During my first few laps, there was no fear of hitting the wall lining the entry to turn one–Indy 500 oval turn one, that is. At good speed, but less than full chat, the car neither wanted or needed to exit the final turn of the road course and drift toward the outside wall. Too easy. Not long into the first practice session, however, it became obvious that good speed down the main straight would require good pace out of the last turn and that was going to mean taunting the white, steel wall, lining the circuit. Not at all easy.
We were at the Sports Car Vintage Racing Associations’s Open Wheel World Championship at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 315 single-seat, open-wheeled race cars had shown up. 45 Formula Fords, give or take a few–newish ones, ones of medium age, and ones like mine; produced no later than 1972. The 2.43 mile road course, using the main straight and then a portion of the oval between Indy turns one and two, would be used. We’d be going down the main straight in the opposite direction of the famous 500, but we were still at Indy and we were still crossing the famed yard of bricks at the start-finish line. Very special to just about everyone there, to include me, certainly.
We arrived Wednesday night, a fairly short tow from St. Louis. Check in with registration, claim our paddock space, set up camp. Thursday morning, fuel the car, check tire pressures, worry about what we missed during our preparation. Meet new people who would quickly become friends, and greet familiar faces. New and old, friendship’s founded on the surface by a mutual interest, but more deeply on a similar take on how to live life and make the most of every day…..I think. No time for deep thinking or profound comments on the purpose of life here. For crying out loud, we were at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and we are racing. That’s the matter at hand!
Thursday afternoon, our first practice session. I’d spent a number of hours in my home simulator so knew most of the track. Most. Unfortunately, the simulator didn’t have the track layout quite right so in addition to looking at some great YouTube videos, actual on track learning would be required.
The 2.4 mile road course inside the famous oval is flat, by and large. Three twisty bits, each separated by fourth gear, high-speed, straights. Good run-off room, easy to see through the corners, and baby’s butt smooth pavement. Nice. Not too tough to learn, and after two sessions I was pretty clear where the track went and where the car needed to be. The engine and gearbox were working well, the car’s balance good (its tendency to track around corners neither pushing the front end through or sliding the rear end to the outside of the corner) but the brakes were an issue. Too much rear bias.
New brake lines, new pads, and extensive work on each caliper’s piston and seal and I thought surely braking would be our strength. Not so. The new pads had greatly changed things. After session one, more front bias dialed in. Not enough. More front bias after session two. And still the rear brakes locked first. When the rear locks first, the back end wants to swap ends with the front. Difficult to control, so not good. When the front wheels lock, it’s not great, but at least the car goes straight until the driver reduces brake pressure. Better that than swapping ends.
Friday morning was another practice session and our brake adjustments had helped but not fixed the problem. We also discovered a broken frame member. Thanks to the good and helpful nature of one of the big support operations, some excellent brazing had us back on track for Friday afternoon’s first qualifying session.
More forward bias adjustment and we qualified 8th out of 22 cars in the historic Formula Ford group. Not bad given the cars “darty-ness” under heavy braking.
Saturday morning was a second qualifying session and I was sure we’d gain a second, maybe even two, with improved braking. Instead, we lost two spots as a result of a broken engine mount that allowed the engine to slosh about so much that the gearbox gave up on me and no gear selected stayed engaged. Our early qualifying time that had us in 8th place would have to do. Unfortunately, others went faster in Qualy 2 so we would start the Historic Formula Ford Championship Race Sunday morning in 10th spot. Once again, skilled help at the track came to our aid and repaired the broken motor mount such that we would, indeed, make the race.
And so the race started, the number 24 Lola T204 Formula Ford starting in 10th place with 22 cars entered. Mid-Pack. It was a slow start and despite the long straight at Indy, just about all of us ended up at turn one as one large gaggle. There was a gap between two cars I was tempted to split. Judgement, gut feeling, cowardice, I rejected the attempt. Space to my left, on the outside, and, the gaggle is slowing early. Please brakes, now would be a good time to work properly. Work, more or less, they did, and in an instant I passed four cars on the outside of turn one and kept them all at bey into turn two. P6.
For the next three laps, I fought hard for fifth spot. Brave braking, I had it. Braver braking by the other guy and I lost it, back to sixth. With the laps winding down, I had a plan for a last lunge under braking just before entering the main straight. My plan almost worked. Almost. Just a millisecond or two too far behind to bring my plan to fruition. Instead, I had to follow my new enemy around the last turn. Argh. Then, a missed shift, fuel issue, engine problem? I don’t know and don’t care. Not my problem. He or his machine stumbled for a split second and fifth place was mine again and forever! A good result.
Next, the SVRA hyped “Formula Ford World Championship.” My fifth place finish in the Historic Formula Ford race had qualified us for the weekend finale– young, old, and middle-aged Formula Fords all racing together. I held position for the start though for the next four or five laps, every corner entry felt like it was a start in and of itself. Some might say vintage racing is parading. They would be wrong…very wrong. Two, three, four wide at times entering corners at 120 mph! At Indy. Is there anything better?
Almost routinely smoke would rise up thickly at approaching corners–leading cars locking wheels and burning rubber as they go so deeply and (too) fast into bends. Spins, mechanical failures (?), we were somewhere around 12th to 15th, out of 35 starters. I was pleased given the number of more modern cars I was besting which should be faster.
By the last lap, I had found my pace, my place, and was confident we were going to finish in the top third at the World Championships at Indianapolis. Satisfying all things considered.
Confidence can be fleeting and so it was when the engine coughed sputtered, and then quit, on the last lap exiting turn two. We had a fueling problem. That’s what a professional racer would think to say before the microphones were in his or her face. It WAS a fueling problem. We hadn’t fueled the car enough before the start. The long, full-throttle straits, several full-course caution laps, and the intense pace, simply burned more fuel than we had fueled the car for. Inexcusable, but we aren’t the first to have this happen. Another, ARGH!
Indy? Yes, incredible to be there. But surprisingly, I didn’t find myself looking about in wonderment about times past at “The Brickyard.” Its a race track. It must be attacked, challenged, conquered, to the degree possible, as any other track must be. Perhaps in time it will strike me that I have driven across the line of bricks that so many storied and immortalized drivers have also crossed (albeit, in the road course’s opposite direction and at a fraction Indy car speeds), but right now I dwell on the laudable 5th place finish in the Historic Formula Ford race and my near top third finish in the World Championship. A great time with a good result regardless of where we were.
Also hugely consequential to the great time had at the Speedway was the meeting of Alain de Cadenet. Alain was an accomplished endurance car designer and driver some years back and has since produced and starred in a number of truly excellent vintage racing specials and series, as well as acting as a presenter for a number of excellent broadcasts from famous events at Goodwood, England, and other great spots. Seems he had come over from his native England to help his friend Geir Ramleth, a new friend from my racing in California, and took us under his wing as well throughout the weekend. His advice on repairs, driver attitude and technique, and general preparation as well, were appreciated and well received. Being a big fan, it was hard not to be a bit star struck. Super nice guy. Humble, unaffected by his success, and great to have met and worked with him throughout the weekend.
So Indy now behind us. Many further improvements planned, hoped for, on the car. Still better brakes, some frame re-enforcement for better handling, perhaps an oil cooler. Time, money, and ability will determine all, and not necessarily in that order. Stay tuned, Road America, Elkhart Lake, WI, is next.
Soon, a description of a lap of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s infield road course, with a little video to go along.