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A brief history of the Indy 500 (a bluffer's guide to only turning left)

FEATURE BY MAX NOBLE
23/05/2017

With Fernando Alonso taking to the gird in a car with a chance of finishing a race distance, and potentially winning, I've taken a banked left turn for a slightly different style of article to my usual opinion based yarn. So here for the gentle Pitpass reader is a Bluffer's Guide to the Indy 500 so that pub talk can be cheerfully undertaken this coming weekend with any passing folk from the Americas.

The 10th of July 1895 was a significant event in the history of motor racing for the United States of America. On that day the Chicago Times Herald advertised a race to be organised for the newly invented horseless carriages. Even the correct name of the vehicle was under intent discussion, with the editors of the time agreeing on Moto-Cycle, automobile not to be coined until some years later.

After a couple of false starts the race finally ran in snowy conditions on November 28th 1895, Thanksgiving day. It was to be a road race over a course of some 54 miles (87Km) from Chicago to Evenston. Only two cars finished, first over the line was Charles Duryea's motorised wagon, with a German car designed and built by a certain Karl Benz finishing a distant second. Duryea's car won in a time of just under eight hours, at an average speed of 6.8 mph (11kph). It was a modest start, but the American love affair with the automobile had commenced, and with it a passion for racing.

Over the next few years a growing number of road races took place, but like their motor loving brothers and sisters in Europe, the Americans found that as cars became faster racing on public roads was an increasingly unsafe activity. Facing bans, fines or imprisonment across the country, the racers turned to safer spaces, such as Daytona Beach, or to the concept of the dedicated racing circuit.

Looking to existing horse racing venues, the first two American circuit-based motor races were held at Knoxville Raceway in 1901, and at the Milwaukee Mile track in 1903. However these were one-off motor races and no immediate regular racing followed on from these initial events. Brooklands in the UK became the first purpose built motor racing circuit when it opened in June 1907. The Americans were not far behind, with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opening in August 1909.

The Indianapolis track was a purpose built 2.5 mile (4.02Km) oval circuit, complete with modest facilities specifically for motor racing. It is a rather square "oval" with two 1,000 metre straights (or "straightaways" as the Americans prefer) being connected via two short 200M straights with four constant radius banked 400M turns. The layout has hardly changed since construction. Between 1998 and 2000 a twisting infield course was built, using the regular start finish straight in the ‘wrong’ direction and one of the banked corners with this more European-style track. It was used with great success for the US Grand Prix from 2000 to 2007 ("tyre-gate" not withstanding...).

Originally gravel with some sealant, the track was soon paved with over three million bricks, following terrible track break-ups during endurance races leading to tragic accidents. As a result the track rapidly earned the nickname of "The Brickyard". Today only a symbolic line of bricks across the start finish line remains as a reminder of this classic historic construction. The track is the largest permanent seating sports arena in the World, covering a total of 559 acres (over two square kilometres) with permanent seating for 235,000, it can accommodate a total of 400,000 when using sections of the infield. Truly a massive sporting arena!

As popular motor racing grew, so famous races became associated with the Indianapolis track. Most notably the Indy 500, and more recently the NASCAR Brickyard 400. In each case the number signifies the miles to be covered during the race.

The first Indianapolis 500 was run in 1911. The event was a huge success. Having tried to run a full season of events at the circuit, the owners found a once per year "mega-event" with a large prize pool was a perfect draw card for an excited public. Ray Harron, a driving and construction pioneer won this first event in his Marmon Wasp. This bright yellow open cockpit, open wheel racer, sporting Ray's unique invention, a rear view mirror to warn of those behind, rather than a riding mechanic informing him of the chasing pack, had pace and handling and in Ray’s hands was a worthy winner. Today the car can be viewed at the Indianapolis museum.

Not unlike some FIA races today, his win was contested due to his lack of a riding mechanic (conferring as it did an obvious weight advantage) however the result was allowed to stand. Ray ceased racing after 1911, but continued in motor sport and in the automotive industry until his death in January 1968, at the age of 89.

Over this same time period both the circuit and the Indy 500 race built towering legends. To date the Indy 500 has been run 100 times, with 70 different drivers being crowned Indy 500 champion, and, since 1936, been presented with the impressive Borg-Warner Trophy.

Unlike Formula One that tends to see periods of domination by one driver, think Clark, Stewart, Schumacher, or Vettel, the Indy 500 has a remarkable ability to add new winners to the legendary roll call. Only three drivers, all American, have won the race four times. A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Jr. and Rick Mears, with all these multiple wins falling between 1961 (Foyt) and 1991 (Mears).

In 2016 Juan Pablo Montoya, having won in both 2000, and in 2015 returned as the defending champion looking for a third victory. Juan missed out on becoming one of the legendary three times winners (seven drivers so far), plus he would have been only the sixth driver to achieve back to back victories. Further, along with Jacques Villeneuve he has competed at Indianapolis in Formula One, NASCAR, and IndyCar. In this respect Juan has echoes of Mario Andretti, and Dan Gurney, both of whom won in multiple series. Finally on this impressive Indy CV, Juan, along with Graham Hill and six others, is one of only eight drivers to win on his Indy 500 debut.

