The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner relates the art of lapping the Speedway fast. He should know: his qualifying speeds of one lap at 237.498mph and a four-lap average of 236.986mph are records that still stand, 15 years on. He relates his memories of Indy to RACER Editor David Malsher.
When I first got to Indy in 1985, nobody coached me, nobody told me what to do. I had a crew and mechanics from the UK and none of them had been to Indy, either. Our team was Indy rookies, top to bottom. But I had watched footage and seen really big crashes and the one thing I told myself as I left the hotel each morning was, “I wanna come back here tonight and have my cup of coffee.” So I really was careful – didn't take any risks or chances that first year – and that really helped me. As the race went on and the track started getting rubbered in, all of a sudden the grip level was there, my pace was increasing and my confidence just went up. I thought, “Wow, when the car's this good, it's not that hard.”
In '87 and '88, I was very quick and I knew that once we had the right car, I'd be strong. So in 1990, when we got the Chevy motor, I knew that this was a big opportunity; we got the car to handle really just beautiful and it all came together for the win. I was on the Indy 500 pole three times and won that race twice, but everyone talks about 1996 because that was the year I got the track record – and I only started 20th!
As a driver, when you peak at Indy and you've got the car working really good and your laps are really solid, everything seems to quiet down, in a way, because everything is working fine. And so when you make a change and it makes even just a 1mph difference, you really notice that. You're used to the car being settled in, but you'll notice a few more revs coming off Turn 2 and Turn 4, and it just adds up to 1mph quicker round the whole lap. Every little increase is noticeable.
But the difference in '96 was that the track had been resurfaced, the Firestones were phenomenal – not just when brand-new, but durable and consistent – and the track had taken out the rumble strips. They had been a really bad idea in the first place, when they put them in back in 1993, and so they got a chance to take them out when they repaved it. That gave the track, compared to before, another three to four feet at the apex of the corners. It meant the trajectories we were going in at were shallower, so we scrubbed off less speed.
Looking at the data, we saw that we never got below 235mph at the apex where the car had scrubbed off most of its speed, and the straightaway speed I remember was 243. The difference between top speed and average speed should be around about 5mph if your car's working well. It wasn't like the Penskes in 1994 with that special Mercedes motor, where they were really fast down the straights but not that quick through the turns.
Tim Wardrup was my engineer and he was so good. His setups proved that when you have these high speeds, it doesn't really relate to difficulty level. When the IRL changed the rules and I came back in 1997 with the normally aspirated engines and they had 300 horsepower less, the car had this colossal heavy gearbox in the back and that car scared me almost every lap. I could never get it really right, and although I got pole, doing 218mph in that car took a lot more from me mentally than doing 238 in the proper car. It's like a lot of races: the ones you win are usually the easy ones, and sometimes you finish 10th and you've driven your butt off and had the longest day of your life.
My Sunday time in 1996 only got us 20th because our Pole Day run had been disqualified, because they said we were 7lbs underweight, so I had to go again on Sunday. In the race, though, I moved up fairly quickly to second place, so the car was also really good in traffic: that car wasn't just a four-lap wonder. There was a lot more to come from it, but I got hit by Eliseo Salazar as we left pit lane and he destroyed my sidepod and that was the end of the race for me. But the speeds were really high that race – I remember Eddie Cheever got fastest lap at 236-something.
I remember hearing that “if Arie's quicker than the Menards cars, they must be doing something” – bending the rules. But it was totally legit. I was showing the data to Tony George through that month. The car was just phenomenal. We actually got to the point where Tim Wardrup asked me – kind of politely but wondering if he was going too far – “What do you think about running without the rear wing?” I said, “Huh? Are you out of your ****ing mind?!” I think from that he could tell no, I didn't want to take the rear wing off. His idea was that we had gone to negative-7 degrees with the rear wing anyway, so we couldn't go any further, and all that was restricting us was horsepower. In CART, they were using the new Cosworth but we had the XB which had about 35hp less. If we could have gotten our hands on that, I think we could have done a 240mph lap.
What was also interesting about that car was that the moment we picked up 1mph on the straightaway by changing the aerodynamics, we would also pick up 1mph in the corner. It sort of went together, and we saw that as soon as we started hitting 232. We might change the wing settings or ride height or rake and every time we picked up speed on the straights, it worked for us in the corner as well.
That was the best car I ever drove around the Speedway; I never had a moment with the car. Looking at the steering traces, a driver can see that the moment you turn, immediately you see the revs drop because you're creating tire scrub in the corner. So my whole approach was to turn the wheel as little as I could, and I experimented with lines until I found one that felt like it was the sweet spot. But it was the fact that the car was so good that meant I could try those things out.
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