BEAST is my new book - coming out in the next few weeks from Octane Press - that details the never-before-told tales of the last great technical accomplishment at the Indy 500. It also happened to be the greatest secret in the more than 100 years of 500 history, when Ilmor Engineering and Penske Racing designed, manufactured, tested and then raced a Mercedes-Benz pushrod engine in a nearly impossible timeframe. Here is an excerpt from the book to coincide with this weekend’s opening event of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series.
After months of painstaking design and countless failures while developing and testing the engine, Saturday, May 14, 1994 was the day it finally had a chance to “officially” shine on the first day of qualifying. Fearing a last-minute rules change from the Speedway and USAC (the sanctioning body and rules makers), Roger Penske had restricted the amount of practice laps that Al Unser Jr. could turn each day, hoping not to show the full strength of the engine. Here, we join the action on the first of four days of qualifying.
Heeee’s on It! / from the book, BEAST
“A car is very much like a woman. Cornering is like bringing a woman to orgasm. The two of you, both you and the car, must work together. You start to enter that area of excitement of the corner, you set up a pace that is right for the car, and after you’ve told it that it’s coming along with you, you guide it through at a rhythm which has by now become natural. Only after clearing that corner can both take pleasure in knowing it has gone well.” — Sir Jackie Stewart, Formula 1 World Champion (1969, 1971, and 1973)
Saturday, May 14
Pole-qualifying day has always been an interesting phenomenon at Indy. For many decades, raceday at the Speedway has understandably drawn the largest attendance for a single-day sporting event in the world, but pole-qualifying, at its peak, drew the second biggest sporting crowd on the globe. People would watch cars zoom past one by one, four laps at a time, to determine who was fastest. At such speeds, it’s nearly impossible for the naked eye to distinguish between the fastest and slowest cars, but it was an opportunity to watch drivers cheat death.
But was that the entire allure? No. Someone had to tell them what they had just seen.
The atmosphere and tension were expertly managed by the finest public-address announcer in racing. Tom Carnegie was the voice of the Speedway for six decades. His deep and sonorous tones had a “voice of God” effect as they echoed around the massive grounds. Like a gifted film director, his sense of drama and delivery heightened the excitement of even mundane moments. Unlike many announcers who believe they are paid by the word (thus relegating their inane chatter to background noise), Carnegie could paint the picture with economy and flair.
The Speedway in 1994 did not have large video screens or constant social media updates for smartphones. Even in the best seats, spectators could not see the entire track. It was Carnegie’s voice (and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network) that helped fans visualize what was happening around the track. He was the ringmaster of the biggest and fastest circus anywhere.
As a driver began a qualifying attempt, Carnegie’s announcement “And heeee’s on it!” alerted the world. He would pause dramatically before announcing the time and speed for a lap, teasing the crowd by saying “Annnnd . . . it’s quicker!” or whip them into a frenzy by saying “Still faster!” But the most raucous crowd response on qualifying days was reserved for Carnegie’s slow, deliberate call of “It’s . . . a . . . new . . . track . . . recorrrrd!”
Before Carnegie’s show could begin, the teams had a practice session early Saturday morning, a final chance to fine-tune their machines. The cool, overcast weather allowed twenty-six drivers to record their fastest laps of the month. Penske’s Emerson Fittipaldi was best overall at 229.043 mph. He had consistently been the quickest throughout the first week of practice and was the favorite to win the pole position.
Missing was his Penske teammate, Paul Tracy, who wasn’t released from Methodist Hospital until later in the morning after a heavy crash the day before. The Speedway’s Dr. Henry Bock did not give him medical clearance to get into a car, and Rick Mears was assigned to spend the day with the young driver, attempting to help him recover mentally and physically from his shunt. It meant Tracy would miss his spot in Saturday’s qualifying line, making him a second-day qualifier at best.
Team Penske was down to two bullets for pole day, and narrowly avoided being down to only one.
While pushing to equal his teammate’s speed, Al Unser Jr.’s practice session nearly ended in disaster as a sudden rain shower began to fall. The instantly wet surface nearly meant a second crashed Penske chassis in two days.
“I was going for 229, and I almost crashed, which scared the you-know-what out of me,” Unser explained. Before the scare, he had turned his fastest lap of the month at 227.618 miles per hour.
The rain stopped practice at 9:34 a.m., and after several hours of track-drying, qualifying began at 12:15 p.m.
Why is qualifying so important at the Speedway? First, making the thirty-three-car field meant earning a share of the significant prize money. For a small team, these were critical funds—even the last-place finisher in the 1994 Indianapolis 500 received a check for more than $100,000. For a team like Penske, taking the pole position meant a place in history, a $100,000 bonus from the Speedway, a great starting spot, and the opportunity for the best raceday pit box (chosen in order of qualifying results).
