Indianapolis 500

A rookie at the Brickyard

After twenty-five years in motor racing, I suddenly found myself a “rookie” — American for a first-timer. I had, in fact, been to the famous track they call the Brickyard once before, but not in the hallowed month of May. Everything felt so different that I really did feel like a newcomer.

The Indianapolis 500 is, after all, the world’s richest motor race, with a total prize fund of $3 million and the largest attendance at around 350,000 — so they must be doing something right. Add to that the fact that all the cars, and all but a handful of the engines, are built in Britain and an interesting experience is guaranteed.

We know American is a different language, so it was not surprising to find various new words which have to be learned too. That prize fund I mentioned is the “purse”, and brakes rejoice in the name “binders” — which makes sense, I suppose.

My first objective was to obtain my press pass. My request had to be written, for in this world of high technology Indy boasts neither a telex nor a fax machine. That was just the first quirk I discovered about a track which has officially registered itself as the “greatest race course in the world”.

To collect my credential I had to make my way through the Museum. This is not as large as the Donington Collection, but has enough exciting cars to make Tom Wheatcroft reach for his chequebook. I was quickly “processed”, and the chap waved me off rapidly with the classic line “I can see the hunger in your eyes”.

The credential itself was different. There was a gate ticket (complete with a photograph of last year’s winner Bobby Rahal clutching the oversize trophy) plus a press pass, and a small metal pin badge. On race-day the badge had to be worn with the pass, on other days the badge by itself was fine.

Incidentally, after the race I witnessed Andy Granatelli of STP fame attempt to enter the paddock, or “Gasoline Alley” as it is known, without the badge. Although his cars have won the race on several occasions and his large bulk is nationally known, I was amused to see him barred entry until he produced that tiny piece of metal. Also barred was anyone wearing shorts. I am not sure if this is prompted by tradition, or by the possibility of having legs burned by a methanol fuel fire.

I arrived on the Friday before the race, which at a Grand Prix (Monaco excepted) would have been in time to catch all the action. In fact I missed everything except the race. The event lasts for a complete month. It commences with testing, then the two weekends prior to the race are given over to qualifying. The only other chance for teams to test is on Thursday’s “carburation day”.

That over, you have to be ready to race. On Sunday the cars sit on the grid for an hour, follow the pace car for two slow laps, and the next thing they know they are lapping also average 200 mph with 500 miles in front of them. There is no morning warm-up session. When I visited the track five years ago I was very disappointed by Gasoline Alley; it was a collection of small, shabby garages. But three years ago they were torn down and several blocks of impressive workshops built. A small racing team could run very successfully out of one all year round. For the bigger teams it is home for a month.

The fee you pay to enter a car for the race also pays for the garage rent. Each car is a separate entry, so each T car, as we would call it, has to be separately qualified and earns itself a workshop. Apart from all mod cons the workshop comes with an outside sign which the teams have painted up, including their final qualifying speed.

Can you imagine the Williams pit at Brands Hatch having a sign with Nigel Mansell’s name elaborately painted on it, together with “1min 12.435 sec”? In fact “Joe the signwriter” and “Ethel the embroiderer” seem to be the most popular people at Indy. Everywhere you look you see signwritten cars, signwritten tool-kits, signwritten fuel bowsers and goodness knows what else.

On race-day itself, everyone who is anyone is dressed in nomex overalls. I mean everyone: drivers’ wives, mechanics, television crews. radio commentators, and even the team’s PR people. Can you imagine Anthony Marsh in nomex? Fortunately the embroiderer had been at work. They all had their names on them, so I was able to make sure the person I thought was Gordon Johncock was not actually his mechanic or nutritionist.

Once in Gasoline Alley I was soon bumping into familiar faces working in the garages, all wanting to know the latest Formula One gossip. Vince Granatelli’s new team is run by Morris Nunn of Ensign fame; Derrick Walker, who was a Brabham mechanic, is now Roger Penske’s right hand man; Teddy Mayer was also in the Penske pit, while Tyler Alexander (formerly of McLaren and the ill-fated Beatrice team) was looking after Mario Andretti in the Team Haas pit, along with engineer Adrian Newey. But there was no sign of March owner/designer Robin Herd. He had done his job, and decided to take part in a small British rally rather than watch the 27 March cars in the 33-car field.

Amongst the drivers there were familiar faces too. Mario Andretti was in pole position, and it is sobering to report that he is now a grandfather. Emerson Fittipaldi is one of the leading contenders, and as charming as ever, while Derek Daly is quite a local personality. Just like the Ensign days, Roberto Guerrero was driving for Mo Nunn.

There was Davey Jones, the young American who crashed a few British Formula 3 cars years ago. He qualified at 208 mph without crashing, which must prove something. From a decade earlier I bumped into another F3 renegade, Randy Lewis, who was one of many to sleep on my floor fifteen or so years ago. Lewis, Jones and Fabrizio Barbazza, who was a star of Italian F3 just three years ago, were all, like me, rookies. Danny Sullivan, formerly of Team Tyrrell, won the race two years ago so he is an established Indy name. Sadly the only Briton, Jim Crawford (briefly a Team Lotus driver), was in hospital with leg injuries following an accident as he attempted to take pole.

