Friday, April 20, 2012

On Engines And Qualifying At Indianapolis

With the initial entry list out for the Indianapolis 500, I thought it might be time to go over some of the things we’re starting to hear from fans in regards to this year’s qualifying. There’s an expectation that Lotus will really need to fight to find the pace this year. Honestly, with the new car, they might not be alone. I think we’ll see a definite, pronounced grouping of have and have-nots, as some teams really ace it on setup, while others are never really going to find that comfort zone.

If teams or a driver struggle, you’re going to hear folks bemoaning what an uncompetitive field we’re having at the 500 this year. If a team like Lotus can’t control their gremlins and do qualify 10 mph off the pace, the usual talking heads will complain on how unprecedented it all is, and what a disaster it must be.

Again, history is here to help educate us. Having fields with disparate speeds is nothing new, dating back to the classic and iconic races of years ago. To help illustrate, I started with 1964, one of the truly iconic races in Indy 500 history. That year, Jim Clark won pole position with a 4-lap average of 158.288 mph. The slowest qualifier? That would be Bill Cheesbourg, nearly 10mph slower at 148.711 mph. Cheesbourg actually finished ahead of Clark (P16 vs. P24, after Clark has suspension issues).

Let’s fast forward ahead 10 years, to 1974. AJ Foyt sat on the pole, with a top speed of 191.632 mph. The slowest qualifier was Larry Cannon, who made it in with a 173.963mph average. Yes, that's a difference of over 17 mph! Of particular note was Jim McElreath, who qualified 30th over 14 mph off the pole average, but finished P6 during the race.

For the sake of argument, let’s move ahead 10 more years, to 1984. Tom Sneva was the pole sitter with a 210.029 mph average, and the slowest was Chris Kneifel, with 199.831 mph on his 4 laps. (Curiously enough, after mechanical issues, Sneva would finish P16, one spot behind Kneifel).

We can move onto 1994, where Al Unser, Jr. won from the pole with a 228.011 mph average, but rookie Bryan Herta was slowest at 220.992 and still grabbed a Top 10 finish. Even as late as 2004, there was almost an 11mph difference between the fastest and slowest car.

It's a brand-new set of challenges at Indy this year.
(Credit: Eric Schwarzkopf. Courtesy
Used with permission.)
So yes, we probably will see some speed discrepancies—certainly, it’s doubtful we’ll see the whole field cloistered around, say 220 mph. And yes, we’ll see some engines grenade during the month, just as they have for over 100 years. That isn’t some woeful low—it’s part of development and competition. Perhaps all the trial, error, and inequalities equal a race where there are only a half-dozen cars on the lead lap at the end. It’s a different style of racing, but one that’s done pretty well for a majority of the years folks have been making the trek to Speedway. Having said that, we simply don’t know what to truly expect, do we? This is Indy, after all.

Shocking as it sounds to the casual ear, winning the Indianapolis 500 has never been purely about speed. If it were, we’d have far more than 21% of all Indy 500 victories occurring from the pole. The race is not only given to those who are fast, but those who play it smart, plan the right strategies, stay out of trouble, and nurse their equipment home over 500 miles. We are entering into a new, old, era, where mechanical and engine reliability will be especially tested with a new chassis, new competing engines, and a fresh start after eight years of development on the previous car.

We can predict all we want about how we’ll see a few Lotus cars fighting for scraps, but how quickly we forget one of the biggest lessons Indianapolis offer us: nothing can be taken for granted. Consider Sebastian Saavedra qualifying with a startup Bryan Herta team in 2010, or Pippa Mann beating the naysayers in 2011 with a struggling Conquest team. Certainly the engine situation is different this year, but when it comes to Bump Day and the Indy 500 itself, the only thing we know for certain is that 33 cars will again take the green flag to start the race.

This year’s Indianapolis 500 will play out differently from the 500s of previous years. But it’s still the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, at the World’s Greatest Race Course. Some things, you see, don’t change.


  1. Good post. The amazing thing about Indy is that no matter the controversies or concerns surrounding it over the years about "whatever" subject is popular at the moment, in the end it is always exciting, dramatic and a great show. It's been that way for 100 years and will be that way for another 100 (or more).

  2. Very true! It'll be exciting to see how this year plays out, as always!

  3. Your post alarmed me. Because I just realized how infected we all have become with the last decade of spec-car racing. Surely, it did tighten up competition, but it really got us away from everyday aspects of racing, which now most of us are annoyed about enough to say something (i.e. unreliable engines, issues setting up cars, and etc.). I also realized, I am glad we are here again-kudos to Randy Bernard! I sort of chuckle thinking about the responses we will make to the first time we witness the one driver/car who has lapped the entire field because we haven't seen that in what? 15 years? It could happen at this 500...

  4. Oh, we definitely have moved away from it, I think. It'll be very funny to hear some of the responses we hear if it happens this year (I don't think it will, but we'll see!).

  5. W. H. "Skip" FreeApril 21, 2012 at 7:07 AM

    I'm with Townsend Bell on this: Drop the weight and increase the horsepower. These cars need more than 575 hp at Indy (and Fontana). All the "cost containment" stuff is nice, but this is the INDIANAPOLIS 500, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing!! To win this race is to be immortalized FOREVER! To be running at speeds that are 10 - 15 mph slower than 10+ years ago is anathema to the legends of the sport. I get that everyone is concerned about safety, but look how far safety has come since the 70's. Unleash the hounds!

    1. I can definitely appreciate the sentiment, but I think back of all the times average qualifying speed at Indy has actually dropped for whatever reason. In 2013, I think we'll see it start to creep back up. I guess the question is, how far?

  6. Ken @AbuelosDeTraceApril 21, 2012 at 10:35 AM

    Great post and I agree completely! I fondly remember the STP Tubine cars and how they were so much faster than all the other cars with 'normal' engines. They actually changed the rules because they thought it was an unfair advantage to have a turbine. But you know what... The turbine powered cars never won an Indy 500 race! Sure they out ran most everyone on the track, but they couldn't finish the full 500 miles.
    So its not always the fastest car that wins at Indy. There are so many variables at Indy that make it different than running at any other track. It's the car, the pit crew, the driver, the track conditions... and making everything work with the perfect balance of speed, endurance, keeping out of trouble... and luck (yes, I said luck). That's what makes the Indy 500 such a great and unique race!
    Your 21% is refering to the fastest car wining the race, it might be better stated that nearly four out of five times a slower car wins!