One lap, a thousand memories

IndyCar commentary — By on May 7, 2012 12:10 pm

Anyone who has ever met me knows that if there is one thing I am not, it’s a runner!  At 6’ 3” and just on the small side of 250 pounds, nobody is ever going to mistake me for a great distance runner.  But what I am is an Indianapolis 500 fanatic and perhaps a bit of a history buff.

I somehow got talked into participating in last weekend’s 500 Festival Mini-Marathon in Indianapolis, which includes a lap around the famed 2.5-mile oval.  While many of the 35,000-plus runners see the opportunity to run a lap on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as something pretty neat and different, the historian in me took a trip around the track and tried to soak in as much of the history as possible and think of some of the many historic events that have taken place on the grand track.

We entered the facility through the main tunnel on 16th Street that leads to the Hall of Fame and Museum.  After scooting around the Hall of Fame, we were dumped onto the track just north of the exit of turn 2, headed north down the backstraight.  My first thought was of just how narrow the track really is.  I was huffing along at a not-quite blistering (though my toes would beg to differ) five miles per hour.  If I was screaming down this pavement at 230-plus mph, it would have seemed frighteningly tight!

As I begin moving north on the backstretch, my first thought takes me back to 1989.  On the 199th lap, in this very location, Emerson Fittipaldi moves to the inside of Al Unser, Jr.  No sooner does Emmo get alongside Little Al than Al moves to the inside of Ludwig Heimrath, the first in a line of four backmarkers the leaders must navigate.  Forced to take evasive action, Emmo almost puts his car in the grass.  As the story goes, two cars eventually go into turn 3 and only one comes out.

I move further down the backstretch and begin to see the numbers on the outside fence.  I get to the “3” indicating there are 300 yards to the entrance of turn 3.  Suddenly, I’m Tony Kanaan.  Inexplicably and without warning, I’m veering head first into the outside wall.  I’m without any control and I see the wall coming up quickly.  I close my eyes, knowing it’s not going to be good.  Suddenly, I hit the wall again with incredible force.

I get closer to turn 3, and I see the entrance to the pit lane access road.  I’m Sam Hornish, and I’m hot on Marco Andretti’s tail.  He knows I’m coming, and I know he knows it.  I’ve got too much momentum to back out, so I have no choice but to drive it in.  Marco slams the door, and in a moment I’m suddenly 10 car lengths back and losing ground quickly.  My shot at winning seems to have just gone out the door.

I continue into turn 3.  From the pit road access lane, I notice that the outside SAFER Barrier is way above me.  When people talk of Indianapolis being a “flat” track, it’s relative.  There is quite a bit of banking if you’re cruising by at my current speed.

A macabre thought enters my mind as I reach the apex and begin to exit turn 3.  In this very location, I think of several men who made the ultimate sacrifice in the turn where “nothing happens.”  I think of 1958 and the loss of Pat O’Conner.  I think of 1982 and the accident of Gordon Smiley.  I think of a young Tony Renna whose life was tragically cut short in a testing accident here following the 2003 IndyCar season.  I look ahead slightly, and I see a fence post that looks out of place.  It’s shiny and newer than the rest – it has been replaced recently.  At that moment, I envision Mike Conway running over Ryan Hunter-Reay’s rear tire and sailing through the air into the catch fence and coming back down onto the track.  It’s a grizzly scene that I try to erase from my mind.

As I enter the north chute, I’m again Sam Hornish, and I’m still chasing Marco Andretti.  After having given it all I’ve got for the past 40 seconds, I’m right back on Marco’s “6” and coming at him fast.  He’s in my crosshairs now, and there is no lifting anymore.

I enter turn 4.  Now, I’m JR Hildebrand.  I see a slow car in front of me.  In less time than it takes me as a runner to take one step, as the driver I have to process what I’m seeing, formulate a plan, and execute.  I know Dan Wheldon is coming.  I can’t afford to ease off the throttle and wait for traffic to clear.  I make my move.  I miss the groove.  I’m in the marbles.

I’m back to another moment I wish I had erased.  I’m at the apex of turn 4.  I’m transported back to 1992, and I am three-time World Driving Champion Nelson Piquet.  I look ahead and see the yellow light.  I get out of the throttle, but without warning the rear-end of my car snaps around, and the next thing I know I’m head-on into the outside wall, the force of the impact so great that my helmet nearly makes contact with the concrete barrier.  It is essentially the end of a long and distinguished career.

I exit turn 4 and begin to move south down the main straightaway.  After giving myself a pep talk because I can’t even see turn 1 way down at the other end of the track, I realize that I’m not half the men Ralph De Palma and Rupert Jeffkins were, who, in 1912, attempted to push their disabled Mercedes from this spot to the finish line after leading 196 of the previous 199 laps.  Soon, I’m again in a frame of mind I wish I could erase.  I look to my left and see the inside of the pit lane entrance.  I think of the many horrendous accidents that have taken place there.  The 1964 tragedy of Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs.  The miracle in 1989 involving Kevin Cogan where he hit the inside wall, the end of the pit wall, and then the wall on the inside of pit lane.  Not only did Cogan survive the frightening accident, he essentially walked away. ( Two years later, young Mark Dismore was less fortunate.  After pounding a hole into the inside wall, his car rebounded back into the end of the pit wall.  Mark would spend the better part of a year in rehabilitation.