Indeed Crawford, whose March had a Buick stock-block engine, was favourite to take the top spot. Although Indy is part of the PPG Indycar series, it is not organised by CART (which runs all the other races in the series) but by USAC. Their rules are slightly different, and allow the stock-block engines to run more boost than true racing engines such as the Cosworth DFX and the Ilmor Chevrolet. So Indy is the one race where the Buick has a theoretical power advantage.

After a tour of the garages, I thought I would visit the pits — literally just a wall with grandstands behind, as is the practice with most race tracks in the States. That signwriter had been at it again, and each piece of wall had the name of the driver written on it. I was surprised to see that cars of the same team are not grouped together. Derrick Walker told me the pits are assigned partly on driver preference and partly on qualifying. Each car has a separate team manager, as apparently it is impossible in the race for one man to manage more than one car. This is because of the yellow light system.

The yellow light is used every time there is a spin, someone stops on the circuit or a piece of bodywork drops off. As far as I could gather this happens whether or not there is any danger, and I rather suspect it is used to make the race more exciting. Under the yellow, all the cars close up and follow a pace car. No overtaking is permitted, but they are released as a pack when it is safe for the pace car to pull off again. It must be very frustrating for drivers who are doing well. This year on several occasions Andretti had pulled out a sizeable lead over his nearest pursuer, only to have it completely wiped out by a yellow light.

If the yellow light comes on, the team manager has to make an instant decision whether to bring his car immediately into the pits or let him do one more lap. It all depends on his driver’s relative position to the overall leader and the start line. A wrong decision can win or lose a race. Needless to say the team managers are connected to their car and to fellow team managers by radio.

The race is more than three hours long, so strategy and team work come into play. Before the race most teams anticipated making six or seven pit-stops for fuel and tyres. In reality, they usually come in every time there is a yellow light. If you have made a pit-stop a lap before a yellow light then it is hard luck.

The hysteria built up on the Saturday, with many of the fans camping out along the main road (17th Street) leading to the track. Their behaviour, quite frankly, made one ashamed to be a member of the human race. The more dedicated fans, however, were inside, visiting the museum or taking a bus ride round the track. A normal admittance ticket also gives access to the centre, and the fans, while not able to get right into Gasoline Alley, could certainly get quite a close view of the cars, and also walk along the hospitality unit row and perhaps see a favourite driver.

One thing that was not different from Formula One was the fact that Marlboro had the biggest hospitality unit. This was a magnificent establishment complete with its own satellite dish. Ian Dunn, who runs the unit, told me that at Phoenix they were able to pull down Brazilian Grand Prix pictures from the amazing bird in the sky. Most of the journalists sat and watched as Alain Prost did his stuff. I marvel at modern technology.

The Indy 500 starts at 11am, and I was advised to be at the track by 6am. The giant stands progressively filled up with over a quarter of a million spectators, and when full they were quite a sight. Apart from the 3-hour race, the fans do not get a lot for their money. A few marching bands, a parade of lesser stars in saloon cars, renderings of the Star Spangled Banner and Down Home in Indiana and that’s your lot. John Webb could teach them a thing or two.

But the fans obviously go home happy, for many book from one year to another. A couple of British enthusiast friends visited the race this year and found that all tickets had been sold out for months. They had to resort to buying from a tout whose price for a $50 seat was eventually knocked down to $130. All the local hotels and motels double and even triple their normally cheap room rates.

As a rookie, my press credential gave me only restricted access. I was able to work in the press room next to Gasoline Alley but not in the smaller room overlooking the course. I was able to walk inside the spectators area on the inside of turns one and two. There is no doubt I would have been better off in a grandstand seat. After watching the first half of the race from turns one and two I decided to switch to the press room and the TV monitor, plus the local radio report.

Cars romping down the straight at 220 mph and hitting the 9° banked turns at 200mph are quite a sight. In the race, Andretti in the Lola-Chevrolet was in a class of his own. The only man remotely in the same league was Guerrero. Sadly, in the closing stages Mario’s car suddenly suffered from an engine problem which was in turn caused by a fuel system malfunction.

It appeared the race had been handed to Guerrero on a plate. Almost immediately, however, the Granatelli March made a final pit-stop, the clutch dragged, the car stalled, and instant fame for Guerrero evaporated. There to pick up the pieces after almost two-thirds of the field had dropped out was 48-year-old Al Unser Senior. It was his first race of the year and he was driving the third Penske entry, a year-old March-Cosworth, which he took over at the last minute because Danny Ongais was injured. It was like Keke Rosberg suddenly being hired by McLaren to driven third car, but a previous year’s model, and winning Monaco. As I said, Indy is different.

It is a race every motor racing enthusiast should visit at least once. Like the Monaco GP and the Le Mans 24 Hours, it is more than just a race. In addition to the 500, I went to a terrific sprint car meeting at the Indianapolis Fairground on the Friday night. Three of the drivers racing at Indy were there in these staggering 600 bhp, 6ft wheelbase, front-engined monsters. The spectacle of over 20 of them racing on the one-mile dirt oval takes your breath away.

There was a Midget car and Super Vee race on the Saturday evening at another track (paved this time) called Indianapolis Raceway Park, and on the Sunday night I found a real grass-roots quarter-mile oval at Kokomo, 30 miles north of Indy, where the racing (and the commentary) were great. Four race meetings in three days!

Next year I will not be a rookie, and I will try to find a cheaper hotel twenty miles out of town!   AM