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 TrackSideOnline.com.
Used with permission.)
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.