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If you travel 2.5 miles in 45 seconds, you have averaged 200mph. I know this because 2.5 miles is the distance around The Track. If you don't know it as "The Track' then you aren't from Indy. (But that's okay. I'm hardly from there myself now.) But I was a ten year old kid once sitting in the crowded stands using a stop watch (pre digital, kids!) timing cars as they ripped the shimmering sky above the hot pavement of that glorious black oval in quest of the legendary, mythical, 200 mile-per-hour lap. The first to achieve it would be elevated to Godhood in Indianapolis. In a town without pro football, with only an ABA basketball franchise and a Cincy Reds Farm team, The Track in May was it, and it was all we needed.
And everyone had a favored driver who had to be the one to do it! Mario Andretti, Peter Revson, Al Unser, Bobby Unser, Mark Donahue, Dan Gurney, Gordon Johncock; the Texans! - Johnny Rutherford, Lloyd Ruby, and The Legend, The Man, A.J.Foyt. The names to me just sound right for the type of guy who would strap himself into an open wheeled rocket and launch himself into four hard lefts, two short chutes, and two long straightaways 200 times at close quarters with 32 other like minded steel-nerved maniacs.
I liked 'em all. My heroes, larger then life, some missing fingers, some with permanently twisted limbs and some doomed to die all too soon doing what they loved. I saw Foyt win in '67, the first race I remember. Little more then a toddler, hearing the unbelievably loud roar. Ear splitting? Too weak a description. The white noise of pure speed, man's quest to develop better technology embodied in these chariots of fire and steel. The same attitude that led to the Moon shot was "driving" this sport. Advances made here would trickle down into the passenger cars of tomorrow. But so what? It was all about the speed! The sound and fury signifying man's quest to be better, stronger, faster...
Andretti won in '69 and became my first driving hero. The rest of his career would be a quest for the elusive repeat. And that career may not be over, though amazingly, this happened to him just a couple months ago at age 63!
By 1970 any member of Cub Scout pack 288 could tell you that when it came to yellow track gravity-fueled racing, matchbox cars were lame, hot wheels were okay, but Johnny Lightnings were the best. I mean, look here at Al Unser's entry for the 500 that year, The Johnny Lightning Special. Wanna drive it? Who wouldn't, to this day. It's the epitome, the zenith, the nadir of open wheeled racing.
And there I sat in the stands high above, in the good seats at the start/finish line (seats were first come, first served for qualifications), with my dad, with my brother, and a cooler full of Kentucky Fried Chicken, cold drinks, and more. (Yes, the Indy 500 was Bring-your-Own! How cool was that?) Getting the first sunburn of the year. (if you live in Indy, you get your first sunburn at the track. Kids who missed school in May and returned the next day sun-burned had a hard time explaining to the dean.) Watching him ride and clutching that stop watch in finger lickin' good hand, hoping beyond hope that Al could do it...Look at it! Painted like that how could it go slower then 200mph? And when he did it, I would be the one to prove it, and say "I was there!"
Now read this. What has changed? Blame NASCAR? Sure, that's a small part. Blame an individual? Yes, there's one who shares some fault. But in a strange way, I think America has lost something. That same something that led us to the moon.
The Doppler effect is simple to explain to a racing fan. Sound changes pitch (frequency, actually) as the source of that sound moves towards then away from the listener. No where is this more obvious then at Indy, where this year's version of the Indy 500 is running as I write. The children of my heroes are demonstrating the Doppler effect; Andretti, Unser, Foyt (Michael, Al Jr., A.J. Foyt IV, grandson of the greatest racer ever.) Michael Andretti runs his alleged last run today, Foyt IV, at age 19, his first. The commentators have missed this juxtaposition and all it's historical tie-ins. Nineteen and driving with grandpa's old number 14. No pressure, kid. Meanwhile, Unser Jr, once the bright hope for Indycar, has been middle of the pack for years, both in qualifying and racing. The average lap, excepting those run under yellow, is in the neighborhood of 220mph. Not much slower, relatively speaking, then the qualifying speeds of around 230. Unreal. NASCAR can't touch it. Does anyone care? To me it's remarkable, notable, commendable, but not as compelling as that quest for 200.
The quest for 200 began in 1911 and ended on May 14, 1977 when Tom Sneva turned a qualifying lap at 200.535 mph. Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500 that same year. But A.J. Foyt won, becoming the first four-time winner.
And I was there for it all, watching the race with my brothers. The noise of the cheers for Foyt was greater then the scream of the engines. Speak your mind about anyone or anything you want to in Indianapolis, but God help you if you disparage A.J. Foyt. Guthrie, in the meantime, putted around the inside of the track slowly, staying out of the way of the real drivers and finishing respectably, if one considers only place as a measure of respectability. What an historic race! But the times were a' changin...
For high school kids The Track was all about skipping school. Anyone who thinks the Indy 500 is a one-day event is mistaken. The Track is open all month in May. Practice, practice, practice; open to the public, bring your own. Skip school a couple times during the month, go, have fun, come back to school sun burned and note that most of your classmates are too. Dude, were you in the snakepit? I didn't even see you there!
Then the weekends and qualifications. The first day of qualifications, when the pole position is determined, is the second largest sporting event in the world. Numbers never publicly released. Probably incalculable. 250,000? And general admission, open seating, and once again, bring your own. That's the day when the stopwatches are out and records are broken. One car on the track for a few warm up laps then four for real. When Sneva broke 200 no one needed Tom Carnegie, the track announcer forever, to make it official. If you didn't have a stopwatch you were near someone who did. But when Tom announced the unofficial results they became "official" and the crowd went wild.
Then race day. Sometimes in the stands in good seats. You pay for your seats on race day. Other times in the infield. If you line up early enough (the day before) you could drive into the track infield and right up to the edge. The inside first turn, void of stands, was the legendary "snake pit." (Don't ask, if you have to ask, you just wouldn't understand.) A few years later, they would build stands there to put an end to it (and make a couple more bucks) but one glorious year I was home on leave and my best friends in the world and I were there with my buddies El Camino serving as the perfect method of transportation for the iced down full keg of beer we brought along. (That's what I meant by "bring-your-own".) Glory days...
But now this. What happened? (Not the economy, stupid. Nice try by the idiotarian headline writer though.)
There are a number of factors that when combined result in an Indy 500 that is fast becoming a shadow of its former self. Faded glory, a pale echo of something finer. The economy? No. An interesting attempt by a left-wing biased headline writer to blame either a. George Bush or b. Forces beyond the control of mortal man. NASCAR? No, both circuits could thrive, and have in the past. the rise of one does not come at the expense of the other.
Self destruction - yes, a bit of that. Detailed in this timeline. Note that the all-time track record for single (237.498) and four-lap (236.986) average were set in 1996; 1997 was the first year the IRL cars were used. The seven years since represent the longest period without a track speed record set in the modern (post WWII) racing era.
Look at the list of speed records, you can see the quest for 200. There it is, from 1970 to '77. Look at the phenomenal jumps. Look at the gap caused by the response to the tragic '73 race. But you can also see they were way too close to 200 to stay slow for more then the minimum amount of time needed to show some sense of respect. The events of '73 delayed the satisfaction of 200 until '77; Sneva's accomplishment was all the more exquisite for that.
Then look at the numbers beyond that, 210, 220, 230, approaching 240! Is that it? It may be possible that we've seen the fastest speeds a human can take. G-force in the high-banked turns of the new Texas Motor Speedway were said to be sufficient to render drivers nearly unconscious.
Bah! This is America! We'll come up with something to reduce the G-force, right? Right? I mean we put a man on the moon! We can do anything! Right? Anybody?
Because I'm not sure.
I think one of the things that made the Indy 500 what it once was (the Greatest Spectacle in Racing!) was the guys with the slide rules, then the calculators; the Mechanical Engineers, the Drawing Board guys. America used to lead the world in production of these guys. Couple the Mechanical Engineers with the Mechanics, the guys who could take a car apart and put it back together in 10 minutes blindfolded. Add a driver who laughs at death (haha!) and there you have it! The same teams that put a man on the moon; scientist, engineers, extraordinary technicians and fearless operators. That used to drive every industry in America.
Does it still exist? We last walked on the moon in 1972. Is that a bad thing? Not completely, there probably are better ways to spend that money. But the end of the Apollo program, begun one could claim, with John Kennedy's immortal challenge issued May 25 1961, ended with a whimper.
Forty-two years later to the day, Brazil's own Gil de Ferran flew his Honda across the fabled yard of bricks that marks the finish line at Indy, the checkered flags waving, hailing the conqueror. Congratulations to him! A well earned victory.
Where were you when we landed on the moon? I wonder if we'll ever accomplish something of that magnitude again?
Would you compare Astronauts to race car drivers? There's no comparison!
I can't believe anyone could walk away from a crash like that. Somebody upstairs is an Andretti fan.Posted by Chucker at May 24, 2003 09:40 AM
A.J. Foyt Jr. is the MAN. So is Al, Sr. and Bobby Unser. Danny Sullivan's 'Spin and Win', was the GREATEST, (1985?, not sure).
Little Al Unser, said he would never come back to Indy after the CART/I.R.L. split! Michael Andretti also said he would never be back, either! They LIED, why should we think Michael won't go back on his retirement? Of course, why would anyone care? I am a firm believer when a person makes a public statement, there are, VERY FEW reasons, to go back on their WORD! (i.e. SEE, Michael Jordan Retirement, 1, 2, and 3, I personally would never believe a word this liar says). The Andretti's,--- BOTH Father AND Son, -----BAH! Mario, what an egotist! They should be more like their cousin John, (NASCAR)! He may not be as good a driver, but is a Class Act, and a Gentleman!
The most famous statement on raceday has changed, SLIGHTLY, over the years, from, "Gentlemen, start your engines!" to, "Lady, and Gentlemen, start your engines!".
BUT, the second most famous statement, on race day will ALWAYS be, "Andretti is slowing down, and appears to be out of the race!".Posted by Susan Serin-Done at May 26, 2003 11:52 PM
Well done. Was never a fan but you took me there. And you my be right. I think I've felt the same way and it's too bad. We have lost something!Posted by Dustin at June 3, 2003 08:11 PM
You are quickly becoming one of the better Blog essayists! Please don't become spoiled when you're "discovered"!Posted by Paula at June 4, 2003 06:45 PM
Does anyone know how fast HEAT travels in a standard atmosphere and is density the only factor that determines the speed?Posted by tom at October 29, 2003 02:45 PM Hide Comments | Show/Add Comments in Popup Window(6) | (Note: You must refresh main page to view newly posted comments here)