How Fast is Fast… How Slow is Slow?

218. Miles. Per. Hour… in 2012. My how things have changed. It seems so slow; last year we were at 224 on pole day; a drop of six mile an hour! And the year before we were at 227. We all remember Arie making the holy grail of qualifying runs in 1996 with a fast lap of over 237 mph. It seems so counter intuitive to think that 16 years later, with the dawn of a new era, we would be shooting for 225 in testing; only to struggle finding enough speed to break 218. Looking at the speed issues from a modern perspective we find that this is an unacceptable situation. However, our historical ocean is very deep and remembering to look down while treading water in the present can be a tough thing to do. This is not the first time we find ourselves in this situation and I guarantee it will not be the last.

Since its inception the speedway has been the home of speed. Every May we descend on it’s sacred grounds to worship and be in congregation with other believers. Speed is why we are all here. From a logistical stand point, the speedway has always been about regulations. Some eras are more relaxed than others, but every race that has been contested on these hallowed grounds have been run to some kind of rule book. The ebb and flow of technical regulations are a culmination of many factors; safety, logistics and political posturing have all played a part in shaping the rules for over 100 years.

From 1911 through 1929, limits on engine displacement were the most constricting aspect of the early years at the Motor Speedway. Thoroughbred machines were the order of the day as there were few limiting factors on how you decided to make it around the 2.5 mile oval. In 1930, the unfortunately named “junkyard” formula was contested for the first time. The name is a story for another day, but rest assured the regulations were more sportscar-like than the dumbing down of the hardware. Pole speed went from 120 mph in 1929 to a sluggish 113 in 1930. A drop of seven miles per hour, or about six percent speed loss.

Those odd ball regulations were phased out through the 30’s and the rules lived in relative harmony until the early 70’s; pole speed was slowly increased as new tricks were learned each year. During this time we saw innovation start to take a stranglehold on the temple of speed.The transition from a tricked out passenger car to roadster was relatively smooth until 1963 when Colin Chapman brought the revolutionary, rear engine Lotus. Between 1963 and 1964, the speedway saw its, at the time,  largest one-year increase in pole speed; 151 mph to nearly 159, a jump of eight mile per hour, or about five percent increase in speed.

An increased mechanical understanding of IMS and new found aerodynamic voodoo saw the pole record broken ten times from 1962 through 1973. In 1972, bolt on wings were officially made legal and we witnessed the largest one year increase in pole speed; a record that stands to this day. Bobby Unser smashed the 1971 record by over 27 mph with a speed of 195.9, or an increase of nearly 14 percent in speed. The contemporary open wheel car had been created, and this is what is ingrained in all of our minds when we think of indycar racing. Technical innovation from the mid 70’s to the early 2000’s was very similar to the roadster era; small innovations found speed and the regulations were used to ensure we did not see speed uncontrollably increase like we did in 1972.

This new regulatory thought process clamped down speed very quickly. 1974 saw the introduction of pop-off valves to limit turbocharger boost, horsepower and therefore speed. Pole speed dropped seven mile per hour and it took the complete repaving of the race track in 1977 to see another appreciable jump in time; ten miles and hour to nearly 199 or about five percent increase. With the introduction of radial tires there was not much innovation left to be had on the rear-engined, winged open wheel chassis. This “golden era” of open wheel racing saw its fair share of aerodynamic and mechanical trickery, but regulations kept these advantages from becoming the must have item or even available for use.

In 1997, when the turbocharged engines and exotic chassis were deemed too fast and dangerous, the IRL formula was created. Arie Luyendyk took the pole with a speed of 218; the very speed the teams recently ran in testing. Arie lost more than 19 MPH; about 12 and a half percent of his 1996 track record speed of nearly 237. The CART formula continued until 2006 when the Lola/Cosworth became the de facto spec chassis. In 2007, the continued semi open development of open wheel cars in North America ground to a halt as both series were now running spec equipment.

The new millennium saw IMS; the temple of speed, content to keep speeds in the mid to upper 220’s. Small variations in pole speed are not uncommon. Fuel, new technology and repaves have seen Pole speed fluctuate from as high as 231 in 2003 to as low as 222 in 2004.

The worship of speed no longer exists in this house. If the unbridled trend of development founded in the early 1970’s continued through today we could very well have seen qualifying speeds at well over 300 mph; that is way too fast. A similar era of technical innovation will never be seen again. In 2001 we even found the physical limit of a human in a racecar when pilots were nearly passing out due to sustained g-loc at Texas Motor Speedway. Indycar racing as it is today is not, and has not been an innovation series since 1997, and neither was absorbed ChampCar with their DP-01.

The 218 that was run on Wednesday is a mere six miles an hour shy of the 2011 pole speed, or about two and a half percent; almost statistically moot. Given that the engine manufactures may have a bit of horsepower in hand and the teams will likely find five miles per hour by simply running in the more favorable conditions of late May; getting to 222 would be nearly unnoticeable. This speed is less than one percent of speed lost from 2011. One percent!

