Records are meant to be broken – maybe

“Records are made to be broken.”

Those were the words of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk on an April day in 2016 at Phoenix International Raceway when Luyendyk watched his 20-year old track record fall in qualifying to Helio Castroneves.  Standing next to Luyendyk as Castroneves’s speed was announced, I said to Arie, “You’ve still got a couple big records left to your name. You’ll probably have those for a long time to come.” He knew that I was, of course, speaking of his one- and four-lap qualifying records at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Records really are meant to be broken.  It takes innovation, skill, bravery, and luck to break a record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — at least the good ones.  Unfortunately some take bad luck, hard luck, and futility, but those are the records no one wants to hold.

When it comes to speed records, Arie Luyendyk still reigns supreme.  For a period of 17 years, Luyendyk held The Triple Crown, The Triumvirate, The Trinity of Indianapolis Motor Speedway records by holding the one- and four-lap qualifying records (both set in 1996) and the 500-mile race record set in 1990.  The race record fell to Tony Kanaan in 2013, but Luyendyk still holds the qualifying records on either side of 237 mph.

For over 90 years, speeds were on an upward march as technology and innovation pushed speeds up and times down.  It took just over 60 years for speeds to go from a minimum straight-line qualifying speed of 75 mph in 1911 to Parnelli Jones breaking the 1-minute, 150 mph barrier in 1962.  It would take only another 15 years for Tom Sneva to break the 200 mph barrier, knocking 15 seconds off Jones’s lap time.  In 1996, Luyendyk circled the 2.5-mile oval in 37.895 seconds at an average speed of 237.498 mph (shown in the picture above is Arie’s record breaking Ford-Cosworth-powered 1994 Reynard).

In the last few years, qualifying speeds have generally held steady around 230-231 mph, which equates to a time of roughly 39 seconds.  One of the most asked questions involving the future of the Indianapolis 500 is whether Arie Luyendyk’s qualifying records will ever be broken.  I believe they will.

Unfortunately for those who want to see the records broken sooner rather than later, it doesn’t appear that record speeds are on the immediate horizon.  Both Honda and Chevrolet say they have essentially maxed out the performance of the current 2.2L turbocharged engine formula.  While small, incremental gains may be found in the next couple years, it is likely that new records will not be achievable until INDYCAR introduces a new 2.4L engine for the 2021 season.  It might take a few years after that engine is introduced, but I firmly believe we’ll be seeing new qualifying records by the middle of the 2020s.

I believe the most obvious record to be broken is the race average speed, which currently sits at 186.433 mph by Tony Kanaan in 2013.  For many years, no one thought Luyendyk’s 1990 record of 185.981 mph would ever be beaten. However, IndyCar racing in 500-mile races has greatly changed over the past several years.  With race car reliability at an all-time high, races with few cautions are common today.

The 2013 “500” was slowed by only five caution periods (one more than the 1990 race), but there were no cautions from lap 60 to 194.  In 2014, the first 150 laps were run without caution, easily destroying the previous record green flag laps from the start of 66 laps set in 2000.  Later that season, Juan Pablo Montoya won the Pocono INDYCAR 500 by setting the record for the fastest 500-mile race in history at over 202 mph in a race that featured only a single caution period.

The 2018 Indianapolis 500 was hampered by more cautions as the tricky new universal aero kit and near record high temperatures wreaked havoc on drivers.  Even some of the best IndyCar drivers in history – names like Helio Castroneves and Sebastien Bourdais – were unable to keep their cars off the wall.  The cars are certainly more difficult to drive now than they were in the years of massive downforce from manufacturer aero kits, but if higher levels of downforce return and temperatures are more reasonable, I can foresee the Indianapolis 500 having more long stretches without caution periods and the return of record race speeds.

So what other records could someday be broken?  Here are three for your consideration…

Most Pole Positions (Rick Mears – 6): When it came to qualifying, there was simply nobody better than Rick Mears.  Perhaps the most tactical drivers ever at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Rick had a magic way of taking a car to its very limit, figuring out what caused the car to be limited at that point, and then pushing through it.  Once he found his way through one limit, he’d tackle the next one.  His string of pole positions – 1979, 1982, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1991 – seems like a tall task for anyone to match, let alone surpass. However, others are getting close. Current Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves is the closest of active drivers with four pole positions, including three poles in four years between 2007 and 2010. However, Helio hasn’t had a front row start since his 2010 pole and is running out of time.  With the shortened practice format, Team Penske generally focuses more on race setup than qualifying, so Helio may find it difficult to catch his Team Penske advisor.

