The Speed Show

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For 2 hours 41 minutes and 18. 248 seconds the 74th running of the Indianapolis 500 gave over 400,000 spectators the most glittering display of sustained speed that I have witnessed. Even amongst hardened Indy onlookers the 185.984 mph pace of Arie “Dutch Boy” Luyendyk was something special. For a European watching his first “500,” and the first Common Market citizen beating the Americans since Graham Hill won in 1966, it was a truly memorable racing day. A feast of speed put truly into perspective when you recall Monaco ran the same weekend at an average 100 mph less (for pedants, Senna’s average was 85.75 mph). For Europeans it may also come as something of a surprise to find that Monaco is the younger event, first held in 1929, whilst the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has hosted a motor race since 1911.

That inaugural event took driver and riding mechanic Harroun/Patschke 6 hours 42 minutes for an average 74.5 mph in their Marmon and netted them a worthwhile 1911 reward of $14,000, figures to bear in mind when you learn that the 1990 victor netted $1.1 million directly at the Monday evening giant prizegiving.

Arie Luyendyk, who came across as a thoroughly modest and straightforward driver beneath those flowing locks, can expect “between $3 and $4 million when all advertising endorsements and bonus monies are paid,” said one expert. Not bad for a man who had never won either a USAC or CART sanctioned major event in 75 outings, but who was an IMSA sports car victor for Nissan in 1989 and last won a single-seater event in Formula Super Vee, circa 1984.

Speed and money are the factors that make glamorous headlines and draw the world’s largest single day sports crowd. This year’s event had an abundance of both, fortunately without injury in the hideous high speed crashes that drivers also know are an inevitable part of the Indianapolis qualification and racing process. This year pole position went to 1989 PPG Indy Car Champion and 1989 Indianapolis 500 victor Emerson Fittipaldi, who you may remember better as a double World Champion in Lotus (1972) and McLaren (1974) products.

The swiftest speed? The man they call “Emmo” in the USA after six years of the best paid comeback in motor racing history averaged 225.301 mph. This for a quartet of laps around the 2.5 mile lap of a track that contains four 1/4 mile corners banked at fractionally over 9 degrees apiece. Now 225 mph sounded pretty nippy to me as a pole position lap, but the Penske team who run Fittipaldi these days with manager Teddy Mayer, expressed mild disappointment with their performance, feeling that high humidity sapped the performance of the Ilmor Chevrolet V8 from Brixworth, Northants.

Marlboro Penske had to wait for subsequent qualifiers in a second weekend to see if they could retain pole, but a combination of extraordinary rain, (they registered over 7 inches during the qualifying period of May) and the fact that nobody else could summon any more speed from the only engine to have amongst customer choices, (all but the Fabi Porsche were Chevrolet engines in the top ten for 1990 qualifying) kept them the premier spot. Fittipaldi and Penske had in mind a 227/8 mph average in a year when the CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams inc) regulatory board had planned to slow things down a little via aerodynamic restrictions. In fact the average speed registered for the 33 car grid was 217.437 mph, a new record that progressed nearly 1 mph over the 1989 figure.

But the statistics of speed do not tell you what it is like to drive or witness such velocities. Eddy Cheever, possibly one of the most experienced “Rookies” Indianapolis will ever see, allowed me an insight gained from the cockpit of his 1989 Penske PC18-Chevrolet. Relaxed in the cooler air of the purpose-built concrete garage, one of many that replaced the original wooden stabling only five years ago, Cheever said flatly, “the first time you go out in one of these things it’s like flying low in an F16 jet plane . . . . but you soon get used to it. I’m almost embarrassed to say I do enjoy it, it’s a lot of fun. At least it is when the car is going right, otherwise it’s the most hair-raising driving I know.

“These cars are fantastically sensitive to minor changes; just a 1/4 degree on a geometry set-up can throw you clean out of the ball park. Then there’s the wind. We’ve had a lot of that in the past month and it makes driving round here spooky.”

Eddie had tried all sorts of tricks from a varied driving career to settle quickly into his new American career including left foot braking his way around Indianapolis to record, “a 216 mph lap, but the brakes were smoking like hell when I came in!”

The objective is to balance the car so well — using specialist aids like tyre “stagger” (unequal circumferences side to side) — that it runs all the corners flat out. It is left to nearly 4g (Porsche report 3. 85) cornering force and friction to scrub straightline speed from “over 240 mph” to record routine 220 mph quick laps amongst racing front runners. The elite will be running their llmor Chevrolets to 12,000 rpm and more for the best part of 3 hours.

