As the speeds at Indianapolis Motor Speedway go up, the track gets smaller.
No, the standard 2 1/2-mile distance hasn’t changed since the old brickyard was built in 1909, but the concept of the rectangular oval with its four distinct turns has been changed into a horseshoe-like course with two long, continuous turns.
“When we went up to 220 (m.p.h.) from 205, it took away the short chutes,” explained Al Unser Jr., one of the favorites for the pole in today’s 10-mile qualifying trials for the May 28 Indianapolis 500.
“We used to set up for the first turn and if we had any problems, we could set up again for the second turn, but not anymore. We’re going so fast that you’d better be thinking about the second turn before you ever get to (Turn) One, or it’ll be too late.”
The short chutes that Unser believes have disappeared are 660 feet long and are connected to two 3,300-foot straightaways by 1,320-foot corners that are low-banked at slightly more than nine degrees.
Speeds have escalated so fast that it is almost an absolute certainty Rick Mears’ year-old records of 220.453 m.p.h. for one lap and 219.198 for four laps will be wiped out in today’s speedfest.
Despite one day of snow, another of rain, and winds that gusted up to 24 m.p.h. most of the week, 12 cars have unofficially bettered Mears’ one-lap record since the track opened a week ago.
Mears put the capper on the week late Friday with a 226.231 m.p.h. run in one of Roger Penske’s Chevrolet-powered machines and said he expects to do as well or better today. He may need it. Scotland’s Jim Crawford was only a tick slower at 225.960 m.p.h. in drag-race champion Kenny Bernstein’s Buick-powered Lola.
If weather conditions are ideal today--cool, overcast and no wind, as it was Friday--predictions are for laps as fast as 228 or 229 m.p.h.
“A lot will depend on the balance (of the car), the heat and the tires, but yes, I think we can do it,” Mears said.
“We’re going 233 to 234 on the straights, so it will depend on how we get through the corners. Our car is definitely not at its limit yet, as far as potential is concerned.”
The major reasons for the speed increase are a new racing surface, improved tires, another year of engine development and ever-changing chassis technology, chiefly in the area of aerodynamics and ground effects.
Mario Andretti, who has been racing at Indy since 1966 and has been the fastest qualifier four times, believes the resurfacing has added three miles per hour to lap speeds. Andretti only sat on the pole three times, however, because in 1976 he set the qualifying record on the second weekend after Johnny Rutherford had already clinched the pole.
“It’s faster, definitely, but it’s taken some getting used to because all the old landmarks are gone,” Andretti said. “We all had our targets in and out of the corners to judge our line and measure our performance. So, we’ve had to learn new points of reference.”
This is the first time that the entire track and the pits have been repaved since the 1977 race.
Improvement in the turbocharged Chevy V-8 and development of a new Buick 3300 engine, a turbocharged V-6 production stock-block model, have been another contributing factors.
The Chevy, designed and built in England by Ilmor Engineering, is being used by the Penske group of defending 500 winner Mears, national champion Danny Sullivan and four-time winner Al Unser; the Haas-Newman tandem of father Mario and son Michael Andretti; plus Emerson Fittipaldi and Unser Jr.
Sullivan will be missing today, however, when qualifying begins. He is not expected to be released until Sunday from the Methodist Hospital, where he was taken Thursday after crashing during practice.
“My arm is pretty sore,” Sullivan said after surgery for a broken forearm. “Other than that, I’m OK. I’ve been resting most of the day. The doctors say I should be cleared to run for next weekend. That sounds pretty good to me.”
The Chevrolets are expected to be the chief contenders for the pole, although the Buicks, particularly Crawford, may be surprise challengers as they were in 1985 when Pancho Carter and Scott Brayton put Buicks in the first two spots on the front row.
“We are thinking seriously about winning the pole,” Crawford said. “In fact, we’ve been thinking about it for two months. We laid out a plan, went through the stages of that plan and here we are. Circumstances were such that we didn’t have to vary our course that much from the one we had laid out.”
Bernstein’s effort with Crawford is for one race only, the Indy 500.
“I would like to drive in other races, but for now the plan is to concentrate all year on Indy, so that’s how I’m approaching it,” Crawford said. “It would be nice to test our car on the track with other drivers, but we’ve learned a lot in our practices.”
The two General Motors manufacturers are using different methods in providing and preparing their Indy-car engines.
All the work done on the Chevy engines is done by Ilmor or Chevrolet engineers and mechanics. No one on the Penske, Haas-Newman, Pat Patrick or Rick Galles teams are allowed to touch or tamper with the engines.
“One of our team is there every time they start up one of our engines,” said Mario Illien, one of the engine designers, “so there is no reason to have someone else work on the engines. We know what we expect from them and we know how to respond to them.”
The Buicks, on the other hand, are farmed out to teams who modify and rebuild the power plants to their specifications. Bernstein’s King Racing engineers are preparing engines for Crawford and Brayton. Vince Granatelli for Tom Sneva and John Andretti, and Fisher Engineering for Gary Bettenhausen and Gordon Johncock.
“We aren’t entirely on our own,” Bernstein explained. “We do what the Buick engineers want, but we like our hands-on policy. We do our own wind-tunnel work and get a better feeling of where we’re headed.”
Today’s time trials, which are expected to draw a crowd of more than 200,000 to the Speedway, have become an event in itself. The winner’s purse of $150,000, thanks to a $100,000 award from PPG Industries initiated this year, was exceeded last year by only three races.