Tied for second on the list of active drivers are Ed Carpenter, who won poles in 2013, 2014, and 2018, and Scott Dixon, with poles in 2008, 2015, and 2017.  My gut feeling is that Carpenter has the better shot of these two to make it to six pole positions, but even that is a long shot.

So it might not be a current driver who someday eclipses Mears’s record (Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe are the only other active IndyCar drivers with an Indianapolis 500 pole position to their credit), but someday, a driver will come along that could beat the current gold standard.

Most Indianapolis 500 Victories (AJ Foyt, Al Unser, Rick Mears – 4): It’s going to happen.  Someday.  It probably won’t be for a while, but someday it is going to happen.  Someone will eventually get their fifth Indianapolis 500 victory.  But I think we’re still a long ways out from seeing it happen.

Tommy Milton was the first two-time winner of the race in 1922.  Louis Meyer would be the first three-time winner in 1936, but it would take another 41 years before AJ became the first four-time winner.  Suddenly, they came in bunches as Al Sr. got his fourth in 1987 and Mears got his in 1991.  Since then Helio has come tantalizingly close but just hasn’t quite been able to join one of the most exclusive clubs in auto racing.

It’s not like he hasn’t been close though.  After winning his first two races at IMS in 2001 and 2002, Castroneves finished second behind teammate Gil de Ferran in 2003 by only 0.299 seconds.  Castroneves would finish second again in 2014 behind Ryan Hunter-Reay by 0.060 seconds, the second closest finish in race history.  In 2017, Helio was again denied his fourth victory by the blink of an eye when he followed Takuma Sato to the checkered by 0.201 seconds.  In total, Helio is 0.570 seconds from being a six time Indianapolis 500 champion.

Driving for Team Penske, Helio still has a first-rate chance to get his fourth Indianapolis 500 win in 2019, but the sand is drawing near the bottom of the hourglass for the 43-year old (soon to be 44-year old) Brazilian.  Roger Penske removed him from his full-time IndyCar ride following the 2017 season, and he wasn’t really competitive in 2018.  2019 might be one of his final opportunities to get his fourth win, but even if he does, a fifth win seems like a long shot at this point.

Youngest Winner (Troy Ruttman in 1952 – 22 years, 80 days old): Quite honestly, I’m surprised this record has stood as long as it has.  When Ruttman captured the Indianapolis 500 in 1952, he has spent the previous years being less than truthful about his age.  His first year at the Speedway, 1949, Ruttman was actually only 19 years old but claimed to be 21, the minimum age for entry in the race.  Two years later, when he actually was 21, he came clean and corrected his date of birth.  A year later, less than three months past his 22nd birthday, he would go on to victory when Bill Vukovich had a steering failure with only 9 laps remaining.

In the era of Ruttman’s win, drivers typically came to the Speedway at an older age having spent more time developing their trade on the midget and sprint car circuits throughout the country.  In today’s IndyCar world, it is not uncommon to have drivers running full time in the series before their 20th birthday after having started racing in karts before they can even tie their shoes.

Marco Andretti came within half a straightaway of breaking Ruttman’s record in 2006 when he, as a rookie, led within sight of the checkered flag, only to be passed by Sam Hornish a couple hundred yards before the Yard of Bricks.  Marco was only 19 years old on that day and would have easily set the record for youngest winner.

Perhaps no one that age has been so highly touted since Marco Andretti as is Colton Herta this year.  Herta already has a victory under his belt, having won earlier this year at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin.  Colton is fast and fearless, and given the association between Harding-Steinbrenner Racing and Andretti Autosport, he should have an exceptionally fast car for his maiden voyage at The Brickyard.  Furthermore, Herta will have four attempts to break Ruttman’s 67-year old record.  His father, Bryan, was never able to find Victory Lane in his six attempts as a driver, though he has since been there twice as an owner with Dan Wheldon and Alexander Rossi, but young Colton has a good chance in 2019 and may well be considered among the favorites in years to come.

