If records fall, it should mean something

IndyCar commentary — By on March 16, 2011 2:52 pm
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Quick.  Who was the first driver to break the 200 mph barrier at Indianapolis?

If you said Tom Sneva, you’re wrong.  The correct answer is Gordon Johncock, who actually clocked the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s first 200 mph lap in March of 1977 during a Goodyear tire test, several weeks prior to Sneva’s feat.  In fact, in the week leading up to Pole Day qualifications in 1977, Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt, and Johnny Rutherford all recorded laps over 200 mph before Sneva’s record run.

Why didn’t you know this?  Because none of those 200 mph laps counted.  They were in tests and practice.  They were unofficial.  They didn’t actually mean anything.

One of the hot-topic issues preceding this year’s Month of May at Indianapolis has been Randy Bernard’s quest to see the track records broken.  In 1996, during the final year of the 2.65L V8 turbocharged engine era, Arie Luyendyk set records in his Treadway Racing Reynard/Ford-Cosworth that many people think will never be broken.  His one-lap record of 237.498 mph and four-lap average of 236.986 mph stand as the longest-tenured speed records in IMS history.  Since 1996, no driver has come close to matching them — in fact, no driver has even qualified above 230 mph since Helio Castroneves did so in 2003.

In a recent article by SI.com’s Brant James, Bernard reiterated that he wants the old records “gone” and that if he gets his way (along with the blessing of IMS and TV partner ESPN), those records could be broken this year during a special exhibition staged in early May.

Hold on a minute.  Bernard wants to bring down the records during a special exhibition?  Sorry, Randy, but that’s not going to fly with most people, especially the Indianapolis purists who will not recognize them as legitimate.

First and foremost, official laps (as I’m sure Donald Davidson will beat home ad nauseum) only go into the record books when run during qualifications or the race.  Besting the record in a test, much less an exhibition, carries no more significance than did Gordon Johncock’s first 200-mph lap in 1977, which is almost universally disregarded and nearly forgotten 34 years later.

Information from the James article suggests that Honda Performance Development (HPD) will create four specially prepared engines for the run at history that would, among other things, burn methanol instead of the INDYCAR standard ethanol (methanol was, of course, the only fuel used in the Indianapolis 500 between 1965 and 2006).  Additionally, only two cars would be used for this attempt to break the record, and the pilots of those two cars are anyone’s guess.  While the speed run would no doubt bring attention to a team and its sponsors, it is certainly understandable that a car owner would be leery of letting his driver take a run at this attempt if it won’t actually be going into the record books.  Given INDYCAR’s mandatory seven-day concussion policy, it is also conceivable that a driver could easily miss a good chunk of practice and/or qualifying if this exhibition goes wrong.

There is nobody more interested in seeing new speed records established at Indianapolis than me.  I have maintained for many years that a major contributing factor in the decline of the Pole Day qualifying attendance is the lack of broken speed records and the excitement that the pursuit of new records brought each year.  I realize it isn’t the only factor, but I do think it is a bigger issue than many people realize.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, from its very early days, has been about the pursuit of speed.  The speed and the danger that came along with it turned men into heroes and icons.

By the time the speed records of 1996 were laid down, budgets of top teams (at least on the CART side of the split) had soared in excess of $10 million per car.  It was inconceivable that such a spending effort could be maintained in the long run.  For that reason, among others, the Indy Racing League sought a new formula that would be both slower and significantly less expensive.  Non-turbocharged engines and 20 mph slower qualifying speeds were the new norm in 1997, and most believed that Luyendyk’s records of the year prior would live on as long as the grandstands remained at 16th and Georgetown.

But 15 years later, many are realizing that records are meant to be broken.  But they need to be broken in a meaningful, useful manner.

Bernard believes that new speed records will bring credibility to the current formula and raise awareness of the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.  From that standpoint, it’s hard to argue against his point.  However, to call the speeds new records is quite misleading.  To beat the unofficial Indianapolis lap record, someone will have to best the 239.260 mph lap set by (who else?) Luyendyk, which Arie himself admits was possible only with the help of an aerodynamic tow.  To really draw attention and add any shred of meaningfulness, a driver is going to have to push the car through the 240 mph barrier.

As much as I have beaten the drum for new speed records, I am also against gimmicks in racing.  This exhibition falls short of being a gimmick in my book as I believe that term should be used exclusively for practices that alter the integrity of the racing — practices such as the Lucky Dog rule or green/white/checkered finishes — but this still falls into the category of “what’s the point?”

If the point is to draw attention to this year’s race, does that then create something of an anti-climatic practice and qualifying period to the average viewer?  Will the casual fan who hears about IndyCars running 235 mph at Indianapolis be confused as to why real practice and qualifying speeds are “only” in the 229 mph range a week later?

Beyond 2011, what would a record-approaching run at Indianapolis in this car mean for the new formula set to debut in 2012?  One of the original goals of that car was to be able to run laps in excess of 230 mph at Indianapolis.  However, if a driver runs 235 mph this year and the 2012 car is only initially capable of 230 mph, what impact will that have on the acceptance of the new car by hardcore fans and casual viewers?

All of these questions should be considered before making a run at new record speeds at Indianapolis this year.  Sure, I would love to see speeds above 235 mph again, but if it doesn’t mean anything then… well, it doesn’t mean anything.  There are a lot of factors, risks, and variables that all must be carefully weighed before making the decision to make a run at these speeds.  At this point the risks appear to outweigh the rewards, and my personal belief is that, as much as I want to see the records broken, I want to see them actually broken, not simply exceeded.  If the current car formula is not capable of breaking records without special trick pieces and a non-competition engine, then it is probably just as well to wait a few more years until the natural innovation and evolution of the new IndyCar formula can run its course, ideally with less stringent rules in place that artificially limit the speed of the cars.  If records can be broken within a few years during normal competition and without using tweaks in an exhibition, the credibility and value of those records would remain untarnished.

(One final note: one of the teams most likely to try for this is Target Chip Ganassi Racing.  For all of its success, holding speed records at Indianapolis is one area where TCGR is sorely lacking.  In fact, TCGR cars only held the speed records at Indianapolis for about 90 minutes.  In 1992, Arie Luyendyk (there’s that name again) was the first car to qualify in a TCGR Lola/Ford-Cosworth and set new one- and four-lap records of 229.305 mph and 229.127 mph respectively.  His one-lap record stood for about 35 minutes until he was bested by Gary Bettenhausen.  The four-lap record stood longer, but it too soon fell to Roberto Guerrero’s record-setting run of 232.482 mph about an hour later.)

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