Happy Hour, Oh How I Miss You

I know, it isn’t May yet but I cannot help myself from diving into IMS and Indy 500 topics a bit early. Why would it matter? I respect that the Indy 500 and all of the history and mythology that comes with it, but it is not the only thing that makes our series up; nor has it ever. All indycar fans are guilty of being Indy-centric, and with all certainty I am no different, but there is so much more to it than the almost-month-of-May. We have an entire month devoted to one great race and I try to confine my IMS pontification to that single month… Oh well… I wish it was May.

Happy hour; that mysteriously wonderful time at the tail end of practice when everything  works or it doesn’t. You either find those last few tenths or pack it in for the day. That golden final hour; at any facility the story seems to be the same. However, hurling down a 5/8ths mile straight at 220 MPH can have its own nuances. The Brickyard was a different beast after five ‘o clock on any given practice day; especially on qualifying days. The enormous grandstands in turn one and lining the front straight would begin to shade their respective parts of the track; enhancing grip and subtracting lap time.

As the fabled hour wore on, turn four and turn two would begin to shade. Lower and lower the sun would sink on those late May afternoons; longer and longer the shadows would become. The backstretch and turn three would be the final places to see the suns rays before the gun was fired at six PM to close the track. These shadows cooled and stabilized the track surface allowing teams to take as much downforce off of their chassis as they dared; rolling the dice on increased mechanical grip to help them out.

The hour long cooling event wasn’t limited to the track either; the air itself would lose temperature. That cooler, more dense air would be food for the hungry turbos. The air would gain a bit of density as the hour wore on and would allow for more oxygen to be compressed and burned in the engine for even bigger horsepower. Although the cars were aerodynamically trimmed as far as sanity and self preservation would allow, that denser air would help the dangerously low on downforce machines stick through the corner just enough.

Happy hour was truly that. Everything seemed to work better between five and six at IMS. There are pages of speedway lore are filled with 5:59 PM pole day and bump day runs that were only successful because of the happy hour conditions. Dreams were shattered and wishes were granted for many years at Indianapolis during that mystical hour of qualifying. This is part of what drew people into the facility in record breaking numbers; to see if their driver could do it. We knew the fastest times of the day would be set during the final hour. It was a true test of fearlessness.

In 1997, it all started to change. Naturally aspirated engines marked their return to competition in the storied 500 mile race. During the next ten years, the animal that was happy hour changed slightly. No more could engines use massive turbos to force feed compressed air down the engines throats. The new atmosphere breathing engines never saw the same horsepower increases as their turbo fore fathers.

What horsepower was gained by the cool dense air was more than offset by another oddity in the IRL formula. The new engines were a few hundred horsepower down on the outgoing CART equipment from the previous year. This initial loss of horsepower, the bulkier IRL cars and the denser air meant the race machines had a tougher time physically pushing through the cooler air. The two or three horsepower increase just wasn’t enough to make up the difference like in years past.

In 2006, Indiana adopted Daylight Savings Time. Not only did legislature change our clocks, they also forever erased that magical hour in Speedway history; During May, the sun would be rising and setting an hour later than it historically had. No more would we see nearly the entire 2.5 mile oval shrouded in shadow as drivers attempted to sneak into the field or storm to the pole.

There is a bit of shadow that still falls on turn one now, but it’s nothing like it used to be. Veteran fans will tell you the track looks and feels different. It’s not right to watch the final minutes of qualifying tick down while standing on a sunny pit straight. Those shadows and the low sun were as much a part of the setting at the Speedway as the grandstands and pagoda were.

During the ten years precluding this clock shift, the switch to a naturally aspirated engine had more of an effect on the loss of  happy hour than the changing of the clocks. This is more recently evident by fast times being set earlier in the day, before the track has had time to bake in the sun. The atmosphere breathing engines coupled with the IRL chassis did not care for happy hour, nor did they miss is when it was gone.

Our spiffy new DW12’s are a few weeks from hitting the track with their throwback turbo engines in tow. We have no idea how this chassis and engine combo will react to the May weather, but with the dawn of a new era I would really like to see happy hour back. Practice and qualifying sessions always run from noon until six. How about we go from one until seven? Although this is later than the track likes to close, it would recreate a wonderful aspect of the almost-month-of-May that has been lost with history.

Give us that lost hour of shade back… let those turbo’s BREATHE! Logistically, I have no idea what it would take, from a facilities side, to make something like this happen. But I can’t imagine shifting the schedule by an hour would cause much heartache. Of course we have no idea if the added power will be able to push through the denser air, or if the new chassis will react to the same aero tricks that teams used to find speed in the past.

We have had an entire generation of indycar and 500 fans that have never seen a happy hour used like it”s supposed to be. This is a link to the past that is sorely and noticeably missing from the May festivities. But one that is easy to recreate. This isn’t bringing back  roadsters or repaving the apron we’re talking about. This is just pushing back the daily schedule by one hour to bring back a bit of tangible history; a win for everyone. A reminder of treasured times past.

Eric Hall

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2 Responses to Happy Hour, Oh How I Miss You

  1. Great explanation of both the mechanical and the metaphysical aspects of the fabled “Happy Hour.” I miss it, too.

  2. Pingback: What I miss about the Indy 500 « New Track Record

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