Q: I saw your answer in the June 6 Mailbag about the Corvette crash in this year’s 500. I seem to recall that a local Indianapolis car dealer crashed a Dodge Challenger R/T into the stands after exiting the track too fast in the late ’60s or early ’70s. I thought they cracked down after that and required professional drivers. (Didn’t Lone Star JR drive for many years?). Have they loosened the rules, or was this year’s driver considered a professional since he has several competition licenses?
John from Madison
RM: Sarah Fisher and Oriol Servia do most of the pace car driving, and Mark Reuss was an exception because he’s done it before and held a competition license. Eldon Palmer crashed the pace car in 1971 at Indianapolis, but there have been a steady stream of celebrities driving it for the past four decades.
Q: Racing over the years has gone leaps and bounds when it comes to safety. But a couple of weeks ago we saw a 700+ HP pace car have an accident and the two occupants weren’t required to wear helmets and HANS devices. What the heck is up with that? The track safety team that arrived at the scene to treat them wore helmets, but not the driver and passenger of the pace car that has as much HP as one of the race cars on track. Plus, that ‘Vette hit the wall with a pretty good whack. So, I think in the name of safety for all, pro drives, celebrity drivers and passengers at least have them in helmets and HANS equipment. These are some great people and we don’t want to see anything bad happen to them.
Tony Piergallini, Steubenville, Ohio
RM: The slow speeds around Belle Isle in a pace car certainly wouldn’t warrant any added safety precautions. Seat belts would be plenty safe enough, and this crash was an anomaly.
Q: A buddy of mine was talking to Derek Daly at IMS a couple weeks ago, and they were talking about drivers that are purely just drivers, versus drivers that understand car setups and what is actually going on with the car. Derek was saying that guys like TK and JPM are terrible setup guys. He even went so far as to say the JPM would have been the best driver ever had he put in a little effort to understand the car. He also said that Dan Wheldon was one of the best guys at understanding the car and giving the guys in the garage accurate feedback.
This got me curious. Who today are the drivers that really seem to know what is going on with their cars? And who are they drivers that know nothing about them?
Mike R., Bloomington, IN
RM: Quick backstory. I worked for Lloyd Ruby’s team in 1974 (after I got fired from The Star the first time) and ‘ol Rube knew nothing about his chassis except it was either “luse or pooshin.’’ But it didn’t matter because he drove the wheels off it. Had he known more like Bobby Unser, yes, I’m sure he could have won more races, but a lot of guys were like that back then. Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay come to mind as sharp setup guys, Graham Rahal seems to know what he wants, just like Josef Newgarden and Will Power. Wickens and Rossi must be pretty savvy, and Hinch seems switched on. But I don’t think it matters how much you don’t know anymore because of computers.
Q: I finally got around to watching the Indy 500 this week, and enjoyed the more old-school racing that it provided this time compared to the last few years that were much more IRL in their style. It had me thinking back to when I first started watching as a kid, when teams had to enter their spare cars and they used to be the same number with a T, i.e. 12T or the like. What’s the story behind the T designation? Did it have a specific meaning, or was it just a random letter plucked from the alphabet?
Thomas Warren, Sydney, Australia
RM: I defer to The Man, Donald Davidson:
“The original use of the “T” designation came in Grand Prix racing in the 1960s. It stood for “training” car, which was effectively a “back up” provided for the use of a driver to become familiar with a twisting road course without wearing out the equipment intended for the race. Some teams referred to the “T” car as “the mule.” The “T” designation at Indianapolis has a different meaning, but likely evolved from the above. It appears to have been first used by Team McLaren, circa 1977. The rule at the time was that each car, “backups” included, be painted up with its individually assigned “program” number, placing a team in the position of having to designate its “prime” car and “backups” weeks before practice even started. In the event of a driver qualifying a backup car, using a number not normally associated with that driver, the team would often request that the car’s number be changed for the race. To avoid the expense and logistics of repainting a car, McLaren — and soon all others — would enter a second car, and maybe even a third, each bearing the same number but with a taped “T” appearing behind a second car, and “TT” behind a third. In the event of the second or third car being qualified by the prime driver, all that was potentially necessary was to peel off the “T” or “TT.”