome this limit…for me, actually around 230 is a good speed…

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