Indy legends remember era of qualifying engines increasing speed, danger at Indy 500
INDIANAPOLIS – What is perhaps the most impressive thing about the speeds that were run on “Fast Friday” for the 107th Indy 500 is they are the same engines that were used in last week’s GMR Grand Prix.
For some teams, the engine might have been installed and used in the April 30 race at Barber Motorsports Park and maybe even the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach two weeks earlier.
True, the boost was turned up for Fast Friday and will continue at those turbocharger pressure settings for qualification weekend. That is the biggest reason why the speeds jumped from the 229 mph range to the high 234s that were run on Friday.
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But as recently as 2005, teams at Indianapolis Motor Speedway used to install special, high-powered, highly tuned Indy 500 qualifying engines. They were designed specifically for maximum speed over the four-lap, 10-mile qualification attempts to determine the 33-car starting lineup for the Indianapolis 500.
The 2005 season was the end of a competing engine manufacturer battle between Honda and Chevrolet until that battle was renewed with the 2012 season.
From 2006-11, Honda was the sole supplier and to meet the demand of providing engines for the entire field, Honda convinced IndyCar officials to do away with special qualifying engines.
More durable engines gave Honda Performance Development (HPD) a chance to meet the capacity requirements. Less rebuilds eased the supply chain issues.
When Chevrolet returned in 2012, both engine manufacturers agreed to mileage limitations where an engine could be used for several race weekends before being rebuilt.
Currently, teams are allowed four engines per season and are mileaged out at 2,500 miles.
Teams that change engines before the mileage is up, or teams that go over the total number of engines allowed in a season are assessed a six grid-spot penalty.
Teams will try to mileage out their engines this week so that fresh, new engines can be installed for the 107th Indianapolis 500 on May 28.
Team Penske president Tim Cindric is the son of an engine builder. His father Carl worked at Speedway Engines under the tutelage of famed engine builder Herb Porter.
He remembers the days of the speed, excitement and danger that came with special qualifying engines.
“Roger (Penske, team owner and IndyCar owner) and I were talking about this the other day, not only the engines but backup cars,” Cindric told NBC Sports. “You were required to run backup cars pretty much on the second week, because if your primary car was eliminated, you didn’t start the race or whatever else.
“I think those days are over, relative to the way it used to be. We used to put an engine in every day, and to ask the mechanics to do that kind of work and the budgets that went into that.
“We talk about running three or four engines a year through the whole season right now; we would use that many engines in one week.”
Mike Hull is the managing director for Chip Ganassi Racing, and he also recalls the massive workload and seemingly unlimited manpower required for specially built engines at the Indy 500.
“When I started here, we came here with two cars per driver, enough manpower to be able to roll the cars back and forth to the practice area on a daily basis with different setups on them,” said Hull, who has been working at the Indy 500 for more than four decades. “You had at least three, maybe four engine manufacturers, two tire companies, three chassis companies, and the lights never went off in the garage area. We never went home. We’d go home at 3:00 in the morning, come back at 6:30 in the morning, go back to work.
“I don’t know today with human resources if we’d get away with that, quite frankly. It was fantastic. It was fantastic, but the reason was because we had terrific manufacturer and vendor support in those days, which included the financial side of it.
“I would love it if we could go back to that, but it’s probably not going to happen.”
The lifespan of those engines was very short. They were built for horsepower, not durability.
“These engines were 50-mile engines, 100-mile engines with really short fuses,” Cindric said. “It was fun to a certain degree, but it was also risky from a driver standpoint, because you saw a lot more failure back then. I think throughout the month you would have one or two accidents just due to blown engines. Fortunately, we don’t see that today.
“I think those days are gone. But in terms of funding, it was unlimited, so it’s hard to really put a number to it.”
Rick Mears is one of the greatest drivers in Indianapolis 500 history and one of only four drivers to win the Indy 500 four times in his career. He is currently the Indy 500 record-holder for most poles in the big race with six.
Qualifying engines were used throughout his entire career that began in 1977 and ended with his retirement in 1992.
Mears earned the title “Rocket Man” because of his ability to find speed when it mattered the most.
“From the driver standpoint, it was always a lot of fun,” Mears told NBC Sports. “You always wanted to see numbers you’ve never seen before as far as RPMs or speeds or whatever the case may be. But it’s all relative. You do the same thing and try to accomplish the same thing no matter what horsepower range you have.
“You’re still trying to trim it enough to get it on the limit and hold your breath longer than the other guys or get it freer or whatever the case may be, so you’re still hanging on.
“It’s all relative in that respect, but it was always fun to have a little more and see some numbers you haven’t seen the whole month.”
Bobby Rahal is a two-time Indianapolis 500 winning team owner with drivers Buddy Rice in 2004 and Takuma Sato in 2020. Rahal also won the Indianapolis 500 as a driver in 1986 when he drove the TrueSport entry to a dramatic win just 11 days before team owner Jim Trueman died of cancer.
That was back when the IndyCar racing was about developing new cars, engines, and technology every season.
“There were big differences because you were building your own engines in those days,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “We had Franz Weiss, who probably built the best -- was probably one of the best engine builders in the country, maybe the world, do our engines.
“He did Mario Andretti’s, as well. When I was at Kraco, Kraco did their own engines, at Cosworth. Of course, Roger Penske had been doing his own engines from pretty much day one, I think.
“That’s why it’s different. Of course, you saw the differences back then. Today everything is so compressed in terms of time differences and what have you because everybody has got the same tire, everybody has got the same car, everybody has got the same aero, everybody has got basically the same engines, Cosworth and -- I think what’s amazing about the engine situation is we’re involved in IMSA where you have those balance of performance, which is a real, frankly -- I mean, it’s distraction in a large respect.
