Above: Jim Clark and Don Branson battle down to the famous apron at IMS, 1965. 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the apron’s removal.
It only took a handful of laps in 1991 to confirm the brilliance of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s apron. The extra track width gave drivers more creative freedom to try different lines in and out of the corners, and with the epic battle for the win between Rick Mears and Michael Andretti in 1991 involving ample use of the apron, its ability to change outcomes – to turn victory into defeat, or vice versa – was made clear.
One driver went high, the other went low, and like snakes slithering through Turn 1 at breakneck speeds, the lead changed hands in Mears’ favor. The apron, and only the apron, made it possible.
The beloved extra bit of pavement disappeared after the 1992 Indy 500 to make way for dedicated warmup lanes and grass, and while it was safer due to the changes, the track also lost a lot of character.
Think back to the finish of the 2012 Indy 500 as Takuma Sato tried to squeeze into the tiniest of gaps to overtake Dario Franchitti. Taku’s desperation (not to mention his overenthusiasm) was met by the narrow post-apron opportunities Turn 1 made available, and with the lack of width to alter his entry line, a visit to the wall and the infamy of losing Indy on the final lap became his reality.
It makes the apron, 25 years after its farewell, worthy of a look back from three practitioners who put it to good use.
“You actually slip the car through the corner,” said 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones (pictured below), who consumed plenty of blacktop while drifting roadsters through Indy’s four corners. “The backend was a little bit loose. I always wondered about that. In my rookie year, I almost hit the wall coming out of four. It got sideways because they used to say, if you get sideways, go ahead and spin it out because otherwise you’re going to hit the wall and crash. I almost did. I almost crashed coming off four in my rookie year.
“Later, when I did tire tests, I started practicing that. I was able to run the car a little bit looser which actually gave me an edge coming off the corners.”
Starting high, sweeping low and drifting out to the wall leaving the corners was possible prior to the arrival of wide tires and aerodynamic downforce. Armed with sticky Goodyears, wings and gobs of horsepower, drifting wasn’t an option when Mears and Andretti went medieval on the apron in ’91 (below).
Jousting, north of 200mph, was exactly the kind of thing Michael lived for.
“You could pass. It made it way easier to pass. I enjoyed it. I thought it was great,” he said. “I was so bummed when they did get rid of it because it made running behind another car that more difficult and you would lose the air. It made it not as much fun for the passing side of it. But, yeah, those were good days.”
Unlike Andretti, Mears wasn’t particularly fond of the apron.
“The apron was a little more forgiving if somebody forced you down, you get chopped, you’ve got a way out a little bit more, but really, if I had the car the way I wanted it, I couldn’t run on the apron anyway,” the 1991 Indy winner said.
“Because when I used the apron it was because the car was too tight. And I would use the apron to help turn it. But if I had like qualifying, unless the car was off, you really didn’t see me on the apron. Because if I had the thing on the right rear as much as it needed to be to do the speeds we needed, I couldn’t touch the apron, it would have spun me like a top.”
In race trim, venturing down to the apron became an accepted practice for Mears.
“Now, when you tighten the car back up for race conditions you give yourself a little more cushion, and less room for error, or more room for error – then the apron starts becoming handy as a tool because you can keep the car a little tighter,” he continued.
“Utilize it to help take some of the tightness out when you need to, and/or getting clean air as we got more and more air dependent with those cars. If somebody was sitting in the groove, you could get down on the apron and start picking up a little more clean air to help stay on somebody. That part I think I miss.”
Based on the advancements with SAFER barriers and cockpit protection improvements, Andretti believes today’s Indy cars could handle the risks of running on the apron.
“I understand why they [removed] it; when guys were spinning down in the apron they were hitting head on into the wall,” he conceded. “At that time, there were no SAFER barriers and the cars were not as safe as it is today so it makes sense. If they ever wanted to go back to it, they probably could do it now. But, yeah, I enjoyed that. I used that to the max.”