Longtime Indy 500 fan takes a memorable lap around the track during a visit to the
Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum.
Every Memorial Day as a youngster, I listened to the radio broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 and daydreamed about being at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS). In my mind's eye, I was rocketing down the back straight, diving through the third turn into the short chute that leads to the fourth turn, and shooting onto the front straight, flashing past the pits on my left and the grandstands on my right.
While I've never seen the race in person, I have taken a lap on the track, and so can you. I didn't speed around the 2.5-mile Indy oval, however. My lap around the track was in a van (not in a racecar) at top speed of 30 mph (not 200 mph), but it was thrilling just to be on that historical track.
The track tours are offered through the IMS Hall of Fame Museum, but before I ride, there's tour to take.
Excellent auto museum
In 1987, the museum and speedway grounds were designated a National Historic Landmark. I'd heard it was a fine automotive museum, but that's an understatement. It's an excellent museum, and while part of it is specifically dedicated to Indy cars, at least half the exhibits are devoted to other racecars and antique vehicles. At any given time, there are about 75 different vehicles on display in the museum.
More than 30 winners of the Memorial Day Classic are displayed in the museum, including the Marmon Wasp, the winner of the first Indy 500 in 1911. Ray Harroun drove it. A massive bright yellow vehicle with a six-cylinder engine and huge wheels averaged 74.6 mph. It took seven exhausting hours to complete the race.
The four cars A.J. Foyt drove to victory are there as well, including the 1977 racer that marked his record-setting fourth Indy victory.
Some unusual and successful, yet non-winning Indy cars are on display as well. For example, there's a Novi, which some called “a most magnificent flop.” It was a front-wheel drive car, and set numerous lap records, but it never won the race. The car's best finish was third place in 1948.
Diesel engines and auto racing sound like an oxymoron, but in 1931, a Cummins marine diesel engine was fitted into an Indy racecar, and it finished 13th out of a field of 40 starters. After several successes and a few failures in the 1940s, it looked like a Cummins powered car would be the car to beat in the 1952 Indy 500.
A specially designed Kurtis-Kraft roadster was fitted with a turbocharged Cummins diesel. It was the first turbocharged car to compete at Indy. The engine lay on its side in the chassis to assure a low center of gravity and to accommodate streamlining the body.
The car was fast, and Freddie Agabashian captured the pole position at 139.104 mph. But the car lasted just 70 laps. The turbocharger that boosted the car's speed also became its downfall. An ill-placed turbocharger inlet sucked up rubber tire particles and other track debris, which clogged the turbocharger beyond repair. A Cummins powered car never again raced at Indy, but the huge metallic-green car can be seen in the IMS museum.
Taking a lap
After touring the museum, all the racing history molecules in my body were primed for a lap on the track. Vans and small buses are used for the track tours. I recommend touring the track in a van. You'll have a better view of the track ahead of you and a chance for better pictures.
I've watched numerous Indy 500 races on television but when we actually entered the track, I was surprised that it is much narrower than it looks on TV. It's just 50 feet wide on the straights and 60 feet wide in the four turns.
It's evident as you approach each of the track's turns that they are all different in banking and length. After seeing the differences in each turn, it became more understandable why this seemingly simple track can be a challenge for rookies and veteran drivers alike.
The tour vehicle enters the track between turns one and two. Thus, the first turn you see and experience is turn two. It's a sweeping banked turn. As you exit the turn, you get the full view of the 5/8-mile long back straight. During warm weather, there are shimmering pools of hot air on the track's surface that resemble puddles of water. As you approach turn 3, the asphalt rises abruptly on the outside of the turn. It is decidedly different banking from turn two.
Exiting turn three, there's a short chute (1/8-mile) and even at 30 mph, the entry to turn four comes quickly. At nearly 200 mph, it must seem instantaneous. Turn four is one of the track's most dangerous turns as evidenced by skid marks on the track and tire marks on the turn's outside retaining wall. They are still visible months after the race, and are mute reminders of cars that lost control.
Exiting turn four, you're looking down the front straight, with pit row on the left the scoring tower at the start/finish line, and the starter's stand high above the track on the right.
Your tour guide will point out various important features of the track, including the strip of bricks at the start/finish line, a reminder of the era when the track's surface was brick. Though no longer covered in bricks, the IMS is often still referred to as the “Brickyard.” For several years, there was a NASCAR stockcar race at Indianapolis dubbed the Brickyard 400. It's now known as the Crown Royal 400 at the Brickyard.
Your tour of the track is nearly complete when you pass through turn 1 and into the short chute leading to turn 2. Shortly after exiting turn one, the tour guide makes a left turn and exits the track and returns you to the front of the museum. In all, the tour lasts about 15 minutes.
A visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's superb museum and a tour of its famous racetrack is a visit to auto racing history, and to some visitors, perhaps the fulfilling of a dream.
Richard Bauman is a new contributor from West Covina, Calif.
May/June 2016 Issue
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