In the CART Media Guide Bobby Rahal, who fought out the 1990 event with Luyendyk in an attempt to repeat his 1986 Indy win, summarised many of the feelings also expressed by Cheever and other drivers who come from road racing. “The first time I drove on a superspeedway I couldn’t believe it. Nothing, and I mean nothing, I’d done in road racing prepared me for the intensity and sheer speed of the experience. I’d driven at Le Mans at those speeds, but that was going down the straight, and no way is it anything like what those guys were up to. It takes time for any driver to build up to that kind of speed and to that level of concentration.

“On a road course if you make a mistake you can get into serious trouble, but usually there are some options and some room. And usually you can drive your way out of it. On the oval the consequences are immediate and usually catastrophic,” recalled Rahal. Cheever added, “The driving standard amongst the first five in Indy cars is very high,” but he noted, “There is a wider gap in ability from that point to the back of the grid than there is in Formula 1, where the whole grid is of a very high standard.”

Turning to the cars themselves Eddie pointed out, “The designers have to be careful not just to make the car for the ovals,” for these form less of the current 16 race/$20 million PPG schedule than you might expect. The former Fl pilot felt the Indy cars were, “a little cumbersome on road courses. There they are definitely not so quick or nimble as an F1, which is understandable when you think they weigh at least 1550 lbs. Sure the engine has 800 bhp, but it is a turbo engine and needs time to build up that power on a road course.”

Eddie Cheever added a chilling dimension when he stated, “you are dog meat if you hesitate,” whilst recalling how he managed to avoid Jim Crawford’s accident and consequent aerobatics in qualification. I am glad to say Crawford was not injured on this occasion, but last year’s injuries demanded eight operations for the quiet Scot who is extremely popular in his adopted American homeland. The former Lotus GP driver was back to qualify 30th fastest at 212.2 mph in last year’s outclassed Lola-Buick V6; the sole Briton finished 15th, the last classified runner, unable to lap much beyond 200 mph, never mind the FittipaldVLuyendyk fastest race lap of 40.386 seconds, 222.574 mph.

My chance to watch Dutchman Luyendyk overturn the American racing establishment and win his first race in the PPG (Pittsburgh Plate Glass, not “Penske, Patrick & God” as some spectators would have it!) Indy Car World Series came unexpectedly from Porsche. As you may know the Weissach engineers have been challenging for a place amongst the regular front runners in the USA since 1988, winning their first event (Teo Fabi at Mid Ohio) in 1989 and finishing fourth in the 1989 PPG points. For 1990 former Toleman, Brabham and Benetton Grand Prix driver Fabi was joined in the American series by John Andretti; this member of the Andretti clan the articulate son of Mario’s twin brother, Aldo. Unlike their World sports car approach of creating a complete car, Porsche have reverted to the engine supplier role that earned World Championship honours with McLaren in their TAG era. This reliance upon outside equipment hovered uneasily over their 1990 Indianapolis preparations.

Originally Porsche and March created the first all composite materials chassis for the Indy Car formula but some inter season personnel changes let the secret out of the bag and the opposition cried foul, although the regulations at that point did not specifically ban such a creation. March had to create a last minute hybrid of carbonfibre heart and aluminium sandwich cladding that weighed around 15 lbs more than intended. The March 90P chassis was not available to John Andretti until the month long process of qualifying at Indianapolis had commenced. That hurried 1990 chassis switch also created considerable overtime at Weissach as the engineers (managed at the circuits by the affable Dr Esch) prepared some interim engines for the ’89 chassis to appear in earlier championship rounds with 1990 power unit modifications and pure 1990 units for the 1990 chassis.

The installation differences are significant, for on the 1990 chassis and engine layout the single turbocharger is placed ahead of the 90 degree V8 which means the plumbing of forward facing exhausts is unique to the newer car. The Porsche V8 engine belongs to the majority of current purpose-built racing units now seen in the premier American racing series.

The home grown outsider is the stock block Buick V6, as used by expatriate Jim Crawford and ninth placed Kevin Cogan. Instead of measuring 161.5 cu inches/ 2647cc, the exceptionally short Buick “3300” is allowed up to 209 cu in/3424cc. For this USAC sanctioned event within the CART calendar roughly 10% extra boost is allowed beyond the mandatory 1.52 bar/21.6 psi of the pure racing units, lifting the quoted power from 680 bhp at 9000 rpm to 800 bhp. Not bad for a pushrod six having 2 valves per cylinder.

