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Race To Develop Automotive, Safety Technology Never Stops at IMS

In the 1920s, if you were pulled over by a police officer for speeding -- like, say, a blazing 25 mph -- it wasn’t uncommon to hear this sarcastic question:

“Who do you think you are, Barney Oldfield?”

Oldfield was the Mario Andretti of his time, just as Andretti was the Scott Dixon of his time, and just as Ray Harroun -- the winner of the first Indianapolis 500 -- was the Barney Oldfield of his time. All of them, and their colleagues, teams and manufacturers, played a critical role in the advancement of Indianapolis 500 technology, and, in turn, the advancement of automotive technology, in general.

After all, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s initial purpose was a proving ground for the developing automotive industry. As the horseless carriage segued from fledgling oddity into the preferred form of transportation in the early years of the 20th century, it needed a test facility. And what better way to test cars than to race them?

Harroun’s victory in the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 introduced two critical elements to automobiles that remain today -- the rear-view mirror and aerodynamics. The distinct tail that gave Harroun’s car the Marmon Wasp nickname also was one of the first attempts to introduce aerodynamics to the automobile. A century later, aerodynamics are essential to the handling and fuel efficiency of passenger cars. And mirrors? They’re being joined by cameras and sensors that alert everyday drivers of their surroundings.

With one of the continuing themes the Indy 500 being forward progress and innovation, it’s pertinent to look in the rear-view as we look forward. Considering how far passenger car technology has come in the 109 years since Harroun sliced the wind with help from a tail that resembled a stinger while watching his closest competitors chase him in a mirror, the future of cars is right here at The Brickyard.

When this year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge field lowers themselves into their respective cockpits, they’ll do so with decades of advancement behind them -- started by Harroun and that first Indy 500 -- and a limitless future for automotive technology ahead of them.

Today, computers read the telemetry of the car -- all forms of data about the pressures, temperatures, RPMs and overall operation of the machine -- in real time to a crew of engineers in the pits. Each lap is measured electronically to 1/10,000th of a second (and mile per hour), recorded by sensors in the car and the pits. That information, in turn, is used by Chevrolet, Dallara, Honda and Firestone engineers to gauge the performance of the car, the engine and the tires and develop them further.

“The amount of information that goes from the car to the engineers is truly impressive,” 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan said. “They usually know more about what’s happening to the car than I do. I can feel things, and I know from the information I’ve got in front of me in the cockpit what the car is doing, but they’ve got everything you need to know in real time in the pits.”

To understand the future of passenger automobiles and Indianapolis’ potential effect on it, one must visit the past. Far more than the aerodynamics and mirrors introduced in 1911 owe their beginnings to Indy. Among the major accomplishments with a direct link are these:

Seatbelts.You can thank our speed demon Mr. Oldfield for a piece of safety technology now considered so essential it’s required by law. In 1922, Oldfield bought a harness from a parachute manufacturer and jerry-rigged it into a seat belt. The device didn’t become popular until much later; drivers felt it was safer to be thrown from the car in an accident than be crushed by it. Nash introduced the first seat belt in a passenger car in 1949. It didn’t become standard equipment in most cars until the mid-1960s.

Front-wheel drive. While it didn’t emerge en masse in production automobiles until the 1970s -- and you won’t see it in today’s Indy 500 -- front-wheel drive technology was first introduced in the mid-1920s at Indianapolis. Jimmy Murphy, who won the race in 1922, ordered a front-wheel drive car from legendary builder Harry Miller. Murphy was killed in a crash before he could drive the car, but its runner-up finish in 1925 with Dave Lewis at the wheel led two car builders to offer FWD cars for sale to the public in 1929.

Advances in pavement and traffic technology. The 9-degree banking you see in the Speedway’s four turns is believed to be the first intentionally banked motorway in the United States. Likewise, the guardrail technology in use today -- along with the Jersey barrier (the portable concrete divider) -- were introduced at Indy. And, of course, the SAFER Barrier in use and changing guardrail technology today was introduced at Indy.

Alternate fuels. Fuel experimentation long has been the hallmark of the Indy 500. In the late ‘20s, Leon Duray introduced methanol, which then powered a Miller car to a lap record of 124.02 mph that stood for nine years. A horrible, fiery crash in 1964 blamed on the severity of gasoline’s flammability led teams to use less volatile alcohol-based fuels like methanol and ethanol.

Other technological advancements. Lightweight engine components, magnesium wheels, disc brakes and turbochargers are other important advancements in auto production credited directly to the Indy 500. Turbos now common in modern passenger vehicles emerged from superchargers, which were actually used in blast furnaces long before the automobile was invented. Mercedes brought supercharged cars to Indy in 1923. Supercharging -- forcing air into the engine’s intake manifold by a blower powered by the engine-- gave way to turbocharging, which uses the engine’s exhaust, not the crankshaft, to force air into the cylinders. That technology first appeared at Indy in 1952.

Tire technology. Among the components of early tires was -- no kidding -- the same cotton that’s in the racing T-shirt fans are wearing today. Since then, tire technology and efficiency have developed dramatically. Modern road tires, like their Indy 500 counterparts constructed by Firestone, are wider, lower profile, more fuel efficient, safer and far more reliable. In the early days of rubber tires, failures were common. Today, the failure of a tire at Indy is so rare that it’s newsworthy. On the road, it’s so unusual that many people don’t know how to change a flat tire.

Consider this: When Andretti competed in the Indy 500 51 years ago, Firestone provided such a reliable product that, when his crew couldn’t remove the right rear wheel on his first pit stop, he was forced to run the entire 500 miles on the same tire. Andretti went on to win the race.

Kanaan shakes his head at the thought. The modern automobile owes its existence to Indianapolis, and Indy owes its existence to people who strived to achieve something profound. They used their brains as much as their brawn, their ability to see into the future as well as their ability to understand the past.

“It’s truly remarkable when you think about where this has been and where it’s going,” Kanaan said. “The future is wide open. It’s mind-boggling.”

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