Juan missed out to rookie Alexander Rossi, who won the 100th Indy 500 for the Andretti Herta Autosport team. Canadian James Hinchcliffe set pole in 2016 at a highly impressive 371.372 kph.

At the time of writing New Zealander Scott Dixon is on the 2017 pole with the modestly faster pole speed of 232.164 mph, with Fernando Alonso in the middle of the second row, having qualified an impressive fifth for his debut Indy 500. As defending champion Rossi has qualified third, so is perfectly placed to mount a credible defence. Takuma Sato, formally of F1, also takes to the gird starting in fourth place, next to Alonso. Montoya starts in the middle of the field in eighteenth position. Winning the Indy 500 is not as grid position dependant as it is in F1, so Juan cannot be discounted as a potential winner, with 500 racing miles yet to unfold. Other drivers of interest to us at Pitpass include Australian Will Power starting from ninth on the grid, and Britain’s Pippa Mann starting twenty-eighth.

The Indy starting grid is built of eleven rows of three cars each, giving a total of thirty-three starters.

While the bulk of Indy 500 drivers are American, the race has gathered plenty of overseas interest through the years. Nine other nationalities have a driver claim a win, while Britain, Italy, France, and Germany have all supplied winning chassis. Reviewing the list of winning chassis all the leading marques of each generation have taking part from Mercedes and Peugeot in the 1910's, to Duesenberg, Wetterworth, and Frontenac during the 1920's and 1930's to Maserati in 1940, to McLaren in the 1970's and March in the 1980's. Many great names still in racing, while some historic manufacturers have faded from public view and only live on in the record books.

Looking to team victories, Penske Racing holds a remarkable record of sixteen race wins under Roger Penske's leadership. Starting back in 1972, and the story so far including the 2015 win with Montoya. No doubt they are as keen as Juan to add the one more to their impressive record.

After American winners the United Kingdom holds the next best national record with eight wins. The earliest being George Robson in 1946, just as the race restarted after World War Two.

1964 saw both Jim Clark, and Jack Brabham take the start. Jim went out on lap 47 with suspension failure, while Jack got to lap 77 before suffering fuel tank issues. That year saw AJ Foyt take his second victory, in what would prove to be the last Indy 500 victory for a front engine car. 1965 saw only six cars take the start with their engines placed at the rear. One of these cars was a Lotus 38, with a Ford V8 in the rear, and Jim Clark at the wheel. AJ Foyt was again on pole (with a stellar pole speed of 161.25 mph with Jim also on the front row. Jim would go on to lead for 190 of the 200 laps, and take his maiden Indy 500 win, and the first for a rear engine car.

Jim was back to defend his title in 1966, along with Graham Hill starting on the fifth row of the grid, and Jackie Stewart on the fourth row. Jim once again started on the front row, with Mario Andretti on pole, and George Snider on the outside.

The race had only just seen the green flag drop when Billy Foster and Gordon Johncock nearly touched, and in taking avoiding action triggered a fourteen car crash. After a delay of over an hour the race restarted with only 22 cars remaining, eleven having been eliminated.

While a couple more crashes would scar the race, many cars retired with an array of mechanical failures. Jackie Stewart failed on the 190 lap with oil pressure issues, with only four cars on the leading lap when Graham Hill took the victory with Jim Clark in second, leading home the smallest finishing field in the race’s history. At the time there was a minor controversy where some felt Clark had been accidentally miscounted one lap. Lotus never formally questioned the result, and it was confirmed with Hill as the winner.

2005 to 2012 was a purple patch for the UK, with Dan Wheldon winning in 2005, and 2011, while Dario Franchitti won in 2007, 2010, and 2012.

Formula One links to the Indy 500 go back many years. It has been both a F1 championship race, and a non-championship race. 1952 saw the only time Ferrari entered a car in the Indy 500 with Alberto Ascari at the wheel, he failed to finish and was classified 31st after the race. Jim Clark and Graham Hill were both mainly F1 drivers, while Mario Andretti (1969 Indy 500 champion) was also an F1 World Champion. Jacques Villeneuve won the Indy 500 (and the Championship) prior to moving to Formula One and winning that championship in his second season. Nigel Mansell won the Indy Car Championship, while just missing out on a maiden Indy 500 win after a late race restart.

The Indy 500 is also one of those rare races where women have successfully taken to the starting grid. This is after a questionable past that saw women banned from the pit area until 1971. Since 1977, starting with Janet Guthrie, nine female drivers have taken to the starting line-up, with Sarah Fisher having competed nine times. The most successful showing by a female driver was Danica Patrick who led the race in 2005 (19 laps), and 2011 (10 laps). Her best-placed finish was a solid third place in 2009.

