Over the years, some of the luster has come off the Indianapolis 500, but it remains a major cultural influence. I caught the racing bug as a kid growing up in Milwaukee, and looked forward to the start of practice at the Brickyard much more than the baseball opener. And given what we do for a living, I have since learned that many of my friends in the gear trade feel the same way.
During the 1960s there were no specified chassis or crate motors; each May was a motorized science experiment in front of the cameras and large crowds. There were some wild cars that bombed; remember the Smokey Yunick “Sidecar Offy” with the driver positioned out in a pod? Or the twin engine Porsche car? There were other radical vehicles that came ever so close to changing the course of racing history. What if the STP turbine car’s $6 ball bearing hadn’t failed? Or the Novi’s tremendous power had somehow been tamed?
There was always something to be learned from these “experiments.” For example: hard work sometimes paid off for small-budget teams; organizations with great histories and big budgets sometimes couldn’t even make “the show;” technical overreach could explode before a worldwide audience; careful reading of the rules could pay off (that infamous, one-year-only, push-rod Mercedes-Benz) — or be slapped down in court; and refusal to settle for less than perfection produced some cars that can only be classified as “jewelry on wheels.”
So what does any of this have to do with gears?
True, only rarely have gears themselves figured into the larger drama on the track. But good engineering practices were on display and the event made mechanical design front page news.
Count me as one of those kids with his face pressed against the fence who was inspired to a career in engineering because of the Indy 500.