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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Why Indianapolis is unique

by Gordon Kirby
There's no other oval track anything like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It's unique because it's not an oval but a rectangular track with four distinct corners, very shallow banking and two long straightaways. Those are the elements that make Indianapolis so challenging and also a special experience for the drivers unlike any other superspeedway.

A binge of superspeedway-building took place across the United States over the last two decades but almost all these new tracks are high-banked 1.5 or 2.0-mile ovals or triovals, more like Daytona than Indianapolis. The low-banked 1.0-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway is a rare exception while the original Homestead Speedway attempted to be a 1.5-mile version of Indianapolis but it's been rebuilt twice over with steeper banking and a more traditional oval shape. One hundred years after its birth the Indianapolis Motor Speedway remains the only track of its kind.

"I think it's about the nature of the corners and the shape of the track," Dario Franchitti observed. "It has big, long straights and four, ninety degree corners with not really much banking. There really isn't another track like it."

Franchitti recalled his first experience at the track back in his Team Kool Green days with Paul Tracy.

"I always felt before I came here that the stories about how difficult the place is were old wives' tales," Dario remarked. "The first time I ran here was when Paul and I came here for a test in April, 2002. It was pretty cold and we went out and ran pretty quick straight off and I remember thinking, 'What's the problem here?'

"But then we came back a few weeks later and it was twenty degrees warmer and the wind was blowing and I was in a world of trouble. So you've got to respect Indianapolis. If I've learned anything, I've learned that. The Speedway does respond, in my opinion, to changes in weather more than anywhere else.

"The challenge at Indy comes because you're so close to the edge in the car," Franchitti added. "Every time you step in the car there, you are on the edge. The weather conditions change and the balance changes. You're never going to have a perfect car at Indianapolis because you're always fighting at least one little thing. At the same time, you might think you're not in with a shout but the conditions change and all of a sudden your car is the one to have."

Rick Mears won four Indy 500s, was on the pole eight times and started from the front row in eleven of his fifteen Indy 500 starts. Mears earned an impressive total of forty poles in the 204 CART and USAC races he started and, incredibly, he qualified in the top ten for every race he ran in seven different seasons--1978, '80, '82, '88, '89, '90 and '91! Almost everyone recognized Mears as the king of the speedways and Rick is unequivocal in calling the Indy 500's four-lap qualifying run the biggest test in racing.

"Qualifying at Indy is the toughest thing of all," he declares. "To me, the race is a piece of cake compared to qualifying. You've got 500 miles to work on the car and get it sorted. But to get the most of it for four laps and to get all four laps exactly right at Indy is the big challenge.

"It's all about the fine-tuning of watching the weather and the cloud cover, and the logging of what turn one felt like on the first lap so when you came around again you could log how the track had changed in turn two and turn three and turn four so you could make the corrections in turn one to get the most out of it. And then you had to log how it felt there to get the most out of it in the next turn, and so on, all the way around the lap for four laps."

To do that in Rick's heyday in the eighties and early nineties with big horsepower, comparatively little downforce and bias-ply tires too--in his early days at least--was no small feat.

"You had to do that every corner, every lap," Mears comments. "You were continuously logging what the car was doing and changing your pattern and the sway bars to get the most out of it at the next corner you came to. It was almost like every time you went through the corner was the first time. Because of what you felt on the last corner you were going to make a change in your pattern in the next corner and hope it was right because you didn't do it the time before.

"To do that for all four laps as the tires went off and you were also keeping track of how much the tires change from corner to corner, that was tough! But it was also one of the most satisfying things in racing because it's so tough."

Parnelli Jones was equally talented, winning in many types of race cars and proving one of the fastest drivers ever to tackle the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Jones dominated three of the seven Indy 500s he started and won the race in 1963 beating Jim Clark. He looked to be a clear winner again in '67 with Andy Granatelli's STP turbine car, but a driveshaft bearing broke with only four laps to go and after the race, at the height of his driving prowess, Parnelli retired from driving open cockpit cars.

The likes of Mario Andretti and Bobby and Al Unser say Parnelli was the best driver they've ever seen at Indianapolis where Jones qualified on the first two rows for all seven 500s he started and led five of those races for a total of 492 laps. Jones says he learned the best way to get maximum speed out of an early sixties Offy-powered roadster while tire-testing for Firestone during the winter of 1961 and '62.

"I got a chance to do the tire testing and that was when I perfected getting it loose," Parnelli explains. "I watched the film of Jim (Hurtubise) qualifying on the pole from the year before (1960) and I noticed the back end was out. He went into the corners and slid it around like you would on a dirt track. I didn't think too much about it other than in the race in 1961 I almost spun the car coming off turn four.

"If you remember, Jack Turner flipped down the front straightaway two years in a row and I almost did the same thing. I crossed it up coming out of turn four and man, I just about spun it the opposite direction which would have started the car flipping because all the weight was on the lefthand side.

