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Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing’s Josef Newgarden reached 239.5mph on the back stretch entering turn 3 last week during practice for the Indy 500, and while that figure is undoubtedly impressive, there are a few drivers from the 1990s who know what it’s like to soar higher.
Young Newgarden, from Tennessee, used all of the 650hp his 2.2-liter twin-turbo Honda V6 had to offer as he edged close to 240mph. He also had the benefit of a significant tow to reach that mind-boggling number, but some of his Indy 500 predecessors managed to tick past 240mph with ease and a few, select individuals actually managed to break through the somewhat mythical 250mph barrier.
The heart of Indy’s short-lived flirtation with 250mph top speeds came during a tight window of insane power and even crazier speeds in the early 1990s as the Speedway, with special rules for the 500, allowed extra turbo boost for stock block engines, in the case of the Buick, and also for pushrod engines, as Roger Penske and Ilmor Engineering produced for 1994. Those 3.4-liter (209 cubic inch) single-turbo monsters, different in every way from the purebred 2.65-liter single-turbo V8 engines they competed against, started life with Buick’s explosive V6, which propelled Pancho Carter to pole at Indy in 1985.
Cracking 250mph, as 1998 Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever managed to do with Buick’s brute a few years earlier, felt as dangerous as it looked.
“We just started creeping up on the speeds,” said Cheever, who raced Buick-powered Lolas owned and built by billionaire John Menard’s team (LEFT) through 1996. “Before you knew it, we were doing top speeds of 250 miles per hour on the track almost the whole way around. It was astonishing. There was no Turn 1 and Turn 2 in the traditional sense; it was just a blur. You took a deep breath turning into 1 and then you had to hold it all the way around, because if you didn’t you’d get dizzy. You had a whole breathing pattern. I think it was way – there were no SAFER walls, it was just way too fast and couldn’t be sustained – you were lucky if you got away with any mistakes.”
More of a qualifying special than anything that could withstand 200 laps of hard racing, the Buick dazzled its drivers with silly power but was little more than a hand-grenade waiting for the pin to fall out.
Once the Buick project made its way into the hands of Menard, who tasked the late Jim Wright and his Brayton Engineering firm increasing power and reliability, speeds continued upward until they hit the stratosphere.
Cheever joined Menard’s outfit in 1993 and, like many who drove for the team through 1996, including the late Scott Brayton, who earned the Indy 500 pole in 1996 before losing his life during practice the following week, he says dealing with more than 1000hp and low downforce could be frightening at times.
“I was trying to qualify [in 1993] with a year-old Penske and I tried like five times and I didn’t manage to make it in,” Cheever adds. “The last hour of qualifying, this guy named John Menard, along with Gary Bettenhausen, walked in any and asked if I wanted to try qualifying their car. I didn’t have any interest at all. It looked scary.
“Our team manager said, ‘You’re not going to get into the race unless you do this.’ So I jumped in and qualified and that started a long relationship with John. The team looked very rough; it hadn’t reached the level that it would reach in later years with John’s interest in it. So that summer we had some problems with the car and we just did thousands and thousands of miles under Lola’s guidance, we had a Lola engineer there.
“At the end of those tests of the engine, it kept getting more and more power. At the end of those tests, I had like 10 laps to go and we were testing shock absorbers and I spun turning into Turn 1. I had never ever hit anything as hard as that before. And you just don’t know what it’s going to be like at 250mph. You bang into the wall and you think, ‘I might not be here’ when I’m done. It happened in a tenth of a second. There was virtually nothing left. At the speeds we were traveling, the force produced in a crash like that are far beyond anything you could imagine.”
For Paul Tracy, Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi, Penske’s fearsome Mercedes-Benz engine helped the team to dominate the 1994 Indy 500. The pushrod special became quick friends with 250mph, but as Tracy shares, the big straightline speeds it produced felt relative inside the cockpit.
