By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Yes, of course IndyCar made the right decision - given the circumstances - over the weekend. With three "blow-overs" involving cars with the Chevrolet aero body kit, along with the ugly realization that they just didn't know what was causing it and on top of that, with no real time to analyze it and still pull off qualifying, IndyCar forced all of its competing teams to return to race trim for qualifying, meaning a reduction in turbo boost - and horsepower. It worked, resulting in an immediate reduction of speeds from those approaching 233+ mph in practice (235 mph was not out of the question), to Scott Dixon's pole-winning average of 226.760 mph. Make no mistake, that's still incredibly fast, but it was clear that no one was happy with what went on, well, except for Chip Ganassi and Dixon. (And the Honda teams swallowed hard and said all the right things, but it wasn't hard to read between the lines there.)
Again, it was the right decision. Why? Let me be very clear on this: The fear of any racing organization is driver injury, or worse, a fatality, as it should be. The even greater fear? Cars going into grandstands and injuring or killing people. The sport of auto racing almost came to a complete halt after the massive crash at Le Mans in 1955, when eighty-three spectators and driver Pierre Levegh died at the scene with 120 more injured in the most disastrous accident in motorsports history. (Caution: the video is ugly.) It was such a catastrophic, galvanizing incident that there was an international cry to ban auto racing. In fact Mercedes-Benz pulled out of racing after that crash for over 30 years, and the sport just barely survived the aftermath of that fateful day at Le Mans.
It almost happened again, too, back in 1987 at Talladega Superspeedway. If you can't recall why NASCAR instituted restrictor-plates on their big tracks, let me remind you of the incident where Bobby Allison almost went all the way into the stands. The powers that be in Daytona Beach were grimly reminded of that darkest hour in motorsports history, and quickly and decisively moved to rein in the speeds on their superspeedways. Is it perfect now? No, but that's another column.
As I've said repeatedly, the performance capability of the cars - both Indy and NASCAR - started exceeding the limitations of the tracks long ago. The development of the SAFER barrier was monumental, but the next frontier is to develop the next-generation of catch fencing so that cars can't fly into the stands, or, the leaders of the various series are going to be forced to start ripping out 100 rows of seats (at least) out of every oval track in existence for an extra margin of safety.
Saying all of that, IndyCar is still on the hook for heading into the month of May without properly testing the Chevrolet and Honda speedway aero kits. The fact of the matter is that until you run the cars enough, you can't foresee the problems and IndyCar didn't build in enough running time on ovals into its schedule prior to arriving at The Speedway to find that out. The consequences of those crashes could have been devastating, but fortunately the drivers (Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden and Ed Carpenter) were able to walk away.
But that's not all that went on over last weekend. The fact that the qualifying schedule was rained out on Saturday and everything had to be compressed into a frantic Sunday schedule should have made the lightbulbs go off with the powers that be in IndyCar, too, because pretending that the "Month of May" is a real thing anymore at the most famous track in the world is sheer folly. If attendance was massive at the Speedway in the run-up to the "500" like it was back in the 60s I'd say have at it, but who's kidding whom here? The attendance is spotty at best, and it's apparent that the "Month of May" could easily be played out over two weekends instead of three weeks.
And how about the gimmicky "Fast Nine" qualifying? Did you miss it? I didn't. In fact it shouldn't even be in place at The Speedway, because the traditional four qualifying laps alone provide enough white-knuckling and drama for everyone concerned, and there's no need to hype it further.
The reality is that the cloud of indifference hanging over IndyCar racing grows darker by the minute. And it's sad to think that this upcoming weekend will be the only highpoint on the IndyCar schedule. It is the one race on the IndyCar calendar that actually draws noteworthy television viewer interest and in-depth coverage by the mainstream stick-and-ball-oriented media. The rest of the schedule? Other than the hard-core enthusiasts of major league open wheel racing in this country, and the team owners, drivers, crews and companies invested in the series, nobody really cares anymore.
I call it "racing in a vacuum" and I think it's a complete travesty, but then again I desperately want this form of motorsport to thrive again so it pisses me off royally. But after sixteen years of doing this column it's just hoping against hope that the sport will ever pull out of its death spiral.
Is the Indianapolis 500 still "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing"? Yes, it is, and it's still the greatest single motor race in the world. Is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway still the greatest racetrack in the world? For my money it is, and by a long shot too. And the start of the Indianapolis 500 is still, to this day, the most electric moment in all of sport. I'd like to say that it will continue on that way for many decades to come, but unless there are fundamental changes to the way the sport goes about its business, I have zero confidence that it will.
In the meantime I look forward to a clean, fast race this weekend and may the best driver - and team - win.
