Monday, May 16, 2016

“It’s a new track record!”
A commentary with historical perspective

By now, you have probably heard or read that all the grandstand tickets for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500-mile race on May 29 are sold out. After a week of practice, the entrants will qualify for the starting field this weekend.
It will be interesting to see if attendance at the two days of time trials exceeds the weak turn-out for the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis which was run on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 14.
The author recalls that during the nineteen seventies and eighties, the crowd at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first day of time trials rivaled the crowd for the ‘500’ itself. The likelihood of that happening in 2016 is between slim and none - for one reason: lack of speed due to the stifling of innovation by the current INDYCAR rules package.  
Instead of innovation, INDYCAR established a set of rules to create a level of perceived excitement for time trials by forcing racers to run twice to qualify for the '500.' 

The qualifying procedure for the 2016 Indianapolis ‘500’ courtesy of the IndyCar website:

Saturday Qualifying – Will determine all 33 positions in the field based on the fastest four-lap averages. All entries are guaranteed at least one four-lap attempt to qualify. The fastest nine entries advance to the “Fast Nine Shootout.”

Sunday Qualifying – Held Sunday early afternoon to determine positions 10-33 in the field based on fastest four-lap average. All times from Saturday are erased and cars will run in reverse order based on Saturday qualification speeds. All cars must complete another four-lap attempt to determine their starting position.

“Fast Nine Shootout” – Held Sunday afternoon after Positions 10-33 have been determined. The top nine cars will run in reverse order based on Saturday’s qualification times. All cars are required to make at least one attempt. At the end of the session, the cars are ranked 1-9 based on their four-lap average during the segment.


The current 4-lap track record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway of 235.986 miles per hour was set by Arie Luyendyk on May 12, 1996. You read that right- the current track record was set over twenty years ago!  There is little probability that the current crop of be-winged DW12 chassis will approach Luyendyk’s record, and that's a problem in the author's view.

The longest previous period between new track records was twelve years during the Speedway’s dark ages of Eddie Rickenbacker’s  “Junk Formula” rules package from 1928 to 1939. There have been four times when four years passed between records being broken- in the immediately postwar period of 1946 to 1950, after the tragic events of 1973, the cars were slowed until 1977, then for another four-year period after Tom Sneva broke the magic 200 MPH barrier in 1978, and four years after Roberto Guerrero set the standard of 232 MPH in 1992.   

Looking back to events of 1996, which was the first year of the Championship Auto Racing Teams CART-Indy Racing League (IRL) split - the CART teams boycotted the ‘500,’ and the new stock-block powered IRL cars were not ready, so teams competed with a mix of older Lola and Reynard chassis.
On the first day of qualifying, first Davy Jones, then rookie driver Tony Stewart broke Guerrero’s four year old track record. Arie Luyendyk then set a new four-lap standard of 233.350 MPH, but his run was disqualified after the track closed when his Reynard 95I was found to be seven pounds underweight.   

Luyendyk returned the next day, May 12, and re-qualified and set a new one-lap record on each of the successive laps with his best lap of 237.498 MPH and a four-lap average of 236.986 MPH in a run that took just over 2-1/2 minutes to complete. Because his run came on the second day, Luyendyk started twentieth, and he finished the ‘500’ in sixteenth place after being involved in an accident.

The current Indianapolis Motor Speedway track record is so old, that all of the drivers in the race, except the 1995 ‘500’ winner Buddy Lazier and pole-sitter Tony Stewart are retired and Stewart hasn't appeared at the Speedway in an INDYCAR since 2001.  
It is past time for INDYCAR to prove how technologically advanced the series can be by opening up the rulebook to innovation, which will bring new track records and big crowds for time trials.