The aluminium V8 racing units from Porsche, Ilmor Chevrolet, Cosworth (DFS, developed from the now outmoded DFX and DFV family) and Alfa Romeo rev much higher, but do not claim as much racing horsepower as the Buick. Porsche Is at least competitive with Chevrolet; the Germans quote 735 bhp at 12,000 rpm.

Vice President Ian Bisco of Cosworth Engineering, Torrance, California, told us that we can expect Cosworth to be testing a brand new narrow angle V8 by the end of the 1990 season. Paying tribute to the extraordinarily long and successful life of the DFX/DFV family Mr Bisco remembered, “It is important to recall that the DFX was itself a conversion that owes much in size to the 3.9 litre sports racing Cosworth V8s; when it has to race at 2.7 litres, there is obviously room for a more compact design. Furthermore, the DFX started off with a 7:1 compression and was allowed up to 80 inches of mercury in boost; now it lives on in a world where the boost has effectively been halved, to 45 inches of mercury, and the compression is way up at 11:1.”

Porsche quote a 12:1 cr for their 2649.2cc (88.2mm x 54.2mm) eight and the equivalent of 632 lb ft of torque at 9500 rpm. Ilmor Chevrolet do not report output statistics, but do admit to an 11:1 cr for a unit that is within .2mm fractions of the same bore stroke dimensions as the Porsche.

All run 100% methanol fuels and this helps them live under a ban on charged intercooling with mechanical reliability. Fuel consumption equates to about 2 US mpg, 1.8 on shorter ovals.

The Porsche team under the leadership of former Porsche 917 project engineer Helmut Flegl found it hard to smother their reservations over the effectiveness of the Gordon Coppuck-designed March Engineering chassis for this season. For English speaking press conferences there was plenty of talk about potential, but our German colleagues on the Indianapolis trip and an interview with Herr Flegl in Rallye Racing put the blame for poor 1990 performances squarely on the late arrival of the needle nosed March.

It is relevant to note that Alfa Romeo, who shared the 90 degree, 32 valve and quadruple camshaft V8 design parameters with Porsche, Cosworth and Chevrolet blamed their March 90A chassis for their poor performance at Indianapolis. Alfa Corse announced that the Patrick Racing team would be taking delivery of the dominant Lola chassis: three of four top finishers, including the winner, were Lola mounted.

For the 1990 Indianapolis the field used almost enough British chassis and engine equipment to right the balance of payments deficit single-handed. Lola Cars at Huntingdon provided the majority of chassis (21 of 33 starters) and recorded not just a 1-2 victory for Luyendyk some ten seconds ahead of Bobby Rahal, but also all but four of the top ten chassis. After their Eighties success March did not get a finisher with Porsche and the best placed Alfa Romeo was 13th, a severe come down for the 1989 winning team: Patrick Racing.

Penskes also come from Britain (the designer at their Poole, Dorset, base is Nigel Bennett) and they took those other four top ten places and accounted for eight chassis in all.

On the engines’ front it was the same “Buy British” story; Ilmor Chevrolets occupied the first six places; a Cosworth managed seventh and the only unit not Made in Britain was the ninth placed Buick V6 in the Lola of Kevin Cogan.

What happened to the Porsches? I think that must be a question that is occupying the thoughts of those in Porsche high places at present. After the winning promise of late season 1989, it was harsh that the change in chassis engineering plans appears to have put them back in the situation of trying to get back in amongst the true front runners. As noted, Teo Fabi was tenth fastest in qualifying — his lowly grid position a result of Indianapolis qualifying procedure and the loss of an engine to faulty lubrication plumbing. John Andretti was eleventh quickest and the best consistent placing I saw was seventh, a position behind the legendary AJ Foyt and his Lola-Chevrolet.

John Andretti certainly drove a fighting race, frequently in that seventh spot through the multiple pit stops that characterise the event. John covered 135 laps of 200, knocking the car out of the running with closer and closer encounters with the walls that terminated with the inevitable final brush “as the car got looser and looser. All my fault,” he said with the candour that characterises the formula.

Teo Fabi’s precise problems were being analysed by the team under the direction of expat Scotsman Derek Walker (for 14 years the general manager at Penske) as we left the circuit. Mr Walker felt, “There was just no drive from the transmission, but the precise cause has yet to be identified. It was all a bit of a shame today, we should have been right amongst them at the end. It’s the end of a long month for us,” opined Mr Walker.

