Critical “Race” Theory

It is Memorial Day Again.

Last Memorial Day I was on a boat in Charleston Harbor headed to Fort Sumter for a much-too-short visit. But today I saw a TV blurb about the delayed Indy 500, something I have not thought about for many years.

That took me back 65 years to 1959. Memorial Day was “Decoration Day”1 back then, and always on May 30, a Saturday, that year. I was mowing the grass with a gasoline lawnmower that you had to push. I was running with the mower so I could finish before the start of the Indianapolis 500 on the radio.2 Sid Collins, the “voice of the Indianapolis 500” until1977 would say, “and now, to start the greatest spectacle in racing, here is the President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony Hulman.” Then you would hear Hulman say loudly, slowly and emphatically, “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines.”3 And even on the radio, the cacophony was overwhelming. I don’t remember much about the race, and only by looking on Wikipedia do I know that Roger Ward won in a Watson-Offenhauser, and Jim Rathman was second, also in a Watson-Offenhauser. But I listened to the entire race.

Time passes, and 20 years later the mother of my friend Gale, who was the ticket manager of the Speedway, got me a pass into the pits on a sunny Tuesday testing and practice day. Gale picked me up at the Indianapolis airport, and we parked in the speedway employee parking lot. It was a day the 13-year-old-running-with-the-lawnmower could never have imagined; roaming through the pits and gasoline alley, listening to drivers and mechanics, being so close to all that noise, sitting on the pit wall talking to Johnny Rutherford’s wife.

I never attended a race. Somehow, sitting in the stands with 350,000 people seemed like a compromise. Besides, TV offered a much better view.

The first Indy 500 held on the brickyard4 in 1911 was sanctioned by the American Automobile Association (AAA), followed in 1956 by the United States Auto Club (USAC). After 25 years, team owners wanted more flexibility for technical innovation, types of racecourses and openness to international drivers – all restrictions by USAC. When USAC resisted, and Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) was formed in 1979.

At the outset CART was extremely successful with the introduction of turbocharged engines, ground-effects chassis, road courses, street circuits, carbon fiber structures, telemetry, and active suspension. For the first time, US open-wheel auto racing was considered a real competitor to Formula 1, and many of us began to wonder what might happen if both could compete on the same track at the same time. The Detroit Grand Prix (before the move to Belle Isle) was my first live race.

But it began to fall apart. As with all new ventures, there were growing pains, disagreements, financial pressures, and several bad management decisions. But the real factor in the near demise of the Indianapolis 500 and US open-wheel auto racing in the US was the decision by Tony George, the grandson of Tony Hulman and successor CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There were several years of conflict during which CART sanctioned the Indy 500, but essentially, in 1996 George said I will take my racetrack and leave, so the last CART race at Indy was 1995. Without its star venue, CART declined and filed bankruptcy in 2003. The former CART teams formed the Champ Car World Series and continued until 2008 when it merged with IRL.

Tony George formed the Indy Racing League (IRL) for, he claimed, four reasons – his Critical “Race” Theory to restore Indy Car Racing. All of these proved to be fallacy or irrelevant.

  • Driver safety – this was happening and would continue regardless of the IRL.
  • An all-oval schedule – this was not what the market wanted, as the expansion of street and road courses in NASCAR and ultimately IRL indicates.
  • Cost controlled racing – anyone with a passing interest in racing knows this is an oxymoron. I worked for a chief engineer who had run Ford’s early racing program. The back of his business card said, “Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?”
  • Better opportunities for success – In today’s terms, this is equity of outcomes rather than equality of opportunities. Equity of outcomes nearly always results in mediocrity.

What for me had been 40 years of excitement celebrated by the winner drinking milk from a bottle became so much milk toast. The Indy 500 and the IRL had become as exciting as an expressway drive. So in the late 1990s I gave up on the Indy 500.

Although the IRL never filed bankruptcy, it was never really successful. The community of racing fans in the US was not large enough to support two open-wheel racing organizations, drivers and schedules were fractured, and TV contracts were hard to acquire. On top of all that, NASCAR was booming with exciting races and inspired marketing. Then in 2008 the remnants of the two US open-wheeled racing organizations finally discovered they were dying they finally agreed to re-merge with hopes for recovery.

Then in 2019 a “miracle” happened; Penske Entertainment Corp acquired the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series. For four-plus decades, Penske has been auto racing gold. As one insider said, “With Roger Penske at the helm of IndyCar, team owners ‘going to sleep better at night’” Since the Penske domain, innovation has returned, with focus on the long-awaited hybrid assist module, followed by the 2.4-liter, twin-turbo engine.

Maybe I should give Indy cars another look…

However, few of today’s fans will know the excitement of the past – the sounds of the 50s and 60s: The four-cylinder offenhauser making 700 horsepower. The Novi geared supercharger screaming at nearly 50,000 RPM as it approached and its eight-cylinder exhaust roaring as it passed. The STP-Paxton turbine5 that made almost no sound at all as it lead the pack by nearly the entire front stretch.

But then, I was a kid.

You can find more detail on the 1996 split of CART and IMS at these locations:

  1. Decoration Day was declared a national day of remembrance by Union General John A. Logan on May 5, 1868, when he was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union Civil War veterans. Logan was born a few miles from my birthplace in Murphysboro. ↩︎
  2. Television broadcast of the Indy 500 was not allowed until 1965, and then by edited tape delay on ABC Wide World of Sports. The first flag-to-flag TV coverage was in 1986. ↩︎
  3. I found out later that Tony Hulman always took out a “prompt” card to make sure he did not forget those four words. ↩︎
  4. The track was paved with 3.2 million bricks made where I grew up by the Murphysboro Paving Brick Company ↩︎
  5. The STP-Paxton Turbine was an Andy Granatelli entry in the 1967 Indy 500 driven by Parnelli Jones. He took the lead on the first lap and only relinquished it for pit stops. But eight laps from the finish a transmission bearing failed and his day was done. ↩︎

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