As I pass the end of the pit wall, I envision the stands completely full.  It’s 1994.  I’m a more mature Al Unser, Jr. now, I’m on pole, and I’ve got 900+ horsepower under my right foot.  I look to my right.  Where Raul Boesel is supposed to be, I see my teammate and former rival Emerson Fittipaldi.  I guess we squeezed Raul a bit much coming out of turn 4.  This is essentially the last time the field will see us again until the race is over.  We’re going to settle this between the two of us.

Then, I go back two more years.  It’s 1992.  I’m Scott Goodyear.  It’s the final lap, and I’m desperate.  I’ve been chasing Little Al for the past eight laps, and now I’ve run out of time.  It’s now or never.  I move left.  Little Al blocks.  I look right.  Al shifts again.  Finally, I make a hard dive back to the left.  I’m out of time.  This is the last move I have.  It isn’t meant to be.  So close, but so far away.

I look to my left, and there it is: Tower Terrace, Section 47, Row J, Seat 6.  That has been my view of history since 1988.  In three weeks, I’ll be back on that side of the fence.  It looks so lonely and isolated now.  I wonder if any of the drivers have ever noticed me sitting there.

Without a conscious thought, my mind shifts again.  As I see the start-finish line about 150 yards ahead of me, I’m taken back to 1986.  I’m Bobby Rahal.  It’s lap 198.  The green flag is waving, and I’ve got a run of Kevin Cogan like you wouldn’t believe.  I make the pass as I take the green flag.  Game, set, match.

In short order, I go back to four years earlier.  I’m Kevin Cogan again.  It’s a memory I wish I could erase of an event I wish had never happened.  With my teammate Rick Mears on my left and four-time winner AJ Foyt on my right, I approach the green flag.  Out of nowhere, my car suddenly lurches. I lose control, and before I know it I’ve caused chaos.  I’ve damaged AJ’s car.  I’ve taken Mario Andretti out of the race.  Behind us, there’s more carnage as other cars pile into each other.  The past 2000 feet of this track have not been kind to me.

As I cross the Yard of Bricks, I go all the way back to the beginning.  This is the very same location where Ray Harroun made history 101 years ago.  Fifty-one years ago, AJ Foyt won his first.  Twenty-one years ago, Rick Mears won his fourth.  No matter what happens over the rest of the 2.5 miles, this is where the wheat is separated from the chaff.  Heroes aren’t made by leading into the first turn or the 800th turn.  This is what counts.  “Different men, from vastly different background, focused on a single goal – a white line painted on a yard of bricks 500 miles ahead.”

On the left is pit lane.  I think back to 1987.  It was right about this spot where Roberto Guerrero was pitted.  After suffering damage to his master cylinder early in the race, Guerrero suddenly found himself in a position to win if he could only make one last pit stop.  If only…  Unable to get out of the pits without stalling as a result of his earlier damage, Al Unser, Sr. roars by to take the lead and continues on to join AJ Foyt as the only four-time winners of the 500 to that point.

Ahead, I see turn 1.  I think of all the times Dad and I have cross the track at this location on the morning of the race.  In earlier times, we would park at 20th Street off of Crawfordsville Road and enter the grounds at the main gate.  Walking north, we’d get to the opening in the fence and head to Gasoline Alley.  Somewhere, I probably have pictures of me on the track before every race from here.

Into turn 1 I go.  With so much history here, it’s odd what comes to mind.  The first thing I think of is being Arie Luyendyk in 1996.  It’s not Pole Day anymore.  It’s the second day of qualifying.  I’m pissed off that I was beat out for the pole position a day earlier by Scott Brayton, that I was disqualified later that evening for having my car only seven pounds too light. I now have to get into the field as a second-day qualifier, requiring me to start much further back in the field.  Throwing caution to the wind, I take the green flag and head off into turn one.  There is not a snowball’s chance in hell I am going to lift — I’m coming through here flat out.  When I return to my pit two minutes and 32 seconds later, I will have set a four-lap speed record that will stand for at least the next 17 years.

As I make my way well into turn 1, I am Michael Andretti.  The year is 1991.  I’ve just taken the green flag on lap 186 and made my way past cousin John.  I’ve taken aim on Rick Mears, but he has taken the inside line away from me.  There’s only one place to go.  Without hesitation, I go to the outside and make the pass.  As I continue around the track, I notice something isn’t right.  The feel that’s been in the car the entire day is suddenly gone.  I’m not pulling away as I did before.  Only one lap later, trying to drive my car through an understeer, I take the low line that Rick kept from me on the last lap.  This time, I see Rick go to my outside.  It’s all over.  My car just doesn’t have the handling it did previously, and before I realize it, Rick is gone.  It’s another heartbreak for my family.

