And so the 77th running of the Indianapolis 500, the self-proclaimed ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’, is history. It was a remarkable race for any number of reasons, ranging from Emerson Fittitpaldi single-handedly slaying the Ford/Cosworth hordes to Nigel Mansell’s splendid speedway baptism by fire and the astonishing facts that the top six cars were covered by six seconds at the finish, four more were on the lead lap and no fewer than 24 of 33 starters were circulating at day’s end.
Emerson’s second win came as a shock to those who had written off anyone without a Ford in his (or her) engine bay. In retrospect, it’s clear that line of thinking fell victim to a sort of journalists’ Happy Hour’ mentality. Just like the speeds posted in the final, cool hour each afternoon, the practice and qualifying speeds of the Ford contingent, led by Arie Luyendyk, Mario Andretti, Raul Boesel and Scott Goodyear, were largely irrelevant on race day.
As with any oval track, what counts after the first round of pit stops isn’t how a car performs on a clear track, but how well it works in traffic. Passing a competitive car was more of a chore than ever at Indianapolis this year, thanks both to the newly narrowed turns and the smaller wings and ‘strakeless’ underbodies demanded by this year’s rules. Apart from Raul (the man who some say couldn’t qualify for an F1 race) Boesel’s opening blast in clean air, the only other men to enjoy large stretches of ‘clean’ air were Mansell and Fittipaldi, both of whom led late in the race after restarts that bunched the field.
As was abundantly clear at Phoenix, Nigel Bennett’s ’93 Penske chassis is nothing short of a superb race-day machine, maintaining its relative handling balance from full to near-empty fuel tanks and seemingly less affected by the swirling eddies of turbulence resulting from 32 other machines simultaneously whistling around the race track. Likewise the Chevy C – at least those massaged in the Penske engine shop – was more than fast enough on race day. Not to be dismissed, either, is the fact that Fittipaldi had Rick Mears’ undivided attention in the pits after Paul Tracy had crashed out of yet another race on lap 94. Formidable opponents on their own, the combination of Fittipaldi and Mears would prove to be unbeatable when it came to the final laps of the race.
Surprisingly, the man Fittipaldi had to beat was Nigel Mansell. Contrary to some expectations, Nigel did learn lessons from his unfortunate experience at Phoenix. Principally, that he had to work himself into this oval track stuff carefully. He thus took it easy in the opening third of the race before charging to the front at mid-distance (in anticipation of the forecasted rain that didn’t materialise until several hours afterwards). Sure, he made a few mistakes, missing his pit on one stop and, of course, getting taken to the cleaners at the lap 185 restart when the race was his for the taking, and whacking the wall a hefty thump in his fruitless chase of Fittipaldi and Luyendyk.
But at the end of the day Nigel had proved beyond a shadow of doubt that he’s a quick learner and that he can temper his boundless natural aggression not only to survive but to thrive on the ovals. And he was to drive the point home a week later with a win at Milwaukee, by most accounts the most demanding oval on the PPG lndycar schedule.
Overshadowing Fittipaldi’s second Indy 500 win, Roger Penske’s ninth Indy 500 win, Mansell’s brilliant performance and Luyendyk’s ice-blooded Turn One pass that netted him second place, however, was the post-race examination of the event itself; this 500-mile race had produced 24 lead changes, just eight retirements and nearly one-third of the original starting field was on the lead lap at the end of the race.
Although many were quick to call this one of history’s great Indy 500s, opinion was far from unanimous. The problem lay in those final 20 laps, when the only passing occurred on the restarts – first as Mansell and Fittipaldi stormed around a hapless Mario Andretti (who found himself with an ill-handling car for the first, and only, time in the race) and then when Fittipaldi and Luyendyk swept around Mansell’s lagging car on lap 185. Apart from Mario’s subsequent descent to an understeering fifth place and Boesel’s late moves around Goodyear and Scott Brayton, there were no position changes of consequence in the final laps.
