The RACER Mailbag, May 4

The RACER Mailbag, May 4

Insights & Analysis

The RACER Mailbag, May 4

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Q: Bold prediction: Jimmie Johnson will persevere with his IndyCar experiment through the Month of May and then graciously step aside.

John Koniak, Staunton, IL

MP: You willing to put some money for charity on that prediction, John? I’ve got $20 for St. Jude’s Childrens’ Research Hospital in Indy that says Jimmie will be back the following weekend for Detroit and the rest of the events to close the season. Are you willing to match that if I’m right?

Q: Gearing up for the Month of May I went down a rabbit hole about engines, and the Buick program of the 1980s and ’90s really fascinated me. I know this is treading closely to the dangerous “stock block” territory of the Mailbag (sorry!), but could someone give me a brief synopsis of the program? Did the engine ever really have a shot to win the 500, or was it a Pole Day special? I noticed King Racing and Leader Card ran it outside Indy on occasion — was it ever considered as a season-long option, or was the loophole at Indy the only viable usage case for it?  

Drew, Montgomery, AL

MP: Tech is always an open topic in the Mailbag, Drew, so keep ’em coming in. The program was a true production-based endeavor, and boy did they spend a lot of money trying to make a road car motor stay in one piece. Two significant problems plagued the single-turbo Buick V6s in the early years, with the first coming from flexing and twisting of the motor in whatever chassis that carried the big and heavy lump. As a “stressed member” linking the transmission and rear suspension to the tub, the Buick’s production car origins, where it was dropped on top of each chassis and cradled, were of no help. It was never designed to be a strong link in the IndyCar chassis chain, and as a result, all the twisting forces while firing through high-speed corners caused the engines to twist between the chassis firewall and the bellhousing. I recall reading about the heads slightly lifting off of the block in those situations, and when that happens, you get kerblammos.

The Buicks also had a ton of turbo boost send through the motors, and that was the second area where it took a long while to keep the boost, and the oil, and the water, and the pistons, and the valves, and the crankshaft on the inside of the engines.

The Buicks were indeed more than Indy 500 specials; they were deployed on road and street courses as well during their lifetime, and often with mid-field teams who were given friendly terms to run them. Credit Jim Wright and the Brayton Engineering folks and the Menards Racing engine shop for turning the volcanic Buicks into largely reliable solution that made wicked power.

I remember being at a lot of tests back in the day with whatever Formula Atlantic or Indy Lights team I was working for where a Buick-powered CART or IRL team was sharing the track. Separate from the races where you have lots of cars on track and it’s hard to experience a single car in isolation, being at a test with just a few cars where one had a Buick turbo in the back was awesome. You’d hear the other Indy cars go by, but you felt the Buick blast past you. Just awesome.

This was probably right before a kerblammo. Image via Marshall Pruett Archive

Q: “Mike in s****y Tampa.” MP: How could Tampa be s****y, Mike? My French Fry, Sebastien Bourdais, lives there! For the record, Sebastien Bourdais lives in St. Petersburg, not Tampa. Mike is correct, Tampa is s****y, and everything is better on the west side of the bay.

Jeremy in awesome St. Petersburg

MP: I stand corrected (more accurately, I sit corrected). But he’s building a new house and I believe it’s in Tampa (and I’m fairly certain I’m also wrong about that location so I look forward to a second correction ;)).

Q: Not sure if Townsend Bell was speaking in jest or being a bit snarky this weekend during practice at Barber Park, but, he said something like “has the statute of limitations expired yet on comments about critiques of such-and-such era of Indy race cars/chassis?” (I think he was referring to 2017-era IndyCars) 

Yes, it’s a vague question on my part, but I have a pretty good sense that you could explain any restrictions that TV announcers might have written into their contracts regarding their commentary onscreen

Tom Fitzgerald

MP: Other than an anti-disparagement clause regarding NBC, I can’t think of any limitations on topics that would be written into a racing commentator’s contract. Towny is a smart and playful guy, so what you heard was his personality on display, not the revealing of topics they can’t discuss by decree from NBC.

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