As with all motor sport these exceptional drivers, piloted an array of remarkable machines. The Italian manufacturer Dallara holds the record for most wins, with fifteen victories stretching from 1998, to the most recent running in 2015. Next is Penske with seven (1979 to 1994), and then Miller, with six victories from 1923, to 1934. Miller was an early legend of the Indy 500 using super-charging to great effect. Then in 1935 two of his engineers left, Fred Offenhauser, and Leo Goosen to build their own engine. This remarkable four-cylinder engine wrote a stunning history by achieving a total of 27 wins, with 18 of those being consecutive from 1947 to 1964. Miller has twelve engine victories in his own name, with Honda second with eleven, and Cosworth third with ten.

The Indy 500 is now looking to a second century of running. It has seen World Wars, Great Depressions, and humanity land on the Moon, yet it still delivers motoring delight each Spring. Engine rule changes, tragic crashes, dramatic speed increases, remarkable personal victories forged, and still the legend grows. From that 6.8 mph winning average speed of the first American motor race in 1895, to the 75 mph qualifying speed of the first 1911 Indy 500. Progressing swiftly to Parnelli Jones being the first to lap under one minute in 1963, to the still record 38.119 second lap of Eddie Cheever Jr. at an average of 236.109 mph (379.971kph), the Indy 500 is a race of immense speed.

The drivers and machines will continue to write individual legends, yet this is one track still delivering excitement past one hundred years old, that has truly forged its own legend deserving of our respect as a Giant of Motorsport.

With the 2017 F1 McLaren-Honda hardly capable of reliably making the start line, it is little wonder that Fernando Alonso has gazed at the Indy 500, noted that Honda Indy engines actually work, and said to himself, "You know, that is one heck of a legendary race. I wouldn't mind giving that a go..."

We wish him and all the other drivers God's speed and good grace to make the finish line safely. And may-be Alonso will have that perfect combination of talent and good fortune, to reach the podium, or even win. Then it will be time for the Spaniard to ask McLaren to ready their Le Mans prototype...

Max Noble.

Learn more about Max and check out his previous features, here

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1. Posted by Max Noble, 25/05/2017 14:35

"@ClarkwasGod - some years back one of the magazines (F1 Racing from memory) ran an x-ray photo feature on the "double chassis" Lotus. Simply brilliant. I already felt Colin was a considerable design genius, but those pictures were pure engineering meets art.

Just like the original Lotus Elan - a towering genius in his right time. And of course the apples tasted better...!"

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2. Posted by ClarkwasGod, 24/05/2017 19:34

"Yes Max, the 60's (and into the 70's) were a fabulous time to watch and marvel - both at the drivers, and the cars - I was so lucky to be able to do just that - even though, as you say, the dangers were ever-present - more than once I had left a meeting shocked, or as with Siffert utterly stunned.

There is an entire article about Lotus Indianapolis years - in fact it's a book - by Andrew Ferguson - if you don't have it - you really should get it.
Mind you, Lotus effectively died with Chapman - they were never the same again - some say it was the banning of the twin chassis 86 (as well as the DeLorean saga) that contributed to his fatal heart attack - but for all that, he was THE genius of F1 past, and present (and maybe future)."

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3. Posted by Max Noble, 24/05/2017 0:38

"...sorry auto-correct bit me... Louts = Lotus.... "

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4. Posted by Max Noble, 24/05/2017 0:37

"@ClarkwasGod - The 1960's (tragic driver deaths apart) was an amazing time for motor racing. The heroics and engineering working together to give us an amazing golden age. If anyone turned up now with six wheels on their car, engine in the front, or heck why not, a riding mechanic (hello McLaren) the FIA would ban them faster then one could utter "Black Flag!". Louts ground effect, double chassis, an endless list of remarkable cunning plans. And yes, one could write entire articles on Lotus at Indy, but this is a short guide!
"

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5. Posted by ClarkwasGod, 23/05/2017 18:51

"Lotus first raced there in 1963, Clark finishing 2nd - many feeling he should have won, as Parnelli Jones' car was leaking oil and should have been black-flagged. By 1965 ONLY 6 cars were front-engined roadsters, the rest being mid-engined (mostly either earlier Lotus 29 & 34's, Lolas, or Lotus copies)."

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6. Posted by Max Noble, 23/05/2017 13:24

"@Steve W - quite right! Poor English on my part. Rather than being an included "non-championship" race, I was rather referring to teams such as Lotus in 1965, who participated (in Colin's case for the money) when the race has ceased to be a "Championship race". 11/10 for keeping me on my toes with the facts and the prose!"

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7. Posted by Steve W, 23/05/2017 10:16

"The Indianapolis 500 was a points-paying round of the F1 Championship 1950 - 1960, but I don't ever remember the 500 being a non-championship race unless you mean the Indy Constructors which didn't earn points 1958 - 1960."

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