As I reach the apex of turn 1and start to head for the south chute, I go back to 1985.  I’m Danny Sullivan.  I’m a former taxi driver, and I’ve just passed one of the greatest men ever to sit in a racecar, Mario Andretti.  As I begin to unwind the car and move back onto the racing surface from the pit apron, my car bobbles.  I try to save it.  I turn the wheel right, then left, then right again.  It’s hopeless.  Around I go.  I prepare for the worst.  I wait.  I wait.  I continue to wait.  Nothing. I look up to find that I’ve done a complete 360 and am somehow pointed in the right direction facing turn 2.  I gather my bearings, drop the car back in gear, and continue on.  I’ve just made one of the greatest and luckiest moves in the history of the Indianapolis 500.  Eighty laps from now, I’ll claim my place in the pantheon of racing greats and drink my own bottle of milk.

Unfortunately, as I exit turn 1, I’m Danny Sullivan again.  The year is 1988.  I’ve dominated the first half of the race and have just started the second half.  Sadly, in the past 20 laps, my car has been afflicted with the same problem that plagued my teammate Al Unser Sr.’s car for the first half of the race.  The front wing adjuster is broken, and the front wing continues to unwind.  Suddenly, the car develops an uncontrollable push.  There’s nothing I can do.  My dominating performance ends against the turn 1 wall.  It’s a refrain heard every year the race is run:  this one should have been mine.

As I enter the south chute, my next memory isn’t to my left or to my right — it’s above me.  The year is 1990.  Having spun his car 180 degrees, Jim Crawford makes hard contact with the outside wall.  After rebounding, the car slides backwards and suddenly takes flight.  Reaching a height of about 10 feet, the cars slams back on the track like a child throws down a ragdoll and continues to slide, coming to a stop near the entrance to turn 2.

Fast forward 13 years.  In a practice session in early May, Mario Andretti has taken Tony Kanaan’s Dallara out onto the track during a test session while TK recovers from an injury suffered weeks prior at a race in Motegi, Japan.  Coming upon the scene of an accident by Kenny Brack, Mario’s car collides with a piece of the sytrofoam padding from the SAFER barrier that is on the track.  The car takes flight, flipping end-over-end in the air three times before landing back on all four tires and making contact with the turn 2 wall.  Miraculously, the 63-year old Andretti is mostly uninjured, suffering only a minor laceration to his chin.

Heading towards turn 2, more somber memories flood my mind.  At the entrance, I think of Bruno Junqueira, a former polesitter and one-off entrant in 2005 driving for Champ Car powerhouse Newman/Haas Racing.  Nearly 200 miles into the race, Bruno attempts to move past AJ Foyt IV.  Contact is made, and Bruno spins head-first into the outside wall.  Unbelievably, he escapes with only a fractured back and will race again.

More horrifying images come to mind as I get into turn 2 and am taken back to 1975.  A very young Tom Sneva is at full speed and quickly approaching Eldon Rasmussen who has just left the pits.  As they enter turn 2, Sneva’s right rear tire contacts and climbs over Rasmussen’s left front tire, sending Sneva into a tumbling barrel roll and hard into the turn 2 outside wall.  The car is absolutely destroyed, the engine is ripped away from the tub, and a brief flash of fire gives everyone pause.  Amazingly, safety crews are on the scene almost immediately and find Sneva mostly uninjured and desperately trying to extricate himself from the car.  His feet have become tangled, making exit difficult, but Sneva is soon out of the car with only minor injuries.

A somewhat more serious accident occurred here in 1992.  Defending and newest four-time winner Rick Mears was shaking down his car during a mid-week practice session leading up to the run for the pole.  As he exited turn 1, water began gushing out of the right side of his car immediately in front of the right rear tire.  Predictably, Mears lost control of the car on entry, spun around and hit the outside wall nearly head-on.  The car exploded and immediately flipped upside down, sending Mears pinwheeling down the back straightaway on his lid and causing injuries to his foot and wrist.  It was to be the first of two crashes that year for Rick, who had never met the wall at Indianapolis until 1991, and the last race for Mears.  He would retire from competition later that summer.

As I exit turn 2, I see that we have come to the end of our lap around the track and must depart.  Though the 2.5 miles had taken me nearly a half-hour to complete (which would put me approximately 41 laps behind the race cars at this point), it seemed to go by in the flash of an eye.  So much history and so many stories had just flooded my mind, only a fraction of which I have recounted for you here.  As we turned off the track just north of the turn 2 executive suites, I knew I still had about 4.5 miles until I was done with the mini-marathon.  How I wished I could just run two more laps of the track!  As I exited, a smile crossed my face.  It was then I realized I had completed as many laps in competition as Art Bisch, Gary Congdon, Jerry Unser, Dale Whittington, Carlos Guerrero, Affonso Giaffone, and PJ Chesson. – combined!

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