THE STARTING GRID FOR THE 99TH INDIANAPOLIS 500:
Row 1 (Inside, middle, outside)
1. Scott Dixon (No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Target Chevrolet) 226.760 mph;
2. Will Power (No. 1 Team Penske Verizon Chevrolet) 226.350
3. Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 Team Penske AVAYA Chevrolet) 226.145
4. Tony Kanaan (No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing NTT Data Chevrolet) 225.503
5. Helio Castroneves (No. 3 Team Penske Verizon Chevrolet) 225.502
6. Justin Wilson (No. 25 Andretti Autosport Honda) 225.279
7. Sebastien Bourdais (No. 11 KV Racing Technology Hydroxycut – HAUS Vaporizer Chevrolet) 225.193
8. Marco Andretti (No. 27 Andretti Autosport Snapple Honda) 225.189
9. Josef Newgarden (No. 21 CFH Racing Century 21 Chevrolet) 225.187
10. JR Hildebrand (No. 6 CFH Racing Preferred Freezer Chevrolet) 225.099
11. Carolos Munoz (No. 26 Andretti Autosport AndrettiTV Cinsay Honda) 225.042
12. Ed Carpenter (No. 20 CFH Racing Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet) 224.883
13. Oriol Servia (No. 32 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda) 224.777
14. Charlie Kimball (No. 83 Chip Ganassi Racing Norvo Nordisk Chevrolet) 224.743
15. Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 2 Team Penske Verizon Chevrolet) 224.657
16. Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 Andretti Autosport DHL Honda) 224.573
17. Graham Rahal (No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Steak 'n Shake Honda) 224.290
18. Carlos Huertas (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda) 224.233
19. Simona de Silvestro (No. 29 Andretti Autosport TE Connectivity Honda) 223.838
20. James Jakes (No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda) 223.790
21. Alex Tagliani (No. 48 A.J. Foyt Racing Alfe Heat Treating Special Honda) 223.722
22. Sage Karam (No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Comfort Revolution/Big Machine Records Chevrolet) 223.595
23. Conor Daly (No. 43 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports FUELED by BACON Special Honda) 223.482
24. Townsend Bell (No. 24 Dreyer & Reinbold The Robert Graham Special Chevrolet) 223.447
25. Takuma Sato (No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing ABC Supply Honda) 223.226
26. Pippa Mann (No. 63 Dale Coyne Racing Honda) 223.104
27. Gabby Chaves^ (No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Bowers & Wilkins/Curb Honda) 222.916
28. Sebastian Saavedra (No. 17 Chip Ganassi Racing Racing AFS Chevrolet) 222.898
29. Jack Hawksworth (No. 41 A.J. Foyt Racing ABC Supply Honda) 223.738
30. Stefano Coletti^ (No. 4 KV Racing Technology Chevrolet) 222.001
31. Bryan Clauson (No. 88 KVSH Racing Jonathan Byrd's/Cancer Treatment Centers of America Chevrolet) 221.358
32. Ryan Briscoe* (No. 5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Arrow/Lucas Oil Honda) 223.519
33. James Davison** (No. 19 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda) 223.747
Notes: Qualifying speeds based on a four-lap average around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
* - Named 5/21 as driver of car qualified by James Hinchcliffe; ** - Named 5/18 as driver for car qualified by Tristan Vautier. Order of Briscoe and Davison determined by Verizon IndyCar Series entrant points entering the event. ^rookie.
(Photo by Chris Owens/IndyCar)
Scott and Emma Dixon after his pole-winning run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Publisher's Note: As part of our continuing series celebrating the "Glory Days" of racing, we're proud to present another noteworthy image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
(Courtesy of the Ford Racing Archives)
Indianapolis, Indiana, May 31, 1965. Jim Clark (No. 82 Lotus 38-Ford) receives some expert pit work by the famed Wood Brothers on his way to one of the most dominant wins in Indianapolis 500 history, the first time that a mid-engined car won at The Speedway. (And since only six cars in the field were front-engined, the writing was on the wall that this represented a momentous shift in the sport). On the way to becoming the first non-American winner of the "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" since 1916, Clark led 190 of the 200 lap race distance, the most since Bill Vukovich, who led 195 laps in 1953. It was a phenomenal year for Clark and Colin Chapman - the genius Lotus car designer (with sunglasses on standing next to Clark after the win) - as Clark would go on to win the 1965 Formula 1 World Championship as well. He remains the only driver in history to win the Indianapolis 500 and Formula 1 World Championship in the same year. In the color picture, you can see Clark has rolled to a stop in Victory Circle - such as it was back then - while a man hands him the "traditional" bottle of milk before he can even step out of the car the car. Watch a wonderful video of the race here.
Publisher's Note: Like these Ford racing photos? Check out www.fordimages.com. Be forewarned, however, because you won't be able to go there and not order something. - PMD