Driving over to Chillicothe the other day at 70 mph with a steady breeze blowing out of the northeast that pushed our mid-size sedan around, I found myself gripping the steering wheel all the way east on route 35. Not a white knuckler, but it was enough to make me keep both hands on the wheel, and caused me to think about the upcoming Indy 500 and the strength and endurance it takes for the drivers to handle their cars for 500 miles at high speeds in wheel-to-wheel traffic.
In the 1980’s I drove around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway “500” track several times by sedan and limousine when we were smooching important clients. The “Brickyard’s” two-and-a-half mile oval is broad and smooth and comfortable to drive at 75-100 miles an hour with no other traffic. But I wouldn’t want to be out there with 32 other drivers at speeds over 200 mph. Yet, legendary race driver Mario Andretti (the 1969 winner) told me one day while we were shooting a TV special that once during a race with the early laps out of the way and things settled down a bit, he picked out a woman in a large white hat sitting up in the stands at the first turn as he came down the straight-away and watched what she was doing each time he came around.
I worked for the Hulman-George family (IMS owners) when names like Unser, Rutherford, Foyt, Johncock and Mears became engraved alongside Andretti’s on the sterling silver Borg-Warner trophy. I doubt if any of them really took much time looking at folks in the stands. In fact, I think it may have been one of the Unsers who said, after coming down the front straight-away three-abreast at 200 plus miles per hour early one race, “if there had been a gate in the stands at the turn we would probably have all ended up out on 16th Street.” That’s what brings folks back to Speedway, Indiana each May. The speed, the excitement, the danger, and like it or not, the “crashes,” and, occasionally and unfortunately, death.
Over the years since the early 1900’s there have been 73 deaths at the Brickyard, with 27 of them occurring during testing, qualifying, or during practice. Fortunately, as the years have passed, more and more safety features have been built into the cars and the track itself. Many non-fatal accidents that occur around the track involve a single car going into the wall sideways, often caused by “marbles” – the small balls of rubber that shed from the tires during the race and accumulate along the outer wall of the track. Once a car gets into them going around the turn, a driver can lose control, just like you would if you tried to run on top of a field of moving marbles. So, the drivers actually drive the track not as an oval, but virtually
as a hexagon, cutting across the turn rather than following the curve of the track, which lessens the force that naturally pulls the car toward the wall.
We all know that feeling when driving around a bend in the road too fast.
For patrons, the fastest ride to the track is still available, far as I know, by reserving a police motorcycle escort. Sorta snooty, but it was fun to get together a few cars and be able to legally speed down the left-lanes, sirens blaring, passing the long, long line of cars in the right hand lane impatiently waiting to park near or in the track. We would be inside the track almost as quickly as IMS Board Chairwoman Mary Hulman George could say “Gentlemen and ladies, start your engines.” One word of caution though. When the race is over and nearly a third of a million race goers leave the track together, don’t expect to be home any time soon. Motorcycle escorts only go one way.
I have not been back to the track since I retired. But I do watch the “500” every year from start to finish. It’s in my blood. Most who know anything about racing still believe it’s the world’s greatest race – the granddaddy of them all. Then again, my wife and I have “crewed” on one of the dog sled teams that run the famous “Last Great Race on Earth” – the 1000-mile Alaskan Iditarod from Anchorage to Nome. While it takes just over three-hours to run the 500-mile Indy in machines propelled by 550-700 ‘horses,’
it takes a little over 8-days for the winning musher, pulled by 10-16 dogs, to run twice that distance. And whereas Indy drivers swelter in temperatures of over 100 degrees at track level, mushers (and particularly their dogs who are the true athletes of the sport) aren’t happy unless it’s at least 20-30 degrees below zero. Let’s put it this way. Up there, folks aren’t impressed by what goes on at Indianapolis in May: “Marbles?! Are you kidding? We run on ice … and also have to put up with moose!”
Mel Grossman is a local resident and guest columnist.