SI Vault
Edited by Jack McCallum and Richard O'Brien
May 27, 1996
Russian Roulette at Indy?
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 27, 1996


View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Russian Roulette at Indy?

When the green flag goes down at the storied Brickyard on Sunday for an enfeebled Indianapolis 500, the best that can be hoped for is that the world's most renowned automobile race deteriorates into merely a boring bush-league event and nothing worse. During qualifying and practice runs, Scott Brayton, who had earned the pole position, was killed, and live other drivers also crashed, one of whom (rookie Dan Drinan) was seriously injured. The race's inexperienced held raises the possibility of further carnage. "It's a kind of Russian roulette," says Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indy winner who is now retired from Indy driving, "and you don't play Russian roulette on a superspeedway."

The 37-year-old Brayton, the only pole sitter ever killed in practice, was no roulette player. He was the most experienced driver in the field, with 14 Indy starts and thousands of testing miles at the Speedway. Last Friday his right rear tire went flat apparently after having been punctured by debris on the track. His Lola-Menard, which was traveling at close to 230 mph, spun and slammed broadside into the concrete retaining wall in Turn 2. Brayton suffered head injuries and was pronounced dead 33 minutes later at Methodist Hospital.

In other years Brayton's death would have been ascribed to "the luck of the lick," as they say at Indy. But because of the civil war between Speedway president Tony George's Indy Racing League (IRL) and the car owners of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), the organization that's staging the rival U.S. 500 in Brooklyn, Mich., on Sunday, safety issues came to the fore. The two races have set different technical specifications for their cars. At Indy the vehicles are older yet faster, because the IRL has not adopted the aerodynamic modifications and limits on turbo-boost that will be in effect at the U.S. 500. When he crashed, Brayton was driving a '95 Lola, which does not have some of the safety features of the '96. Even CART loyalists concede that no one knows if Brayton would have survived the crash had he been driving the newer model, but the bitterness of the civil war has auto racing observers talking about it.

They're also talking about the possibility of further incidents at the Brickyard on Sunday. The field is clearly diluted—Brayton, for example, was replaced by 54-year-old Danny Ongais, who hasn't raced an Indy Car in nine years—yet the speeds may be higher than ever, not only because of lesser restraints on boost but also because of a repaved track. Mike Devin, technical director for the U.S. Auto Club, the race's sanctioning body, says that Indy's "safety inspection is basically beyond reproach." Others, like CART loyalist Andretti, believe that Brickyard drivers will be racing at unsafe speed, "operating outside a known envelope," as he puts it. One thing is for sure: What used to be one of the special days in all of sports is a lot less special and possibly a lot more dangerous.

Amen Corner

Recently there have been two robberies and one attempted robbery at the Shelby Park Golf Course in Nashville. In each case, gun-wielding youths have preyed on golfers by jumping out of trees that stand along a railroad track near the 16th tee. As of Monday there had been no arrests.

A tip from the pros: When playing Shelby, save that mulligan for the back nine.

Swimmin' for Doc

As men's swimming coach at Indiana from 1957 to '90, the legendary James (Doc) Counsilman did more than produce 14 world-record holders and 22 Olympic medalists. "He gave us life lessons we'll always have," says former Hoosier Mike Troy, who won two golds at the 1960 Rome Games. "It didn't matter how good a swimmer a guy was, Doc cared about everyone equally and motivated everyone equally. We wanted to give him something back."

Continue Story
1 2 3