Friday, May 21, 2010

Missing the old Indy 500, but race still thrills

Sacramento, California – I’ll head for the Brickyard one more time on May 27, no small thing in my family.

Fresh from World War II and the great naval engagements in the Pacific, my father first attended the Indianapolis 500 in 1946. He passed on his love of the great race to my older brother and myself. For years, we made the 100-mile-or-so journey over to Indianapolis from our home in Dayton, Ohio.

Time and distance have not changed things. On May 30, my brother will sit on that same main stretch where he sat for his first 500 precisely 50 years ago. My first Indy 500 came the next year, 1961. My son will be taking in his 20th race.

And at the risk of sounding ancient, I miss the old days.

I remember when a quarter-million people used to show up for pole day at Indy. You had to fight to get a seat anywhere on the main stretch.

The lure back then was pushing the envelope of speed. The run-up to pole day in 1962 was: My lord, Parnelli Jones could actually break the 150 mph barrier in qualifications!
He did just that.

By 1968, drivers blasted through 170 mph. In 1973, massive wings on the cars pushed qualifying speeds close to 200. It all seemed impossible, and we showed up in speed-obsessed droves to watch it.

Today, of course, the envelope pushing that used to thrill and terrify us has disappeared. In 1996, the last year of turbocharged engines at Indy, there were some who predicted that driver Arie Luyendyk’s record qualifying lap of 237-plus mph and his four-lap average of 236 and a fraction would stand for 50 years.

Alas, that’s probably true. And for me, there’s sadness in that.

Indy was always about speed and laying it out there beyond what seemed possible. When that went away, something was lost. And it went away during a time when NASCAR was making huge advances in TV viewers and track attendance. Now, the only pushing people want to see appears to be two bellyaching NASCAR drivers shoving each other after the race … or on the caution laps, as recently demonstrated in the Nationwide series.

I’m also disappointed that the powers that be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) opted to go back to the one qualifying weekend format. I realize that they’re tweaking things to create drama, and it wasn’t much fun having only two drivers qualify back and forth on the once-exciting last day of qualifying – the so-called “bubble day.”

But I miss the feeling of Indy being a month-long racing festival. The IZOD IndyCar Series fraternity is gathered in Indianapolis anyway. Why not keep two weekends of qualifying? Do you have somewhere better to go? And of course, if qualifying is rained out this weekend (a definite possibility, according to my weather map), then you’ll have cars qualifying on weekdays in front of about 250,000 empty seats.

Too bad.

Alas, Indy is still Indy. Incredible facility and steeped in history. But I miss the old days of new speed records and death-defying bravery. No question, racing at Indy today is much safer than it used to be. Some point to keeping the lid on speeds as a primary reason for that.

I’m not sure that’s true. Technology has made racing safer. As for “too fast,” drivers were saying speeds were too fast when 100 mph laps were being turned at IMS in 1920.

Enough longing for the old days. They’ve been running this race for nearly 100 years now. Might as well enjoy it as it is.


  1. Mark,

    What a post! I have gone to exactly 1 race, 2009, but I am totally hooked. Its the most amazing thing I have seen. Your post reflects some frustration, but once you are here, I bet you will be excited as in years past. Or not...
    I hope to see you when you are in town.

    Don Walker

  2. I don't understand why they went to one weekend for qualifying. Seems like a waste of time in that your there for half a month already. Why not use that time to get people excited as well as qualified. As for speeds, I am sure they will be back testing the limits. The rules that slow the cars down will become outdated, because the technology will advance but the rules won't. It will take time, and not as much as you might think.