101st Indy 500 Preview…Are The Fast Guys Going to Blow Up?
by Cole Coonce
Our Indy 500 Preview attempts to shed some light on a topic that’s been floating around Gasoline Alley. Who among the fast guys will make it 500 miles? Oriol Servia’s Honda blew up Monday during race practice, and the cloud of oil and water in the Rahal/Letterman entry’s wake seeded clouds of doubt in the paddock.
Beyond Servia, there have been more than a couple of these Hondas that crapped the bed. James Harvey and F1 flyboy Fernando Alonso have had issues. Before his crash, Sebastien Bourdai’s engine went south, perhaps as a result of foreign object damage in the intake.
Ironically, this is a variation of the shock waves that rumbled through the Indianapolis Motor Speedway exactly twenty years ago when Tony George and his mutinous cadre of hilljacks wrestled control of IndyCar racing from the elite financiers and the international playboys that ran the sport.
In 1996 Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, Gerald Forsythe, Carl Haas, and their master-capitalist comrades opted out of the speedway back then and took their turbocharged formula cars home to Champion Auto Race Teams HQ. This vacuum of talent and hardware left Tony George with a cast of characters who were a variation of the Keanu Reeves replacement movie where the unemployed make up the pro football squad, and the coach is a grizzled misanthrope with a chance at redemption. Technologically speaking, George’s gang mandated a new set up with production-based, normally-aspirated, mostly Oldsmobile V8s. These machines turned on 180-degree crankshafts and spat out a loud, flatulent song that was the aural equivalent of a Dutch oven, a maximum decibel dry heave that appalled the purists used to the smooth thrill of a short-stroked maximum-rpm turbocharged mill.
The new IndyCar’s uncouth sonic onslaught shook the fillings of the railbirds, and people wondered if these engines wouldn’t vibrate themselves out of the monocoque chassis of which it was a stressed, integral member.
Yes, twenty years ago the Indy 500 was basically a disaster, on both a sensory and political level. That year, after it rained for three days, in the race’s waning laps World of Outlaws Sprint Car superhero Steve Kinser drove into daredevil damsel Lynn St James. After the clean-up from that melee, Arie Luyendyk hit the loud pedal while the USAC flagman waived the green and the caution lights blinked yellow simultaneously. ABC tracked Arie’s radio microphone when he said: “What the f*** are they doing?” His question was more than rhetorical. This is the Greatest Spectacle in Racing? Whose vision was this?
(Two weeks later in Texas, USAC Timing & Scoring neglected to credit Arie with a lap and erroneously awarded AJ Foyt’s guy Billy Boat the race win. In the Winner’s Circle, Arie told them they were wrong — he, in fact, won. That tiff led to Foyt-on-Arie face-slapping replayed on ESPN ad infinitum.)
I was on assignment at Indy that year for Hot Rod Magazine after having convinced the editors to send me to the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” with an angle of “What if none of these unproven Oldsmobile Aurora and Infiniti engines make it to the end? What if they threw a 500-mile race and nobody finished?”
Well, Luyendyk will tell you that they did finish all 500 miles of course. But the other day when Oriol Servia’s powerplant pooped its diapers I had a raging sense of deja vu.
Pole-sitter Scott Dixon, defending winner Alexander Rossi, slingshot samurai Takuma Sato, Fernando Alonso, tough-as-titanium Tony Kanaan, birthright bridesmaid Marco Andretti and the reliably racy Ryan Hunter-Reay are all in wicked-fast Hondas. They are the picks to click. Meanwhile — except for Hoosier hot rodder Ed Carpenter and his fast-9 partner in crime Jr Hildebrand — any of the Chevy drivers are racing for class, including Roger Penske’s once-invincible cadre of Champions.
Decorated open-wheel heroes Will Power, Juan Pablo Montoya, Elio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud — all of whom drive for Penske — are faced with the dire reality of cruising for 500 miles while sucking tailwind behind the Hondas.
Unless… This is the year Hondas do what the flat-crank Olds Auroras were predicted to do in 1997. Not finish. Layover in ignominious shame.
This 500 could be a turbocharged twist on that classic Tortoise and the Hare fable with one of Penske’s boys going by the Team Andretti hitters–Marco, Rossi, Hunter-Reay or Alonso — squeaking out a win as they make their way through the Hondas speedy dry and the kitty litter.
And, as the race winds down, and from his perch in an air-conditioned suite, Arie Luyendyk will be muttering into his shrimp cocktail: “What the f*** are they doing?”
Want more? Read Best of the Indy 500 Pace Cars.