Indeed it was, John Andretti quipped at the prize-giving: “Our team was usually left to turn the Speedway lights out!” Derek Walker concluded, “this event is really two in one; the first task is to be the fastest sprint car over 4 laps, and the second is to get to stay in the lead bunch, never dropping a lap, to the close of 500 tough miles. We should have been there,” he said with quiet puzzlement.

So should others, for only three cars completed the 500 miles on the same lap: Luyendyk, Rahal and Emerson Fittipaldi. The Brazilian really looked likely to repeat his 1989 win with more laps in front than anybody, until his rear Goodyears started blistering, a not uncommon problem, but one that did not effect the leader in either qualification or a hard race.

There was general criticism that this year’s race was a one-sided affair which allowed nobody a look-in unless they had a Chevrolet branded V8, a facility that is either not offered, or cannot be afforded by all. I expect they were saying the same about the Cosworth a few years back, so for me the memories were all extremely positive.

A number of the European visitors (there were two Britons amongst the predominantly German Porsche party) belonged to the “Been There, seen That, it’s Boring” school of professional observer. One German journalist went so far as to say, “I hope there is a crash soon, nothing is happening.”

I looked out to the speed bowl from the first turn location of this cynical comment. Fittipaldi swooped his white and red Penske down below the inside warning line before ascending in a graceful arc, skimming the wall at 220-230 mph. A shimmering testament to “Man and Machine in perfect harmony” if ever there was one. True, there was never a quiver from the apparently perfect Penske chassis, but the noise of that 12,000 rpm V8, the colour of a packed speedway, and the clamour of more than 400,000 gathered for an unmatched spectacle were a fitting backdrop for the majesty of Fittipaldi’s performance.

The sheer speed of Fittipaldi, Rahal, Luyendyk, plus the father and son combination of Mario and Michael Andretti, are emblazoned across my mind. That dominant Fittipaldi image and the ducking and diving as a squad of front runners peeled off into turn 2 through the back markers (lapping started within eight tours!) are recorded with all the clarity of the best in racing and rallying reportage memories in the past 25 years.

So I did not find the 74th running of the Indianapolis 500 remotely boring, but not all my memories will be of the fastest Indy there has been. Courtesy of Porsche, and more particularly the unremitting hard work of Bob Carlson, PR manager of Porsche Cars North America Inc, I saw a lot more than the fastest race in Indianapolis history (and the quickest race average ever). We also toured the track in a bus in the complete contrast of rain and a 30 mph pace and I visited the Hall of Fame Museum, which is also on the enormous Speedway facility (it also houses a nine hole golf course). The museum was so excellent that I will try and persuade our editorial people to let me have some more space to describe that on another occasion. Meanwhile I will say that it houses a lot more than Speedway memorabilia and machinery: there is a superb collection of Caracciola’s trophies, a Le Mans corner with the Jochen Rindt/Masten Gregory winning Ferrari 250 LM and a fascinating display of engines; my favourite for eye and historical appeal was the green and chrome 1920 Duesenberg inline 8-cylinder. Equipped with three valves per cylinder it developed 125 bhp at 4200 rpm. The comparatively tiny llmor Chevrolet was contrastingly credited with 720 bhp at 11,600 rpm in the 1987 display trim.

Then there were all the parades and prize-giving ceremonies — one a fascinating amalgamation of racing car fan clubs, an idea I have not encountered in Europe. Of the pre-race pomp and show biz I liked the Sheriff’s motorcycling men and their banked “look Mum, no hands,” display over the endless rendition of Back Home in Indiana. When Mary Hulman asked, “Gentleman, start your engines,” it was modestly spoken and an appropriate peak to the pre-race activities that fill much of the time from the 5 am opening of the gates to an 11 am start.

PR Bob Carlson also ensured we understood more about USAC and its traditions by taking us to both a Midget racing night oval meeting, and the ultimate competition for the skilled and brave: racing single-seaters on dirt. Offering nearly 700 proper” Chevrolet V8 horsepower, the best lap speeds were over 108 mph. The dirt racers on full car-torturing cry made even the Group B rallying supercars look tame, but the modest and friendly afficianados of dirt cars allowed that they thought “racing through trees and past mountains, why that is a pretty entertaining idea!”

I found the complete trip entertaining and hope I have managed to transfer some of that feeling into print. Treated as “the trip of a lifetime” it was an experience I would not have missed.

JW

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