Regular #SpeedRead readers will recall Marshall Pruett’s eight-part series on “Weird and Wonderful Cars of the ‘500’” that appeared in the weeks leading up to the 100th Running of the Indy 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Now, the feature continues with one car featured biweekly.
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“Every driver was tougher and braver back in the day … and only real men raced at Indianapolis before (insert the technology or safety advancement) arrived.”
There’s no need to question whether Indy 500 legends like A.J. Foyt and Troy Ruttman were hard as steel, just as there’s no reason to question why many of the Speedway’s heroes also made personal safety a high priority.
To race and survive in an Indy car was indeed a badge of courage before modern chassis construction methods, fireproof driving apparel, and widespread track safety improvements reduced the risks involved with motor racing. And as much as we celebrate the courage it took for a Parnelli Jones or Louis Meyer to go out and survive 500 miles prior to the advent of HANS devices and SAFER barriers, it would also be disingenuous to suggest our heroes simply accepted the perilous situation.
It reminds me of the conversation taking place today in the Verizon IndyCar Series as its competition department explores new methods to improve cockpit safety. The specific concept of adding an “Aeroscreen” to IndyCar’s Dallara DW12 chassis (similar to the one unveiled by the Red Bull Formula 1 team) in the next year or two has sparked interesting debates over whether such a device is long overdue, or if it belongs in open-wheel racing.
Some have asked if the danger and thrill would be diminished if IndyCar drivers were protected behind a screen. It’s a version of the “Every driver was tougher and braver back in the day …” narrative, and goes with the belief that racing can indeed be made too safe. I’ve even heard that same anti-Aeroscreen sentiment expressed by a current IndyCar driver, so it isn’t exactly a radical viewpoint.
What is radical, however, is the realization that some of Indy car racing’s toughest and bravest were having the same internal debates back in the 1930s, and the answer, for some, might be surprising.
Just as we cherish the hard-nosed Indy heroes who embraced every ounce of danger, I also wouldn’t dare question the heart or courage of a Rex Mays, Paul Russo, Jim Rathmann or any of the other pioneers who raced with tall screens to protect their heads from flying rocks and debris over 500 miles in May. They were all tough back in the day, and some were even strong enough to take the lead on cockpit safety while the race was a hotbed for innovation.
Nine decades later, the pre-WWII idea of partial cockpit enclosures is still a hot topic.