Is the Indianapolis 500 really a race?

The Indy 500 is spectacular, but is it racing? Strangling innovation in the name of Photo: Tim Kern

WASHINGTON, May 19, 2012 – Indy racing isn’t getting any faster.

The fastest Indy 500 was run 21 years ago. Lest one argue that it was “just a clean race,” let me point out that Arie Luyendyk’s qualifying time would have put him on the fourth row last year! [this year’s field has not yet been set.] Tire technology alone should have given a bigger boost than that. Look at the polesitters’ times, and note how far back you’d have to go (decades) to have a polesitter’s time not make today’s field! The fastest practice times to date in 2012 threaten the 1989 pole speed.

Innovation is gone – illegal — with spec cars and (for years) a spec engine. Virtually all the progress that has been made in the last 20+ years has been poured into safety, not speed. Speed sells tickets to racing events; safety is for little old ladies who drive hybrid SUVs. Worse: the added safety hasn’t made the racing any better. There’s a yellow flag every time someone drops a paper cup (especially if the field is opening up); it’s looking like NASCAR out there, with results almost as preordained.

What about chassis development and innovation? From Harroun’s first racing use of a rear view mirror, to fuel cells, to center-lock wheels, to any of myriad innovations, the chassis designers – from Renault and Miller, through the front-engined “specials,” to the rear-engined breakthroughs, aerodynamic tricks – and front wheel drive, four wheel drive – who says it’s wrong to at least try to go faster?

There will be more engines this year, after years of Honda power. Interestingly, Honda bragged that, in all 198 of its Indy starts, there was never an engine failure during the race. That simply tells me the engines were not producing all the power they could – that racing wasn’t as fast as it could have been. Can we try diesel power, steam power, turbine power again? Offenhauser, Novi, Cosworth? [Interestingly, now that the 2012 rules allow alternative engines, we’ve already had a Honda engine cough in practice. Maybe they’re trying harder. But they’re still not going faster.]

Where’s Mauri Rose, Rodger Ward, Jimmy Clark, Parnelli Jones, the Unsers, Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt (the original)? Where is the driver/character that someone can identify with? Where are the heroes? (Yes, I agree: Danica is hot. But she was also – much more importantly — fast.) Why is my driver better than your driver – and who the heck is that obscure, well-mannered rich kid?

No; innovation and risk-taking are outlawed. Safety is now the great god of racing.

What all this expensive, distracting added safety has done, however, is to have allowed less-qualified drivers to compete. That, too, means that the truly talented “hero driver” has less advantage, and that anyone who can garner the sponsorship can buy his/her way onto a team – and if there’s enough money, Mr/Ms No-talent can often make the field (and that’s not safe, either). With everybody equal and nothing new, there’s little of interest; it’s a matter of who has the prettiest car and a connection to the TV producer’s friends, or a Penske pit crew.

It’s no longer about going fast; it’s about “leveling the playing field” (by dimming the potential of the brightest stars) and delivering “safe entertainment” to the television audience. The Indianapolis 500, like most “racing” (except some classes of air racing) has become merely a spectacular parade.

I love racing, but I don’t think parades are very exciting. Racing is about going ever-faster; parades show off the floats for the cameras.

True: the overall payoffs have gone down, in relation to the expense of entry. Could it be that fewer people are interested in putting money into today’s racing because it’s not really a contest of innovative, skilled, brave souls, all trying to go faster than the next skilled soul? Is it true that “racing” is just another advertising delivery system (and a complicated one, at that)? Perhaps racing isn’t differentiated enough from other forms of advertising; perhaps all the sameness makes it less interesting.

Ideas? There are a bunch of them: open up the cars, aerodynamics, engines, drive systems, fuel capacity and burn rate, but limit the number of tires each team could use, so the race is focused back on the track rather than on the pits, the rules, and the speed limits. (Bobby Unser, I believe, was the last winner to run the whole race on one set of tires.) Or open up everything except the outside dimensions of the cars and the total amount of fuel used. Or make anything legal, but set a car “claiming price” of $500,000. There are plenty more ways to allow technology to have something to do with actually going faster, which is whatracing is all about.

Safety, on the other hand, is relatively easy to achieve. As the great driver of 50 years ago, Sir Stirling Moss, famously said, “If you want to be safer, go slower.”

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Tim Kern

Tim Kern taught economics for fifteen years, and discovered that understanding life is easy; it’s recognizing reality that takes practice. He holds a music degree, and later earned an MBA in finance from Northwestern University. He has lived across the US, and now makes his home in Anderson, Indiana.

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