INDIANAPOLIS – The Machine, 27 years old now, sleeps quietly and forevermore in a specially appointed corner of the basement beneath the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, on the infield lawn between turns one and two. (The basement itself is a museum, with more than 300 racecars dating back to the turn of the 20th century, which are periodically cycled upstairs into the smaller, main viewing space). More formally, the Machine is Arie Luyendyk’s Reynard 94I, which in May of 1996 turned four laps in an average speed of 236.986 miles per hour during qualifying for the Indy 500, the fastest in qualifying history, standing tall more than a quarter century later. (For many reasons, but nevertheless, still there). Informally, in awed whispers, it’s a beast.
Last week, more than a dozen drivers met with me and with an NBC production team to talk about the enervating and cherished tradition of Indy qualifying, in order to create both a TV piece that you can watch this weekend on NBC and the story that you are reading now. (Qualifying takes place this upcoming Saturday and Sunday). The interviews took place in the basement of the museum, in the long shadow of Luyendyk’s car, which lives in a garage bay mockup, pseudo-florescent lights all but crackling overhead, a workbench at the ready, re-created posters on the walls. Some drivers would wander into the space and just scan, slowly moving their eyes over the car from front to rear, and back. Others would just pause and look, nod, smile, and then sit. Still others, like 2018 Indy 500 winner Will Power, scarcely looked at all. “I’ve seen it,” said Power, nodding respectfully. “Yeah…. seen it.”
The car is light red on the sides, mostly white on its nose, glistening like new in the lights, but with ads that betray its age, and its time: A multi-colored Apple logo (including a green leaf), wings shouting WAVEPHORE (a digital company that rose in the dotcom boom of the 90s, and then fell not long after Luyendyk crossed the line), but also Champion, Pennzoil, Firestone, STP.
Graham Rahal stood over the car, and then leaned into the cockpit, and grimaced as he envisioned the impossibility of squeezing his 6-foot-2 body inside. “If these were the cars we had now,” he said, “I wouldn’t be a racecar driver.”
Four-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Brazil circled the car wordlessly, almost as if trying to not awaken a sleeping child… or grandparent. He rubbed his clean-shaven chin. “Yeah, a beast,” he said. “Incredible.”
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Luyendyk’s car is more than an artifact — it is living history, a piece of fiberglass, metal and rubber that helps measure Indy Car racing, the 500, and in particular, the breathtaking ritual of qualifying, better than words or video. It speaks while sitting still. Luyendyk’s car ran with a 1,000-horsepower engine; today’s run at 750. It had fewer safety measures than those in place now (but more than those before it – a continuum). “Back then,” says Power, “It took big you-know-whats to qualify.” But above all, the Beast represents the unfiltered purpose of qualifying: To go fast. To be the fastest. “To feel like the fastest man on earth,” says French driver Simon Pagenaud, winner of the 500 in 2019. “That’s every little kid’s dream.”
The rules are simple enough: Drivers get four laps (10 miles) and their average speed determines where they will sit in the starting grid of 33 cars. The fastest sits on the pole, a significant victory in itself. “Getting the pole in this race is almost like winning a normal Indy Car race,” says 23-year-old U.S. driver Colton Herta. Yet it also is paradoxical: You need a fast car to qualify, but, says Scott Dixon, who has won the pole five times (second only to Rick Mears’s six from 1979-91), but the big race only once (2008; Mears won it four times): “The pole guarantees you nothing.”
Because: The skill sets are decidedly different. In qualifying, there is one car on the track, alone for four laps, with the single goal of reaching the highest possible speed, and then sustaining it over four laps, as the car increasingly becomes less viable. It is a sensory exercise. “Hair standing up on your arms,” says 24-year-old Mexican driver Pato O’Ward. “Frickin’ fast.”
“Mind-blowing,” says Swedish driver Marcus Ericsson. “Like you’re in a tunnel.”
“It’s almost poetic,” says Herta. “You’re out there alone, it’s strange, quiet and eerie, because there’s just one car. And you can really, really feel the speed in qualifying.”
And Castroneves: “In my head, just: Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”
Qualifying is like Home Run Derby, or the 3-point contest, if those gimmicks were used for playoff seeding. On race day, you start over. You are no longer alone, you are mingled with 32 other cars and drivers. There is turbulence, there is drafting. There are tactics. There can be debris. And there is the contradictory mix of competition and trust, where drivers are trying to defeat each other, but also make safe (and, to a point, predictable) decisions that reduce the possibility of harm. Moreover, there is a modern equality of equipment and tighter rules that make the race, according to one crew chief, more “processional,” and values tiny gradations of skill.
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Rahal describes the difference between qualifying for, and racing, the full 500 as the difference between predominantly bravery and predominantly brains. “Qualifying to me, is a lot more guts,” says Rahal, 34, son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal. “Brains are certainly required, when you’re making adjustments during a qualifying lap and things like that. But there’s a lot of bravery that goes into qualifying. Race day is more about the brains.”