So while these records have a good chance of someday being broken, there are a number of records that I believe have absolutely NO chance of ever being reached.  Here are some of those:

Most Starts (AJ Foyt – 35): There is no chance this record will ever be broken.  None.  Consider this… Helio Castroneves, the most experienced driver attempting to qualify for this year’s 500, will be attempting to start his 19th Indianapolis 500 this year (which is actually hard to believe).  That means that only last year did Helio eclipse half of AJ’s record.  I know Helio is a fit guy and keeps himself young at heart, but I see no possibility whatsoever he still has another 16 years left in him.  Tony Kanaan is a year behind with 17 starts, and Scott Dixon has 16 races under his belt.  AJ’s record is simply unbelievable, and I feel pretty certain it will continue to stand for all time.

Most Wins by an Owner (Roger Penske – 17 and counting): Perhaps this needs an asterisk because there’s a very good chance Team Penske still has several Indianapolis 500 wins in its future.  But nobody is likely to ever catch Penske’s record of race wins, whatever his final number turns out to be.  Currently Andretti Autosport is tied for second place with five wins, a number that was the record held by Lou Moore from the 1930s and ’40s and eventually surpassed by Roger Penske with Big Al’s 1987 win.  Chip Ganassi also has five wins as a car owner (if you count Emerson Fittipaldi’s win in 1989), but he hasn’t been back to Victory Lane since Dario Franchitti won in 2012.

Most Laps Led in a Single Race (Billy Arnold – 198 laps in 1930): It just can’t happen in today’s racing.  Billy Arnold set a level of dominance in 1930 that will never be seen again in the Indianapolis 500.  Though starting on pole, Arnold got jumped on the start by Louis Meyer, who led the first two laps of the race, but quickly found his way to the lead on lap 3.  He never relinquished the lead again, leading 198 out of 200 laps.  The closest anyone has come to that level of dominance since then was Al Unser leading 190 laps in 1970.  Mario Andretti led 170 of the first 177 laps in 1987 before an electrical problem ended his run.  His son, Michael, would lead 160 of the first 188 laps in 1992 before his fuel pump failed.

Fewest Laps Led in the Race by a Winner (Dan Wheldon – 1 lap in 2011): This one is too easy.  This one is actually guaranteed to never be broken. Tied, perhaps, but never broken.  No one will ever forget JR Hildebrand hitting the Turn 4 wall on the final lap to give Dan Wheldon an unexpected second win in the Indianapolis 500 in 2011.  Dan didn’t have a full-time ride for the season, having been dropped by Panther Racing following the 2010 season.  He took a ride with his friend and former Andretti-Green Racing teammate Bryan Herta and found magic on race day.  Along with Al Unser’s win in 1987, Wheldon’s win will go down as one of the most improbable wins in the history of the 500. His tragic passing five months later cemented the legacy of the win.

Most Cars Entered for the Race (1984 with 117 cars entered): In today’s day and age, it seems like an annual struggle just to get 33 cars for the Indianapolis 500.  Thankfully the last couple years have seen 35 and 36 cars entered.  But those who like to wax nostalgic about the Good Ol’ Days often point to 1984 for how good things used to be.  Yes, there were 117 cars entered in 1984, but as Donald Davidson likes to say, “The numbers don’t always tell the story.”

While there were 114 cars on the official entry list, all indications are that only 87 of those cars were ever verified as having been in Gasoline Alley or even seen on the grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Furthermore, a significant number of cars and drivers took to the track but never got anywhere near the speed necessary to qualify for the race.  In fact, when it was time to qualify on the clock, how many cars were bumped in 1984?  Out of the 114 entries, the totally number of cars bumped from the field was ONE!  And as an interesting side note, the one driver who was bumped, Chris Kniefel, ended up starting the race as the first alternate when Jacques “The Uncle” Villeneuve’s car was withdrawn after a crash on Carburetion Day.

I tell this story more to thumb my nose at people who obsess about The Good Ol’ Days as if they were perfect in every way.  The Good Ol’ Days were never as good as they seem, and today isn’t as bad as it seems.  I would much prefer to have 37 or 38 high-quality cars on the entry list with six to eight cars battling each other for those last tenths of a mile per hour than to have an entry list with 114 cars but only one car bumped.  Rant over.

That being said, it’s unlikely we will have another entry list with more than 40 cars on it anytime in the foreseeable future and almost assuredly never again will there be 100 cars entered, if for no other reason than the simple fact that backup cars are no longer listed as a separate entry. It doesn’t mean the sport or the event is on the verge of death.  It simply means we are in another time.  Time marches on.

And records are meant to be broken.

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