STYRING: Return the Indy 500 to its glorious roots

July 14, 2012

Bill StyringOn June 17, Audi won the 24 Hours of LeMans auto race. The German company has now won 11 of the last 13 at LeMans.

What’s remarkable is that the winning car was a gasoline-electric hybrid. Not some variety of the standard internal combustion engine that has been with us since Henry Ford first turned a wrench.

Which got me thinking about our own favorite race, the Indianapolis 500.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Carl Fisher and some of his buddies got the bright idea that the flourishing Indianapolis motor car industry needed a test track to try out automotive innovations.

Fisher, et al., gave us the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

For the better part of the century, we got lots of innovation at the Speedway. Some were brilliant. Some bombed.

In 1911, Ray Harroun pioneered the rearview mirror. All the other cars were tandem two-seaters with a “riding mechanic” and a driver. Since mechanics don’t fix much at 80 mph, the riding mechanic was along mostly to look around and warn the driver of other cars.

My dad first took me to the track for Pole Day in 1953. My recollections as a 7-year-old were the strange whine of a supercharged Novi engine, the brick main straightaway, and the fastest car running 136 mph.

But as I grew up and passionately followed the 500, would-be innovators tried lots of things. In 1952, there was a Cummins Diesel Special. It won the pole, but it was heavy, and chewed through a set of the flimsy tires about every five laps.

In 1957, Smokey Yunick tried putting the driver in a Plexiglass pod suspended on spars on the left side of the car. The physics were great. But the driver couldn’t see to the right of the left-front wheel, and if the car spun the wrong way, he would be one smushed cookie.

In 1960, we got this funny little putt-putt called the Cooper Climax with the engine in the back ! How droll. Everybody knew ponies belonged in the front.

Then, in 1967, Andy Granatelli brought a car powered by a turbine (jet) engine. He should have won the race, except a $2 ball bearing failed with a few laps to go.

Suitably terrified, the piston engine mafia changed the rules to choke off the turbines’ air supply. And that was that. (Except that turbines now power M1 Abrams tanks and most Navy surface warships.)

Around 1970, someone had the brainstorm of hanging front and rear wings for down force on those cute little rear-engine cars, which by now had more muscular engines. Speeds began jumping 10 mph per year.

Around 1990, another genius thought you could get more down force with less drag with properly designed wind tunnels (venture effect) underneath the car’s body. Speeds went up another 10 mph.

Since then? How much innovation besides a tweak here and there? Not much.

From 2003 until this year’s race, everybody had a Dallara chassis and a Honda engine. This year, everybody had a Dallara chassis and Honda or Chevy engine (not counting two total flop Lotuses).

Speeds? Not much change in a decade. In fact, top speeds are almost 10 mph slower than set during the Arie Luyendyk era. Remember him?

What if we were to go back to Carl Fisher’s original plan? Use the IMS as a true experimental track?

Here are the rules. Cars can be only X inches wide (need that for rows of three at the start). Cars can be only Y inches long (need that for safe passing).

Wheels must touch the ground. I’ll draw the line with hovercraft.

Beyond that—have at it, boys and girls.•

• Styring is an economist, a former Indiana Chamber of Commerce lobbyist, and a former senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Send comments on this column to


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