Monday, May 23, 2011

The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 is scheduled for Sunday. Thirty-three drivers will climb into their cars and line up at the Brickyard for the race — 200 lapts of the 2.5-mile track.
Jim Murray covered many a 500-mile race at Indianapolis, and not always with the best of receptions. He once was asked to never return to the fabled Brickyard Sports after penning the memorable line “Gentlemen, Start Your Coffins."
Good thing that ban didn't stick or we never would have gotten today's classic from the Jim Murray archives.



Round Trip to Nowhere

    INDIANAPOLIS — I'd appreciate it if this could be kept from the prying eyes and ears of the National Safety Council, Motor Vehicle Bureau, the Indiana State Police, Ralph Nader and the Auto Club, but 33 holiday motorists here are conspiring to break the law on Memorial Day.
    They plan to break the speed limit by as much as 130 m.p.h. in cars that don't have lights, direction signals, reverse gears, windshield wipers, horns, defoggers, license plates, registration or roofs. They don't even have axles.
    Talk about lemons! They cost $200,000 apiece. And they don't even have self-starters. They can't run in the rain, turn right or hold passengers. They are built to go only 500 miles but most of them won't even do that. You can't get insurance on them because Lloyd's of London would rather insure the Japanese fleet going into the Battle of Midway.
    Of the 33 that start the Memorial Day rip, maybe five will complete it. The rest will finish on fire, on top of somebody, on a wall or on a tow-truck. They break every anti-noise ordinance ever passed. They've punctured more eardrums than Krupp’s cannon.
    The safety factor is about what it would be on a U-boat under the British fleet. They consume more fuel, faster, than the Luftwaffe in the Blitz. You get just under two miles to the gallon. They spill more oil than a grounded tanker.
    You would think they would put a net over a guy who wanted to spend Memorial Day on a 500-mile round trip to nowhere (for some, of course, it may be a one-way trip). The least a guy ought to want to do driving 500 miles is cross a state line or two. These guys not only stay in the same state, they stay in the same maze, a corridor of death not wide enough for three cars abreast if one turns sideways.
    The drivers wear ear-plugs, bandana scarves, helmets and flame-proof suits. But no one has found a way to flame-proof lungs.
    They like to think of Indianapolis Speedway and the Memorial Day race as an automotive proving ground. But its history is one of resisting change like a medieval landowner. Seat belts came, not out of an Indy cockpit where they should have, but from an Air Force rocket sled. Not even the roll-bar came from Indy's drawing boards, but from sports car rallies.
    All that Indy pioneered in the way of tire wear was that, if you don't mind spending $200 a tire and maintaining a pit crew of seven to change them for you periodically, you can get 500 miles per new set of rubber.
    They went lumbering about here in clumsy old overheating front-engine cars for almost two decades after European race drivers proved rear engines were more efficient. They changed only when the Europeans came over and beat them at their own game.
    Style-wise, Indy cars are about as aesthetic as a camel. They are 200-m.p.h. billboards with air scoops and tail wings. They look like some amphibious half-tracks put together, in the dark, out of leftover pats in a military junkyard.
    To win this race you first have to survive it. It's a trick 42 guys never got the hang of. And that's only the guys who got killed in cars. One guy got killed (by a wheel) eating a hot dog 1,000 feet from the track.
    All the National Safety Council, state police, FBI, Ralph Nader and Blue Cross can make them do is fence off the customers.
    At least, they don't have to worry about pedestrians. Those kooks in the fire poof suits have their own suicide club going. And so there'll be 33 moving violations (unless one of them won't start as usual) going around Indianapolis this Monday back home in Indiana.
    It's too late to give them a traffic ticket. It might be better to give them a fire extinguisher. Besides, if a motorcycle cop pulled one of these cars over to the side of the road and said, "Where do you think you're going — to a fire?" the answer would probably be, "Probably."
Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

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