It’s finally here. It’s been 352 days since last year’s Indianapolis 500, and while the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has hosted some other tenants, today it welcomes home its rightful guests as official preparations begin for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.
For slightly more than half it’s history, practice for the Indianapolis 500 always began on May 1 and the race itself was on May 30, thus the “Thirty Days of May.” However, in the early 1970s, as a result of Congress changing Memorial Day to the last Monday in May and a nationwide energy crisis, the decision was made to shorten the Month of May, moving the Opening Day from May 1 to three weeks and one day before the big race. As the race could be run on dates ranging from May 24 through May 30, Opening Day could be as early as May 2 and as late as May 8.
When the track opened on May 1, rarely did many cars show up for those early days. More often than not, the track would be open but sit silent for a majority of the time. Unlike the current chassis situation, days of yore saw many more homegrown race cars that were not mass produced in factories and used for many years. Most cars were custom built and manufactured in small batches. As such, many cars would be entered into the Indianapolis 500 having never been run previously, and oftentimes they weren’t even completed when entries were due.
Those early days were great for those cars to all work out their bugs, or at least try to. Some were successful. Some failed. But those early, slow-paced days in May were great for testing the final touches on new cars and making sure things were working as expected.
By the early 1980s, the landscape had changed greatly and was continuing to do so. With the first week of practice now removed for nearly 10 years, another major shift in chassis came that further reduced the need for extra time at Indianapolis. In 1981, March Engineering took a failed Formula One attempt to copy the Williams FW07 and turned it into an Indy car. Thanks in large part to the efforts of legendary IndyCar mechanic George Bignotti, the March Indy car soon became the must-have car in IndyCar racing. Before long, most of the custom made Indy cars – the Eagles, the Wildcats, the Coyotes – were made obsolete. By the mid 1980s, Indy car racing was dominated by two major players – March and Lola – and Lola didn’t really come into major prominence until 1987 when Mario Andretti dominated Indianapolis and Bobby Rahal won the CART championship.
(Penske Cars continued to built their own Indy car chassis as well with occasional successes in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until the Nigel Bennett-designed PC-17 in 1988 that Penske Cars became a powerful player in the field. With the exception of Patrick Racing in 1989, new Penske chassis were never made available to customer teams. Tony Bettenhausen’s team for several years ran year-old Penske chassis, and Eddie Cheever unsuccessfully attempted to qualify a year old PC-21/Chevy-B at Indianapolis in 1993.)
With March and Lola quickly becoming the must-have chassis to have to win either at Indianapolis or the CART championship, those companies churned out dozens of new cars every year with teams usually receiving them early in the year. No longer were teams needing weeks of testing time at Indianapolis to iron out their new creations. The first week of Indianapolis practice was gone and would never return.
What that did, though, was concentrate the activity at The Brickyard and made Opening Day a more significant day. Suddenly, instead of teams wandering into the facility over an extended period of time and slowly taking to the track, teams now wanted to hit the ground running and start the quest to find speed as quickly as possible. The two week schedule – a week of practice concluding with the first weekend of practice preceded a second full week of practice and a second weekend of qualifications – allowed teams to focus solely on finding speed for qualifications during the first week. There was generally no thought whatsoever put toward race day during the first week of practice. It was all about one thing – speed. And it was a race to be first on track. For many years, that honor went to the cars sporting the Bryant Heating & Cooling sponsorship and then to the ever-growing armada of cars owned by Dick Simon. That tradition has also gone by the wayside as Opening Days of recent years have been inconsistent with the use of the Rookie Orientation Program sometimes before opening the track to all cars. (It should be noted that, as far as I recall, no driver has ever won the Indianapolis 500 after being the first car on track for the year.)