Ericsson puts it like this: “You want to be as close to crashing as you can, without actually crashing. Getting absolutely everything out of your car.” It is an axiom at Indy that qualifying for the next year’s race begins every year on the day after the Indy 500 ends, a 12-month process of tinkering, refining and perfecting. The car that takes the green flag in qualifying is as perfect as it will be, and everything that happens afterward makes it less efficient, less perfect, slower. It is a car that is meant to be driven at its maximum, immediately.
“Everyone is flat out,” says 42-year-old American driver Ed Carpenter, who has lived in Indiana since the age of eight. “No lifting at all.” (Lifting is a deliciously evocative racing shorthand for the act of raising one’s foot off the gas pedal, literally, lifting it up). Yet here, too, is a paradox. Qualifying is only four laps, 10 miles, less than three minutes, and while it must be contested with abandon – “My right foot is going down, and it’s staying down,” says 48-year-old Brazilian driver Tony Kanaan, winner of the 500 in 2013. “If you have a hiccup, you can start last” – it is yet another skill of its own to milk first-lap perfection for three more laps, even in the best cars.
“You dread the last two laps, because you’re hanging on for dear life,” says Michael Andretti, who started 16 Indy 500s (the best of those starts at third in 1986). “You try to keep running on the edge, and that takes a certain talent, because if you go over the edge here, it can be bad.”
In this ecosystem, Dixon is a unicorn. Mears’s six poles are almost mythical in Indy history, and now Dixon has won five. To qualify fast, it’s clear a driver needs a fast car and fearlessness. And something else: The ability to both take their perfect car into Lap 1, Turn 1, and yet not leave all their speed there. At qualifying speeds, tires degrade far more quickly than with a day setup, because the car is set up for speed, not endurance (on race day, a winning car will change tires at least five times). Many drivers can take a fast car into Turn 1 and finish with a much slower one. Also, there is the fickle Central Indiana weather, where temperature changes, wind and rain sabotage speed. Drivers talk of the oval as if it is a cranky human: “This place is temperamental,” says Carpenter. “It’s easy to lose your way.” Dixon, meanwhile, is a master at sustaining high qualifying speeds.
Mike Hull, longtime managing director for Chip Ganassi Racing, explains: “In my lifetime at Indianapolis, frankly, I’ve only seen four or five drivers that do turn one the right way,” says Hull. “[Dixon is] one of the five. You have to have so much momentum on that first lap. You have to get the big lap and you have to be so careful while you’re doing that that you don’t slide the car so much that you lose the grip for the next three laps.” (By overworking the tires). “Dixon does an extremely good job of that. And the driver needs to be willing to turn to the right” – toward the wall – “coming off turns two and four, and if you combine all those things together and the steering skill that’s involved in that, Scott Dixon is frankly one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
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(Andretti talked about steering: “If you see a guy making a lot of little moves with his hands,” – here he gripped an imaginary wheel and twitched his fists up and down like pistons – “he’s hanging on for dear life. You want to see smooth.” Here, Andretti, moved his fists gently back and forth, like guiding a little motorboat on a glassy lake.)
Safety initiatives implemented in the years since Luyendyk’s qualifying record have made Indy Car racing safer. The last Indy Car fatality was in August of 2015, when Justin Wilson of Great Britain died at Pocono Raceway; two years earlier, the immensely popular Dan Wheldon was killed in a crash in Las Vegas, less than five months after winning his second Indy 500. The last fatal crash at Indy was in 1996, when Scott Brayton was killed in practice just days after Luyendyk’s record was set.
Those same initiatives have also slowed cars. Yet a year ago, Dixon averaged 234.046 miles per hour for his pole-winning run, the second-fastest qualifying run in history, and nearing a record that seemed to have been legislated into permanence. “That’s why Mario Andretti once said to me, ‘I’m glad I never had to race against Scott Dixon,’” says Hull. “That defines how much respect everyone has for the drivers that are here today.”
Dixon is a 42-year-old New Zealander those nickname is “The Iceman.” Yet he gives qualifying its space, and its respect. “It’s the most intense four laps of your life,” says Dixon. “The first lap should be easy, or easy-ish…” (In the language of the Indy Car driver, easy does not mean not difficult, it means the car is at its best, its fastest, its most compliant). He continues: “You’re going to go into turn one at almost 250 miles an hour, and you just hope you come out the other side…. And then you know, it’s just going to get worse after that, and you’re just holding onto it, and you’re on your tippy-toes because if you hit that wall at 250, it’s a big bang.”
Here The Iceman cracks just a little. He shakes and shows teeth.
“You’re nervous as hell, man.”
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.