Letters and Opinion

Indy 500 needs a dose of speed

May 21, 2011

[In response to Bill Benner’s May 9 column] I have a disturbing thought that could be answered by the Indy Racing League in a positive way. Basically, it’s this little problem: Indy racing isn’t getting any faster.

The fastest Indy 500 was run 21 years ago. Look at the pole sitters’ times, and note how far back you’d have to go (decades) to have a pole sitter’s time not make today’s field!

Innovation is gone—illegal—with spec cars and a spec engine. Virtually all the progress that has been made in the last 20-plus 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; it’s looking like NASCAR out there, with results almost as preordained.

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. I love racing, but I don’t think parades are very exciting. Racing is about going ever faster.

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, but just another advertising delivery system (and a complicated one, at that)? Perhaps racing isn’t differentiated enough from other forms of advertising.

Where are 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? Why is my driver better than your driver—and who the heck is that obscure rich kid?

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 $250,000. There are plenty more ways to allow technology to have something to do with actually going faster, which is what racing is all about.

Long live real racing!

____________

Tim Kern

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