For team owners there was another critical consideration. While the race winner receives an avalanche of media coverage for several days (the week following the race, the media tended to move on), winning the pole position meant two full weeks of worldwide attention. For major companies like Mercedes-Benz and Marlboro, the value of being featured in almost every element of pre-race hype and worldwide media coverage for a fortnight was almost immeasurable. While the glory of the pole position, or even a front-row start, was a satisfying feat for very competitive people, the sponsorship value meant even more riches for the team and their sponsors.
Unser’s car was twenty-first in the qualifying draw, but because a number of the cars were backup machines, he would go out twelfth. The thirty-two-year-old arrived early to the pit box in his Marlboro uniform, engulfed in the mass of people along pit lane. Known as a great racer but not a good qualifier, he had never started on the front row for a five-hundred-mile race—at Indy or anywhere.
Al Unser Sr., also in his driver’s uniform, stopped to share a quick word and a laugh with his son and Penske, his former team owner. Ever the businessman, Penske worked the crowd, shaking hands and saying hello to a number of people, including Mario Andretti. Surrounded by a swirling crush of photographers and video cameras, a smiling Penske appeared very relaxed. Al Jr.’s wife Shelly, in a bright red Marlboro jacket, grabbed her husband and pointed toward the crowd as Junior gave a big smile and wave to his fans.
As the tension inched upward, the crew quietly pushed the No. 31 car onto a metal ramp as track officials took final measurements, making certain the car was legal. Joining the team beside the car was an Ilmor contingent in gray sweaters and black Ilmor hats, including Paul Morgan and Paul Ray. The time had come for their engine.
Young kids shouted “Al!” or “Little Al!” as Unser began the ritualistic process of preparing to drive the hardest four laps of the year. He carefully put in his foam earpieces, a clenched jaw the only visible sign of the stress. He slipped a fire-resistant balaclava over his head to protect his face and neck in case of a fiery accident. Amid the tumult, Unser closed out the rest of the world when he slowly pulled on his helmet, painted to match his race car. As he tightened the helmet straps, his 1992 Indy 500 winner’s ring gleamed on his right hand.
The Mercedes engine was warmed to its optimal temperatures while Unser put on his gloves and slid into the cockpit as if in slow motion. A crewmember made certain his seat belts were securely attached and pulled tight, meeting in a single latch near his belly button.
This is the driver’s office, where he’s usually most at ease. It’s also where he is most alone, inside a cocoon. This is the Brickyard, where qualifying means not just one perfect lap, but four. Ten miles to hold your breath. Sixteen turns to perfect. Four laps to prove your guts and your car control and your bravery while holding the throttle as long as your brain allows. A driver is most alive while speeding within inches of unforgiving walls, inches from calamity and death. It is ten miles to history.
After months of immense toil and effort by so many on both sides of the Atlantic, the stopwatch now truly meant something. The rest had all been rehearsal. It was time to show what The Beast could do.
The car was pushed away, and the low, throaty growl of the Mercedes came to life as Unser pulled onto the track. Coming around to begin his warmup lap, Unser was confronted for the first time this month by nearly full grandstands on both sides of the front straightaway. After a week of practicing before empty grandstands, the large crowd enveloping the driver’s vision was a jarring change, making the front straight seem much narrower, as if driving down a hallway and then diving through a small doorway into Turn 1.
The dark clouds were building again, which meant cool and ideal conditions for speed. Due to the near disaster in the morning session, Unser’s warmup lap began conservatively. The surface was fully dry, and the track seemed pristine. But again Unser hit something—observers said it was a tiny bird—that contacted his front right tire. Suddenly, his mind shifted from ultimate speed to worries about the tire. Would it hold air as he drove into the turn? He gingerly turned into the corner—and the tire held.
As Unser streaked past the green flag to begin his run, Carnegie bellowed a direct introduction: “Here’s Little Al. . .”
With so many concerns and distractions, his first lap was tentative.
“I didn’t have the car handling as well as I wanted it,” Unser later explained. “The first lap was too cautious, too careful.”
“Here’s the first time and speed report,” Carnegie said after Unser crossed the line to begin lap two. “It’s almost 226 miles an hour. . . 225.722 miles an hour the first time around for former champion Al Unser Jr.”
Al Unser Jr.Here is the track P.A. call for Unser's first two laps. Note the crowd chatter about the low rumble of the engine, as they thought it was having trouble compared to the high-pitched whine of the other engines. (Courtesy of Henri Greuter)
(Photos: Dan Boyd)
Inside the car, Unser’s dashboard flashed the same numbers, which were far from satisfactory.
“I need to really get after it,” he told himself.
He was trying to beat Raul Boesel, the quickest qualifier so far with a four-lap average speed of 227.618. It would become harder and harder for Unser to increase his speed as his Goodyear tires lost slightly more grip in each corner.