“Here it’s up to the engine guys to make the best out of what they’ve got, and that’s it. It’s whoever is the best.”
By making the life cycle of an engine last, it helps both HPD and Chevrolet maintain the difficult task of meeting the fixed price IndyCar sets for the engine leases with the cost of producing the engines.
“Today I’m sure the manufacturers love it more because the costs are restricted for the teams,” Rahal said. “The engines are very reliable. Better knock on wood over that, but very reliable.
“I think it meets -- the current situation meets the economic or financial environment that we live in right now. But it would be -- I still remember the push rod, the Buick, then the Mercedes showed up with it, took the rule book, and Roger kind of shattered the rulebook (with ‘The Beast’ engine in 1994).
“He lived up to the rules but came out with an engine that nobody thought anybody would do and then dominated.
“It’s just a different day today. But I’m sure the manufacturers like it because of the restrictions involved. And the amount of mileage. You’re limited as to how many miles you can put on the engine over the course of a year. That kind of controls your testing a little bit, too.”
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing brings a four-car, four-driver lineup to the 107th Indianapolis 500 with Graham Rahal of the United States, Christian Lundgaard of Denmark, Jack Harvey of Englan, and Katherine Legge of England.
NBC Sports asked Graham Rahal if he would have liked to have experienced the days where speed was kingm and qualification engines were used to make the race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I don’t know if the qualifying engine excites me as much as the change in chassis,” Graham Rahal said. “I was telling somebody the other day, I remember going up -- going to Team Rahal at the time or Rahal Letterman when it changed, and like I remember so clearly when the Lola, I think it was ’99, chassis showed up at the shop.
“It was like Christmas for me to go and see this new car and the excitement. I was a kid, but every year was something new, whether it was dad’s Reynard or -- like I said, we switched to the Lolas, and every year you’d see the Swifts and all these different things come out and it was so exciting to see a new chassis.
“I was joking with somebody the other day, I mean, who knows if I’ll ever drive a different chassis than this, and I’ve been driving this one for 11 years, 12 years.
“I would say I miss that aspect of it more than I think I miss having a crazy qualifying engine. For sure you go watch videos of Gil de Ferran and all that stuff and it’s pretty sweet, but it also is just such a different time.
“The cars are still changing. There’s a lot of innovation. I saw Dr. Trammell yesterday, the stuff that he’s done in his team, they’ve changed the game, and they have even with this chassis from the start of the DW12 to where it is today.
“Things are still improving. It’s just in a different way. But it would certainly excite me to drive a new Indy car at some point.”
Scott Dixon drives the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda at Chip Ganassi Racing. If he wins the pole this weekend for the 107th Indianapolis 500, he will tie Rick Mears for most poles in Indy 500 history with six.
He also would become the first driver to win three Indy 500 poles in a row.
The first three years of Dixon’s Indy 500 career from 2003-2005, came when qualification engines were still used. Since then, he has had to qualify with an engine used in the previous race or would be used in the Indy 500.
“I think as a driver you do miss those days, because each weekend you kind of had something new, whether it was a new set of exhausts or turbo or a new engine that only did 100 miles,” Dixon recalled. “It was probably not fun for the crews where you were changing -- on a typical race weekend it was three engines a weekend.
“But yeah, it was fun because the process was always changing, you were always learning things, you were always pushing things to different boundaries.
“Does it matter for the public or what people see? Probably not. They don’t notice any of it. But I think being in the sport and part of pushing the technology, that was always a lot of fun.”
Hull fondly remembers the old days of racing, but he also understands racing’s future and how important it is to keep costs contained, while maintaining the quality of competition.
“Today -- what’s in common with what we had is we still have strong manufacturers in the series,” Hull told NBC Sports. “That’s number one. That’s what we had in the days you’re talking about. We had strong manufacturers in the series.
“Things have changed now. Let’s face it. Financially they’ve changed, and so what the sanctioning body, the IndyCar sanctioning body has done is they’ve done a good job of saving us from ourselves. They have.
“What you don’t see as journalists, what the people in the grandstands don’t see, is how hard we work underneath the body panels to make the cars better than the rest, within the rules.”
During Hull’s career in IndyCar, there were some great engine programs at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, from the Chevrolet engine that Mario Andretti drove in 1987, to the Ford Cosworth in 1992. John Menard was a big believer in the Buick V-6 stock block engine that could produce tremendous horsepower but lacked the durability to win the Indy 500.
Toyota came to Indy in 2003 but left in 2005. Since then, it’s been Chevrolet and Honda, with the exception of 2006-2011 when it was all Honda as the single-engine supplier.
Hull loves IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500. He believes that IndyCar and the Indy 500 has a brighter future just a few years away.
“If you forecast this series down the road, I’ll make a prediction,” Hull said. “Five years from today there’s going to be 10 teams with three cars each. There’s going to be 30 cars in the series that are well-supported. That’s where it’s going.
“What’s going to happen then?
“By then we should have new cars. By then we should have three, maybe four engine manufacturers if Mr. Penske’s group do what they’re working to do. Hopefully we have a tire company still that will stay up with that.
“If you look at these drivers, they represent generationally what’s coming next. We can already see what’s coming next. This series is going to become more carnivorous than it is today, in a different fashion.
“But we’re still doing one thing in common with those days. We do one simple thing here: We just race cars. That’s all we do. That’s what we do.
“That’s why it’s so much fun at Indianapolis.”