Open-Wheeled On Memorial Day

On the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

For years, when the second weekend of May would roll around, I would go with my dad to Indianapolis for the first day of qualifying for the Indy 500. In those days, there were four days of qualifying over two weekends. The cars would go out one at a time and do four laps, and whoever had the fastest time on the first day would have the pole position, or the inside position on the front row. When 33 cars had qualified, they started “bumping”—the slowest car would be knocked out of the field if someone else came in and did a faster four laps.

For me, in my first exposure to live auto racing, it was very cool. Two aspects of it boggled my mind. First was the sheer speed of the cars: when I started going, they would average about 170 mph. for a lap. Over the next 10 years or so, that number rose steadily. I was there when Tom Sneva topped 200 mph. for the first time. Again, these speeds are the average speeds for a lap.

The second thing that blew me away was the immense size of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track is a 2-1/2-mile rectangle, with two straightaways of 5/8 mile each, four corners that take 1/4 mile each, and two “short chutes” of 1/8 mile each. We would generally try to sit in the first corner. Our first year there, we found a spot, and even though I understood the shape of the speedway, I couldn’t quite figure it out. I guessed that we were in the chute between turns one and two, but the back straight seemed very short compared to the front straight. Turned out that we were in the middle of Turn 1 — but the turn was so big that it looked like it was two turns. What I had presumed was the back straight was really the chute between turns 1 and 2.

Over the years, we were victimized by weather probably as often as not. If there’s any rain anywhere on the track, they shut everything down until the rain stops and then they can dry off the pavement so the slick-tired cars can run.

State-of-the-art: Lewis McClaren's F1 McClaren

Recently, though, I’ve come to like Formula 1, or Grand Prix, racing more than the Indianapolis-style racing. Both use open-wheeled race cars, but beyond that the two types of racing are completely different—and all of the comparisons favor the F1 racing, as far as I’m concerned.

This weekend, Formula 1 is at Monaco for the traditional race there, while the annual 500 will take place at Indianapolis. Here are some differences between the races:

Qualifying: At Indy, they’ve changed things slightly: qualifying is cut down to two days in one weekend now. Still, the cars go out one at a time for four-lap runs. It’s a nice way to see all the cars, but it can make for a long day. In F1, qualifying is all done in one morning, the day before the race. All 24 cars go out for a 20-minute session, with all theoretically on the track at the same time. Qualifying is done based on the driver’s fastest lap, in traffic. At the end of the session, the top 17 cars advance to the next round, while the bottom seven are given the last seven spots on the starting grid according to their times. Then the remaining cars go out for a 15-minute session, after which seven more cars are eliminated and given their respective starting spots. The final 10 drivers then go out for a final 10-minute session to decide the top 10 grid positions. So in 45 minutes of intense action, F1 gets done what it takes Indy two whole days to finish.

The Track: Indianapolis, like most tracks in the champ car series, is symmetrical and predictable. Over the 200 laps of the race, the driver will make 800 left turns, and that’s it. I’m not by any means saying it’s an easy task for the driver, but from a spectator standpoint, there’s a lot of sameness. In Formula 1, every track is different, but all of them are full of twists and turns; particularly Monaco, where there’s barely a section of truly straight road to be found. Most of the courses on the F1 circuit have a combination of long straights and very tight hairpins, a wide variety of corners that really test the drivers and their cars.

The vibe: F1 is nothing if not international. The circuit visits about 18 countries, and features drivers from nearly that many. There haven’t even been any Americans on the circuit for a couple of years now, nor is there a United States Grand Prix this year. Next year, though, the circuit will come to America for a race at a new road course being built in Austin, Texas. The Indy car circuit, on the other hand, is much more American. Maybe not as quintessentially American as NASCAR — OK, not even close — but Indy certainly has its share of Billy-Bob drawlers. America: where our politics turn right and our race cars turn left.

The Start: Exciting in both F1 and Indy cars. At Indy, the cars take a couple of laps behind the pace car to get up to speed, and then they take a flying start, down the home straight and into turn 1. In Formula 1, cars line up on the grid for a standing start. When the red lights go off, they accelerate like crazy, trying to get the advantage into the first corner. In both events, the start is absolutely nerve-wracking, often the most thrilling moment of the race.

The Race: Indy will take, what, 2-1/2 hours to complete. It just seems longer, with all 800 of those rounded-90-degree corners. At Monaco today, the race lasts maybe a couple of hours, depending on the number of caution periods. That’s plenty of time to determine a winner, in my mind. If it’s speed you want, there’s no way F1 will top Indy. But watching on television, or even in person, it’s hard to tell the difference between a pack of cars going 170 mph. and a pack of cars going 200 mph. It’s all relative, and the exciting part is how closely the cars race against each other, not their top speeds. Oh, and if it rains, the F1 cars don’t dive for the garage; they simply change their tires and head back out, trying to get as much grip as possible on the wet track, but still racing each other.

I could go on and on here, but hopefully you get the point. Will America ever embrace Formula 1? Doubtful, but it will be interesting to see the response next year at Austin.

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