“Let’s see what that new chassis and new engine does for him on lap two,” Carnegie said as Unser came to the line again. “Oh wow! Over two hundred twenty eight miles an hour! Innnncrrrredible!”
The crowd roared. “Little Al! . . . 228.351 miles per hour,” Carnegie reported. “Another lap like that could put him on the pole.”
It was Unser’s fastest lap of the month, and he still had two to go. His team owner had restrained him throughout practice, but now those restrictions were lifted. It was time to show what he could do. Before he entered each corner, he was closer to the wall than before, carving a beautiful arc through the turns to launch him down the straights with the Mercedes at full throttle. He got more aggressive each lap as if being slung around the corners like a rock on the end of a string. The crowd cheered him as he went past, willing their American hero to even faster speeds.
“It’s faster! It’s faster!” Carnegie exclaimed after the third lap. “228.525! Right now his average is good enough to put him on the pole. Let’s see if he stays there.”
It was down to a final lap to see if Unser’s nerve, precision, and right foot could propel him to the top of the scoring pylon. A number of team members crowded around Penske, Mears, and Al Sr. on pit lane, most of them looking at their own stopwatches. Before Carnegie could announce the final lap’s speed, Clive Howell, a Penske man for fifteen years, had an amazed look on his face as if he couldn’t believe what his stopwatch was telling him. Shelly Unser gave Penske a big hug as the car rushed past.
“Oh! It’s phenomenal! Incredible,” yelled Carnegie as the crowd erupted louder than they had all day.
“Two. Twenty. Nine! Two twenty-nine!” he exclaimed, the rumble from the grandstands climbing with each exhortation. “229.481 for Al Unser Jr. And he is now on the pole! His total elapsed time is 2:37.887, and his four-lap average speed is 228.011 miles per hour. Team Marlboro Penske’s Al Unser Jr. is your new pole-sitter with Mercedes power.”
Unser’s crew chief, Richard Buck, and mechanic Brian Barnhart high-fived at the peak of giant leaps into the air. Smiling broadly, Kevin Walter and Paul Morgan exhaled and shared a hearty handshake. As Unser slowly returned to the pits, everyone who was in Penske, Ilmor, Mercedes, or Marlboro garb rushed to applaud when he rolled past.
Climbing out of the car, an animated Unser put on a black Penske-Mercedes hat before huddling with a joyous Penske and team to discuss his adventure. Men offered backslaps and handshakes; there were hugs and kisses from the ladies. As Unser and the car were maneuvered into place for the traditional qualifying photographs, the scrum of cameras and reporters jockeyed to get a reaction from the Captain.
The dream of sweeping the entire front row like 1988 was gone, but in nineteen of the previous twenty-five years, at least one Penske-owned car had qualified on the front row. Now one of his cars was on the provisional pole, but there were still a number of cars to come, including Fittipaldi, who could knock Unser from his perch.
After several additional cars completed qualifying runs, the rain returned, bringing everything to a halt slightly before 2 p.m. While the track was quiet, Unser and Penske went to the news conference room, where they spoke of the laps.
“It was like looking down a double-barreled shotgun,” Unser said, explaining the pressure he felt during the run. “But, each lap got quicker. It was just great.”
Was there any radio communication during the run?
“No, there weren’t any radio communications,” he said. “If there had been, I knew what Roger would have said, but I got Roger’s vibes and I ran as fast as I could go. We were building the speed up and the car felt great and the Mercedes ran good.”
After Unser mentioned the Mercedes, the questions focused on the engine. As usual, Penske played his cards close to the vest.
“We had to just get in the race car and run,” he said, again declining to reveal horsepower details. “We weren’t trying to get the horsepower, we were trying to get reliability. We wouldn’t do something like this just to win the pole. I want Paul or Emerson or Al sitting here after we’ve won the race. You can’t win it unless you finish, so that’s been our goal all along. As you see the [race] unfold, then I think you’ll see what we really have.”
After six hours and thirteen minutes of delays (and more than two inches of rain) for the day, the track reopened at 4:57, but the session ended at 6 p.m. with only twenty-one cars making an official qualifying run. Unser was still on top, but because of the long delays, there were twelve drivers still eligible to make an attempt at the pole, including several who had been consistently quick throughout the month, notably Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti.
Among the surprises was the third-best time by the impressive rookie Jacques Villeneuve and a very strong qualifying run for Lyn St. James, who was making her third straight 500 and would start ahead of Mansell.
Fittipaldi was visibly disappointed at being washed out. He had been consistently quickest all week, and was thrilled with the handling of his car in the morning session. He would have to wait for his opportunity.
Asked about the ninety percent chance of rain predicted for the following day, Unser seemed resigned that his hold on the pole was similarly tentative, stating, “I’m at least ninety percent sure Emerson’s going to get it. He’s been running 228 and 229 consistently.”
Neither man slept easily that night.