Nor were those final 20 laps unique. All day long, the only way for one driver to pass an equally matched opponent was to catch him in traffic or get a better jump on a restart. And with three restarts in the final 20 laps, the field had no opportunity to become ‘traffic’ in the the final going when Luyendyk might have been able to work his way around Fittipaldi or Mansell and/or Boesel might have been able to humble the lot of them. Nor was there any hint in those last 12.5 miles, after Fittipaldi outfoxed Luyendyk on the final restart, that anything but the status quo would hold.
The final stages of the Indy 500 bore a striking resemblance to what we’ve come to expect in the Daytona and Talladega 500 Winston Cup races. Plenty of close competition to be sure but, owing to the restrictor plates that rob cars of vital passing power, races that are mere shadows of the bygone days when the last place a driver wanted to be was in the lead at the start of the final lap; when a David Pearson could haul past Richard Petty at Daytona or Cale Yarborough, Harry Gant, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison and Benny Parsons could all go into the final lap at Talladega, bunched together, and with an honest chance of winning the race.
But the fans loved it and therein, I think, lies the downside of the entertainment factor in America that is so widely lauded these days. For while there can be no doubt that there are clear and present dangers in the racing-for-technology’s-sake format of Formula One, there are also dangers in the artificially close racing that sometimes results from racing NASCAR or, less frequently, Indycar-style.
So brainwashed have some fans become to the weekly statistics emanating from NASCAR about 50-odd lead changes, dozens of different leaders and scores of cars on the same lap at the day’s end that they have come to believe the quality of a race can be judged by how many cars are in contention as the last lap approaches. Of course, the key words are ‘in contention’, and I would argue that, far from 10 cars being in contention in the final laps of the Indy 500, there was, for all practical purposes, just one: the number four Marlboro Penske-Chevy of Emerson Fittipaldi.
Pardon me if this is blasphemy, but I still believe that it only takes two cars to have a race. And I’ll take last year’s Indy 500 finish – where Scott Goodyear had more than a ghost of a chance to pass Al Unser Jnr, but failed, or the finish of the 1991 race, where Mears and Michael Andretti swapped places in two of the most breathtaking moments in motorsports history – rather than 10 cars running Indian file (more or less) for 10 laps to a pre-ordained finish.
Having said that, it was also a blessing to get through the month of May without a single serious injury. Full credit must go to the Indycar powers that be for the new rules governing the construction of 1993 cars, as well as the ‘retro-fitted’ nose cones on pre ’93 cars. Had Robbie Buhl suffered either one of his two crashes in practice in an original spec ’92 Lola, he would have been injured every bit as badly as Nelson Piquet and Jeff Andretti last year.
Credit must also go out to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The warm-up lane, rumble strips and subsequently narrowed race track contributed to the month’s record of safety (not to mention the low attrition rate due, certainly, to the fact that engines were no longer being asked to run at peak revs for mile after mile). Many scoffed when IMS personnel argued that the new layout would force the cars to take a different trajectory through the turns and thus reduce the likelihood they’d slide up the track into the wall nose first in the event of a spin.
Yet, that’s what happened time and again in May. With less distance to travel before hitting the wall most cars – Buhl’s excepted – only had time and space to do a 180 before hitting the wall, and Roberto Guerrero, Jeff Andretti, Paul Tracy, Gary Bettenhausen, Eric Bachelart all walked away sore, but whole, from contact with the wall.
As Luyendyk said after the race, this was everyone’s first experience with the new track, and they’ll do better next year. What he was saying, I think, is that if the designers, engineers and drivers can work together to produce cars that are less susceptible to turbulence – perhaps by creating more downforce from the underbody – we might even look forward to a 78th Indy 500 that gives us the best of all possible worlds. A race with minimal attrition, a multitude of contenders and passing in the turns, with or without traffic; and most importantly, where a single miscalculation need not condemn a driver to mornings of agony and walking with a limp for the rest of his life. D P