Are we really thinking that one percent means the end of a the series and the death of the 500? It survived the 90’s and I have no doubt it will survive now. Do we really want to go 230 plus right out of the box? If so, we would almost be guaranteed to have regulations enacted to immediately slow the chassis down. We have been given a platform to work on for the next five years. No chassis or engine development is OK; it would not be surprising if the 2012 introduction of an Indy only aerokit added ten miles an hour to the speed. We finally have a set of regulations that has open areas. Its been a while since we could say that. 218, 222, 225 or whatever is within a percent or two of that is a fantastic place to start. We can build, we can overcome, we will enjoy.

Eric Hall

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6 Responses to How Fast is Fast… How Slow is Slow?

  1. jane says:

    Nice job Eric!!

  2. Jeff H says:

    “Are we really thinking that one percent means the end of a the series and the death of the 500? It survived the 90′s and I have no doubt it will survive now. Do we really want to go 230 plus right out of the box?”

    That’s a complicated question. I enjoyed reading the article, as I am not much of an open-wheel historian, and did not realize that there had been times in the past where the lap times had decreased so dramatically. But I’m glad that the article at least TALKS about it because this is the elephant in the room that jumps out at casual fans, while the people closer to the industry seem a little worried about hurting people’s feelings.

    After two races on the “twisties”, I still don’t really “like” the new cars, but there have been a few things about them that I have been impressed with that surprised me. Aesthetically, they are not very appealing, and the engine sound to me is a low grumble, which makes it “sound” slower than the IndyCar engines, which already “sounded” slower than F1 cars. On the plus side, they seem to handle pretty well and are surprisingly durable, able to withstand incidental contact that routinely sent the old cars out of the race.

    But to me, if you’re an IndyCar fan who complains about the lack of ovals, any overreaction to Wheldon’s death, or the sacrifice of sheer horsepower and excitement chasing the pipe dream that open wheel racing can EVER really be totally “safe”…then it strikes me as hypocritical to say that going 6 mph in the wrong direction “doesn’t really matter”. The best drivers in the series are only able to do speeds that Milka Duno was doing a few years ago and getting parked for. That worries me as a fan. And I don’t feel like a simpleton or barbarian for suggesting that it may bother a lot of other fans also.

    • Rick says:

      I guess I’m not understanding how having a 2012 car that’s slower is worrisome. If the sharp end of the field runs speeds equal to Milka’s best, imagine how much slower Milka would be in the DW12. And without a stopwatch in hand or a 2011 Dallara on track with it, can you tell the difference in speed?

      • Jeff H says:

        That’s a fair point. If you showed a single car going around the track at 225mph versus 218mph, no, I probably couldn’t tell the difference and neither can most trained eyes. But you can tell a difference in significant decreases in horsepower when you put the cars in traffic and during passing, and that comes across even on TV. And while I haven’t been to races recently, the IndyCar forums are littered with people who talk about how much less impressive the recent cars are compared to those in the 90’s.

        I think speed matters. Speed is the whole point of racing. A huge number of IndyCar fans scoff at NASCAR because the cars are slower and clunkier, but stock cars can do 200 MPH+, and NASCAR has so many more ovals now, you could make an argument that series is FASTER on average. Engine power may have been rolled back on purpose specifically because of accidents like Tony Renna and Kenny Brack, and that may be a valid reason for so doing. But I don’t think it hurts to acknowledge and discuss what we’re losing at that expense.

  3. Rick says:

    The rule changes in 1974 came after the awful events of 1973. Without doing any research, I’m going to say that the stated reason for the 1997 IRL formula change had more to do with cost than safety. Concussions and back injuries seemed to come weekly in those years…
    It’s my opinion that racing technology reached its absolute peak in 1993. Then, it seemed that Formula 1 was on the cusp of a driverless era of active suspension cars driven around by engineers in the pits. The Toyota-powered Gurney Eagles utterly dominated the IMSA GTP sports car series in what would be its final season.
    It seems that every decade or so racing gets way too far ahead of the curve for its own good. Whether speeds climb too high for the day’s safety equipment or knowledge, or costs escalate until even the world’s biggest corporations are no longer willing or able to play, or the quality of racing deteriorates until fan interest dwindles, something has to be done to shake up the status quo. Often this is new rules. Start all the engineers back on square one and begin the race again. If the speeds drop some, that’s fine. Let new technology catch up with the race cars again. The fan watching on TV likely won’t tell the difference in 1% of speed, anyway.

    By the way, was it Pippa Mann who said that last year that she tested in the 218 range, only to qualify a month later well into the 220s? I don’t doubt we’ll see speeds in the 220s, and won’t be surprised to see this year’s pole speed faster than last year’s.

    • Jeff H says:

      Very interesting perspective about 1993 being the peak of racing. I’m not a great F1 mind, but I just got done watching “Senna” and that gave a good sense of what the computers and the Williams team in particular did to that series, before they made a lot of that assistance illegal in ’94. Sadly, that may have played a role at the tragic weekend in Imola where we lost Ratzenburger and Senna.

      Much like advanced strength training and nutrition hasn’t allowed MLB pitchers to throw noticeably harder than the hardest throwers of the 1960’s did, it may be true that we are at the limits of safety and what the human body will allow in racing. I know there have been concerns about drivers almost passing out from G-forces at tracks such as Texas. But the idea that racing speeds can no longer progress, and may actually regress for safety reasons, is a problem the series. Fans like bigger, faster, more exciting, and the new Chassis/Engine isn’t really any of those. I’m still watching and I hope others do too, but that’s just how I feel.

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