Each year the Indianapolis Motor Speedway seems to attempt to retrieve the glory that was the month of May in my youth.
Race fans would plan to be present for the opening of practice, the two weekends of qualifications, and race weekend. The more hard-core among us were not satisfied with that. We also would plan to travel to the Terre Haute Action Track for the Tony Hulman Classic and back to the Speedway for Carb Day.
Then, on the night before the big race, we were forced to choose between the Night Before the 500 midget race at Indianapolis Raceway Park and the Little 500 at Anderson Speedway (Sun Valley Speedway back then).
For a lot of reasons, it seems unlikely that the month of May can be returned to its prior glory. For one thing, most drivers had a legion of fans who would follow them to the speedway. We were A.J. Foyt fans, or Mario Andretti fans, or Al Unser fans, or fans of some other driver. If you had A.J. in the office pool, you could probably trade for two or three other drivers.
To be sure today’s drivers have their partisans, but they have fewer of them. Many of today’s IndyCar fans would probably have trouble naming more than six Indy hopefuls.
With the beginning of the IRL there was an attempt to bring midget and sprint-car racers to the Indianapolis 500. The effort was somewhat successful. However, the following year, most, it not all of them, were back racing sprint cars and midgets. As is almost always the case, the problem came down to money.
In the 1950s a team could come to Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a car that they had built. Granted, the Offenhauser engine didn’t come cheap, but they didn’t have a fortune in labor. In fact the crew chief might have been the only team member getting paid.
Also, a damaged car could usually be repaired and a car could generally be returned to the track, if not overnight certainly during the week between the two qualification weekends.
When the cars were switched to rear-engined cars, the price of racing
went up. The switch to rear-engined cars was a major factor in reducing the number of traditional midget and sprint-car drivers moving into Indy cars. Very few of them had any experience racing cars with engine in the back.
This attracted sporty car drivers, many of them from Europe. Almost none of them had any fan base in the United States. What they did have was money. And copious amounts of the stuff was needed by car owners to put their cars on the track.
The rear-engined cars also led to a meteoric increase in technology. Car owners like Roger Penske spared no expense in going to the track with the biggest edge that he could muster. This included building his own cars, hiring the best engineers available and doing wind tunnel testing.
While car owners had been accustomed to getting more than one season out of a chassis, either by using it multiple years themselves or by selling off their used cars to lesser teams. By the early 1980s, used cars had little, if any, chance of making the show.
The advent of the IRL promised to reduce the cost of going champ car racing. And it did a little bit, for a while. However, if there is a way to spend enormous amount of money going racing, a car owner will find it.
This, of course, made the cost to buy a ride beyond the ability of many sporty car drivers to pay. Consequently, fewer cars were entered to the point where it became difficult to attract enough cars to fill the 33-car field.
With the size of the field down, the drama of qualifications was greatly decreased. The battle for the pole left some excitement for the first day of qualifications. However, the attendance at the remaining qualification days decreased dramatically.
Although the race has remained mostly unaltered, many changes have been made to the activities proceeding the race.
The changes made to the program this year will be the most dramatic so far. They have added a second race, the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, an IRL race on the road course. This should make money for the track and help build excitement for the race.
It also will help to recover a return on the huge amount of money spent preparing the track for the U.S. Grand Prix. Although the road course is being modified somewhat for the new race, the changes are relatively minor.
Another, new wrinkle for Indy this year is the participation of rookie Kurt Busch. He already has passed his rookie test. He will be the first driver in years to attempt to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Sprint Cup race on the same day.
Only Tony Stewart was able complete all 1,100 miles of the two races. He did this in 2001. Three other attempts were made — John Andretti in 1994, Tony Stewart in 1999, and Robbie Gordon, in 2004.
Anyone who wants to follow Busch’s attempt can do so on kurtbuschdouble.com.
Tim McKinney writes a weekly racing column for The Republic. He can be reached at 379-5632.