“It didn’t feel out of the norm, by any means, because the speeds had been kind of steadily moving up anyway,” he said. “From 225mph on up, it all feels fast. It wasn’t like we went from a jump where there was a rules change from one year to the next, where you jumped from, say, 222, to a 236 average in qualifying or whatever the pole was that year. There were some practice days where [Arie] Luyendyk ran up and burned some laps up towards a 238 average, so we saw some big speeds, and what we were doing was so secretive in ’94 our motor was turned down a lot of the time just to hold our cards close to our chest, with plenty more to show.”
Like Cheever, Tracy knew a serious crash could have dire consequences. With Menard’s Buick topping 1000hp, Penske’s trio of PC23-Mercedes-Benz’s were glowing just as red hot. They had “1024hp in qualifying and the race” according to Ilmor president Paul Ray, and with the long Indy straights disappearing at light speed, Tracy was always conscious of what kissing the wall at 250mph would mean.
“You know that in the back of your mind you’ve got to suppress that if something goes wrong I’m going to get hurt here,” he admitted. “And that’s the thing that the drivers have to suppress, especially back in those days. I mean, the speeds that we were carrying into the corners was f****** ridiculous. Even some other places like when we used to run at Phoenix, we’d be doing 185mph average at Phoenix.
“No soft walls to hit, no headrest pads, no HANS device. If the car got away from you, you were going to be in big trouble. When you’re approaching 250 down the straight, you were going for a long ride and you were generally going to go to sleep with a concussion if you hit anything. We had a couple of deaths at the time. And some guys got hurt pretty bad when the speeds were high. It was an exciting time, but it was dangerous, too.”
With a rocket strapped to his back, Tracy and a few others in the 250mph club had another unique concern to deal with.
“Traffic was the big deal at Indy [in 1994],” Tracy continued. “The big thing back then, back in the day, was the closing rates on other cars. If you could get out front and run away, that’s what you tried to do. There was a big separation, speed wise, between the top cars and some of the best guys with the regular engines. So the closing rates to catch lapped cars was something you had to be careful of, because you could come up on a guy and be going 20 miles an hour faster than him through the corner and run over the top of him. You had a lot of ‘Oh s***’ moments. Nowadays, the guys at the back of the field are running pretty comparative speeds – there’s nobody out there running around 20 miles an hour off the pace anymore.”
Penske’s mastery of the pushrod rules and ownership of the 1994 Indy 500 led to the engine’s banishment for 1995, leaving Menard and his stock block Buick to carry the 3.4-liter torch forward. Speeds continued to rise, and as Cheever chronicles, adapting to the mental and physical demands brought on by those speeds was crucial.
“Pilots that fought in the Battle of Britain with Spitfires have not evolved at the same rate that the same jet fighter pilots that are training now for whatever they train for. They’re the same human beings and yet they do things that’s a whole different dimension, it’s a whole different thing. And yet they do them very well. There’s tools that come along with that. Racing drivers do the same with their reflexes and their synapses.
“I don’t think you can ever say what is the limit? Who knows, I don’t think there’s a mathematical formula. The CART drivers when they tested at Texas and were running 240, came out and said, ‘I’m dizzy. I can’t stand up.’ So there’s a limit, but you do not need to be endangering drivers to make a point of saying that we’re the fastest racecars in the world.”
The Verizon IndyCar Series unveiled a plan last year that will see cars edge close to and possibly over Arie Luyendyk’s record Indy 500 qualifying speed average of 237.498 later this decade. Having run at those average speeds at the same time at Luyendyk, Cheever hopes IndyCar keeps a tight lid on those increases. Despite all of the safety advancements since he and others joined the 250mph club, he’d like to see the membership ranks remain closed to new members.
“Regardless of the top speeds we were hitting, when we started doing average laps at 236, 237, you were really just along for the ride; there was no such thing as correcting a slide or anything like that,” he said. “You could make very, very small corrections, and that was it. At that pace, everything around you was just a blur. I hope we don’t get to that again because I think you’re asking the human body to absorb impact that it’s just not made for. We did some lunatic speeds back then, but I don’t think we need to revisit the dangers that came with them. The more I think about it, the wilder it seems that we actually did those speeds and lived to tell about it.”