"But I saved it, and I thought, 'Man, the next time that happens, I know what it's going to do.' What happened was the rear tires in those days were skinny and tall and with the weight being on the left, that's what made the cars flip when they spun the other way. With the tire being as tall as it was when you went through the corner and started to slide the tire would lean, and when it started to give up it would pop and turn the car the other way. I analysed that a little bit, but didn't think much about it.

"Then I got a chance to do the tire test the next year and that's when I learned how to slip it. I knew what it was going to do and I was kind of outguessing it, and pretty soon I felt comfortable doing it. I always felt that really gave me the edge there because it gave me at least one mph average over everybody. Even Jim didn't know what he was actually doing. He just did it naturally.

"Most guys want a little push because it's easier to drive a car that's understeering than one that's oversteering," Parnelli added. "But I could run my car looser and I actually could pass them across the short chutes because I would let it come around and coming off the corner I could shoot by them. It was great! It was a little bit like a dirt track where you come in, cross it up a little bit and you're headed in the right direction. Figuring-out how to do that really helped me."

The Speedway was originally conceived sometime in 1903 or '04 by Carl G. Fisher who had made his fortune by developing Miami Beach into a resort town and also led the government's Lincoln Highway Commission aimed at building the first cross-country automobile highway. For a brief period of time in the early years of the 20th century Indianapolis's fledgling auto industry produced more cars than Detroit and Indiana native Fisher wanted to build a test track for the forty or more automobile manufacturers who jostled for business in Indianapolis in those days.

Fisher dreamed of a giant five-mile circular track and eventually, after four or five years of talk, Fisher and four partners bought more than 300 acres of flat farmland northwest of downtown Indianapolis. Fisher's first plans for the site suggested a 3-mile outer oval with an infield road circuit which would use most of the oval and total five miles in length.

Eventually, working within the confines of the property lines, Fisher's track was laid-out by P.T. Andrews the civil engineer from New York hired by Fisher to oversee the project. The best compromise achieved by Andrews was a 2.5-mile rectangular track consisting of a pair of 5/8ths-mile front and backstraights, two short, one eighth-mile north and south chutes, and four long, sweeping turns, each measuring a quarter-mile and banked at nine degrees.

The original track surface was a mix of crushed rock and tar, much like the early public roads built in Europe and America. But after a pair of disastrous debut race meetings for motorcycles and cars in August of 1909 Fisher and his partners decided to lay a new brick surface consisting of more than 3 million 10-pound bricks. Three race meetings were held on the new brick speedway in May, July and September of 1910. The May affair attracted a good crowd but the numbers dropped off in July and September prompting Fisher and his partners to determine to run a single major race in 1911 over 500 miles with a giant purse for the times of $25,000.

At the time the world's only other big speedway was Brooklands in the UK. Located southwest of London Brooklands was a high-banked 2.767-mile oval with various infield road circuits. Brooklands opened in 1907 and operated through 1939 but was taken over by the British government during World War II and never reopened.

In America, Indianapolis remained entirely unique. Through the 1920s AAA Championship or Indy car racing enjoyed a boom period thanks to fifteen high-banked board tracks built in or near major cities across the United States between 1915-'30. The board tracks drew huge crowds and rivalled the Brickyard for spectacle but they were very expensive to maintain and the onset of the Great Depression brought an abrupt end to the great board track era.

Indianapolis alone carried on what became an American tradition of oval racing. Most other oval races in America through the thirties and the early post-WWII period took place on half-mile or one-mile dirt tracks. The Milwaukee Mile dirt track was paved in 1954 but Indianapolis remained the USA's only superspeedway until Darlington opened in 1950 followed by Daytona in 1959 and Charlotte and Atlanta in 1960. But of course Daytona, Charlotte, Atlanta and Talladega (opened in 1969) are all high-banked tracks designed to allow NASCAR stock cars to achieve speeds like those reached by Indy cars at Indianapolis.

Each of the AAA, USAC, CART and IRL discovered in turn over the next four or five decades that high-banked tracks were too fast for Indy cars. After an experimental but deathly AAA Indy car race at Daytona in 1959 Indy cars never returned to Daytona.

Over the years Indy cars have raced on many high-banked superspeedways like those in Michigan, Atlanta, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Texas, and California, but fearsome speeds and some bad accidents (and a few spectator deaths too) discouraged the practice from continuing at most of these tracks. Ovals with shallow banking like Indianapolis, Milwaukee, New Hampshire and Phoenix, tend to be the best ovals for Indy cars. The cornering speeds are slower and historically, at least, there were more possibilities for passing and side-by-side racing.

Like most recent 500s this year's 93rd running should be fought-out by the multi-car teams from Penske, Ganassi and Andretti-Green. Former winners Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon are the favorites with Ryan Briscoe and Tony Kanaan also in the mix. Longer shots include Graham Rahal with Newman/Haas/Lanigan, Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick (AGR), Will Power (Penske), Paul Tracy (KV) and Dan Wheldon (Panther).

And like last year, I will join Rick Mears on Saturday, May 23rd for another 'Rick Mears-Thanks' book signing at the Borders on Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis. Rick and I will be at the Borders store at 1 pm for an hour or more. We hope to see some of you there.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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