As I recall from my memories of the early 1990s, there was no such thing as a “no-tow” sheet ever published. And I wish it was still that way. Part of the thrill of the first week of practice was watching speeds escalate and the head games drivers and teams played with each other. Watching names like Mario, Mears, Little Al, Michael, Guerrero, Luyendyk, and so many others throw big speeds on the board was exciting for fans and added a sense of drama to the proceedings. Fans wanted to see who could go the fastest and put their name in the headlines at the end of the day. By the time Pole Day came around after a week of practice, people knew who had posted the fastest speeds and the drama came from whether or not they could back it up on their own. Some did. Some didn’t.
For those teams that successfully qualified on the first weekend, the second week of practice was more laid back. That’s not to say it was easy for anyone, but they were able to attack the week at a more leisurely pace and focus solely on race-day setups. For those teams that failed to qualify, the second week was excruciating. They had the stress of wondering where to find additional speed before they could even consider thinking about race-day setups. They had to walk before they could crawl. And every day they failed to find the speed they felt they needed to securely get into the field, the pressure ratcheted up another notch. More pressure meant more stress meant more mistakes. Some found the key. Many didn’t. I always thought the second week, while not usually seeing the speeds of the first week, was every bit as exciting and even more full of storylines.
It really does make me sad that practices have been condensed from 12 days down to about 5 now. The head games are mostly gone because everyone is looking at no-tow speeds (a report which I despise and wish would go away!). Qualifying speeds are mostly stagnant because few teams really focus on finding the additional speed for qualifying until Fast Friday. I know it’s probably necessary in today’s economy, but if I’m being completely honest, I would much rather watch an exciting and action packed week of practice on the big oval than watch the INDYCAR Grand Prix that has now replaced the first weekend of qualifying. Others will disagree, but that’s my two cents.
As for things I’m looking for today… I think we’ll see a lot of cars making very short runs early on. For most of the top teams, they will have dedicated cars that have been stored under lock-and-key for the Indianapolis 500 and have likely only been run at the Open Test last month. The early portion of the day will see a lot of leak checks and shake downs. I don’t expect to see many cars running together today, and certainly not early on. Teams will likely be dialing in a lot of downforce to get their drivers comfortable and confident running at 220 mph again before they start taking the training wheels off and turning them loose.
With the condensed practice time, it is more critical than ever to avoid putting a car into the wall, especially as we get later into the week. If a team crashes on Fast Friday or, even worse, Saturday, their chances of getting into the Field of 33 could be in serious jeopardy. For that reason alone, I don’t expect too many teams to take many chances early on looking for speed and removing downforce. It always tends to happen, though, so someone is bound to have an early week accident. Hopefully my streak of inaccurate predictions will turn out wrong again.
What will be particularly interesting is to see how the engine battle shakes out over the next couple days. Honda has clearly had the upper hand throughout the opening rounds of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series, but Chevrolet pulled off a victory in the INDYCAR Grand Prix to go with their win at St. Pete. The long straights and high speeds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval are a completely different beast, though, so I expect the slate to be wiped clean starting today.
Remember that all practice sessions for the Indianapolis 500 are being streamed on NBC Sports Gold this year, not via IndyCar.com or on YouTube. Yes, you have to pay $40 to get access to the stream (which is good through the rest of the year), and no, I don’t want to hear your complaints about it if you simply choose not to drop the money for it. (My international brethren, I hear your cries and feel your pain. I wish I had a solution for you, but neither Mark Miles nor NBC have asked my opinion or advice. Hopefully something will shake loose for you quickly!) We were all blessed to have access to free streaming the last couple years, but that’s just not the way of the world. I’m not really sorry, because the NBC Sports Gold broadcasts have been exceptional this year and I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is as a fan. Indianapolis alone is important enough to me for me to spend that money. The rest of the year is a bonus. Rant over.
Enjoy Opening Day and get ready to see some big speeds over the next couple days. As I wrap up typing this, Ed Carpenter and Helio Castroneves, both in Chevrolet cars, are both already over 228 mph. It’s going to be a great month!!