Failing Boldly


Aside from the pure mechanical beauty of it, my favorite thing about the Indy 500 is the tradition. What’s more, few events can match it in terms of size or spectacle; you can’t really appreciate it on television.

Many longtime fans boast of never missing the race and can expound for hours on race strategies, heroic drivers, and genius builders. My own special memories are more engineering-oriented. I am a student of the spectacular failures that have shaped the results over the years. Some of my pals think I have applied that history of failure to my own midget racing team. But that is a topic for another day.

The first 500 radio broadcast I can recall was the 1963 event. I was a fan of the new rear-engine Lotus Fords and thought the officials robbed Jimmy Clark of the win by not black-flagging the leaking Watson-Offy of eventual winner Parnelli Jones. The start of the 1964 race was marred by a fatal wreck, and after the long, sad delay, Lotus fans were disappointed as the Dunlop tires the Lotus team used were shedding big chunks of tread.

Almost every year since there has been a very public and expensive failure to talk about. Lloyd Ruby’s car ripped apart by a fuel hose; the STP turbine car forced out due to a $6 ball bearing in its gearbox.

Things weren’t much better the next year for the cheese wedge Lotus-turbine when it lost a fuel pump. It was almost like the curse of the Novi stuck to the STP brand.

Ignore how much money or engineering know-how has been thrown at it — “The Brickyard” has a way of humbling even the most experienced racers. Historians recall the 1935 entry of ten Ford V-8-powered Miller race cars and their weak point — a steering box too close to the exhaust pipes. 1920’s genius Harry Miller continued to bring advanced technology to the event, only to see his reputation tattered by their failure.

The lesson I take from this is that bold engineering breakthroughs seldom succeed without lots of testing and careful development. This is true on the race track and in the gear shop. I wonder what failure will be remembered from the 2014 race.

About Charles D. Schultz 651 Articles
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply