Survival, innovation and the Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS – Practice and qualifying for the first Indianapolis 500 since the unification of open wheel racing in North America have, for the most part, been devoid of any real drama and excitement.

Weather has been the story this month as teams have dealt with rainy, cool and windy conditions nearly every day since the track opened for practice May 4.

As a result, teams are left pressed for time while precious hours needed for preparing their cars for qualifying and the race itself have been lost to Mother Nature. For teams with prior experience at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the situation can be difficult at best.

Others have struggled, often with disastrous results.

Over the past two weeks, there have been several extremely violent crashes that just a few years ago would have given one cause to shudder and expect the worst.

With the invention of the SAFER barrier and its implementation at Indianapolis and nearly all major racetracks in North America, we may be near the end of an era of career-ending and in some cases, life-ending crashes in auto racing.

Auto racing, especially Indy Car racing, is and always will be an extremely dangerous sport, but the advances in safety over the past decade have been remarkable.

The most violent crash of the month happened on Saturday. Phil Giebler, who was the 2007 Indy 500 rookie of the year, backed his car into the wall with such violent force it sent him to the hospital with bruised lungs and destroyed his race car.

Without the SAFER barrier (an energy-absorbing system) and the modern construction techniques incorporated into his Indy car – which helped absorb a good deal of the impact – it's safe to say that Giebler's injuries could easily have been far worse and quite possibly fatal.

Innovation and technological advancement has been a hallmark of the Speedway since it was built. In fact, when originally constructed in 1909, it was designed to be a test track and proving grounds for what at the time was a rapidly expanding auto industry in Indiana.

At the first Indy 500 in 1911, race winner Ray Harroun's car used a device for the first time that has since become standard equipment on all cars – the rear-view mirror.

In the following years, dozens of innovations, many related to safety, were introduced at the Indy 500. They include the mandatory use of helmets by drivers and later by crew members (due to an incident at the Indy 500), magnetic inspection of key safety-related parts like steering wheel shafts, a dedicated emergency medical center, fire-retardant racing suits and roll bars.

Safety and innovation had become such a major part of the Indianapolis 500 that in 1967, the BorgWarner Louis Schwitzer Award was established to recognize engineering innovation and excellence developed in relation to the race. Recently, the inventors the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device and the SAFER barrier received the award.

Looking at the history of the race and the Speedway, much innovation was also on the design of the cars and engines.

For a good deal of Indy 500 history, the car and engine combinations were far more diverse than today's standardized engine, car and tire combination.

In large part, that diversity and innovation was what made the Indy 500 such a special race.

Fans would come to the Speedway each year just to see the new cars and engines. The race itself was not only a test of driver skill and daring, but also of how well these specially designed and built racing machines could hold up during a competitive 500-mile race.

Each team designed and built their own chassis using specially built engines from a select group of manufacturers who desired the winning engine for the world's most prestigious 500-mile test of endurance to be their own.

The Indy 500 was a wide-open kind of race that rewarded those who thought outside the box and pushed the limits of speed.

Everything changed when the newly-founded Indy Racing League introduced a new rules package to the Speedway in 1997.

Thinking outside the box was discouraged.

The box was, in fact, made smaller by the league's leaders, who wanted to level the playing field.

It simultaneously opened opportunities for those who had not been able to participate in what was, up until then, the most prestigious auto race in the world.

And it changed everything.

This homogenization of Indy car racing and the subsequent lowering of the bar on participation in the late 1990s is the reason why the Indy 500 has lost much of its glamour and prestige over the past decade.

There is an upside to today's Indy car formula of a single manufacturer each supplying the cars, engines and tires. While it may have taken some of the excitement out of coming to the Speedway in May, it has contributed to controlling costs while making the race safer and arguably more competitive than before.

As a result, the newly-unified Indy Car series is likely to not see a change in the formula for at least three years, in part to allow the teams from the now-defunct Champ Car series to acquire the kind of knowledge that will help them firmly establish themselves while allowing new teams to come into the series.

It also contributes to maintaining a tightly controlled cost structure.

I'm OK with that, if it means that one day in the near future the Speedway will once again be a place where exciting innovations like jet engine-powered race cars (which nearly won the race in 1967 and 1968 before a change in the rules made them non-competitive) will make the field of 33 cars.

Hybrids, as well as all-electric engines and cars with enclosed cockpits racing on plastic and metal composite tires, are envisioned to be a part of the Indy 500 of the future.

But come next Sunday, it will be 33 nearly identical Honda-powered, Dallaras on Firestone tires competing in the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" for the 92nd time.