The Indianapolis "500" offers its contestants the biggest pot of gold at the end of any racing rainbow (about $300,000 this year), and in return it exacts probably the greatest sacrifices. Even an old Brickyard hand like James Ernest Bryan (see cover), the United States Auto Club's national champion driver last year, whose "groove" at the Speedway is diagramed here, approaches the race with a respect he reserves for no other event.
Bryan knows that once he takes the green flag at Indy: he can never relax during the nearly four hours of racing; he will have no relief from the oppressive heat which soon builds up in the cramped cockpit; he can never escape the ear-buffeting roar of unmuffled exhausts; in the turns he will be constantly in the terrible grip of centrifugal force, which pins him to the side of the cockpit; without warning he will strike gusts of wind which can bounce him several feet to one side on the straightaways or toward an unyielding wall in the corners; and some misadventure absolutely beyond his control may be lurking anywhere on the track—like the four-car pile-up that forced the great Bill Vukovich to go over the fence to his death in the 1955 race.
If any man is suited to the demands of the "500" by temperament, physique and training, it is Jim Bryan. At 30, he is 6 feet tall, weighs 215 pounds and is as wide and tough as a pro football guard. He won the old AAA national championship in 1954, the new USAC title last year, and he always has been in the thick of it in his five tries at Indianapolis. He came closest to victory in 1954, in one of the most courageous drives ever seen at the Brickyard. Having led for 60 laps, he lost first place to Vukovich during a pit stop and resumed the chase only to have his springs and shock absorbers break. Thereafter he took a remorseless pounding in his crippled car and finished second, nonetheless.
The Brickyard is a 2�-mile rectangle with rounded, mildly banked corners, and it must be driven with all the speed a driver can command, all the way. On the two long straightaways he will reach speeds between 170 and 180 mph. None of the other races in which Bryan and his fellow drivers compete accustoms them to such speeds. They race that fast only at Indianapolis, one race a year. Obviously it is impossible to relax at 170 mph, with other cars to look out for, a corner looming up, and the possibility of wind gusts that, as Bryan puts it, "jack me over three feet."
Veterans like Bryan use every resource to keep tabs on the wind. They watch the smoke from a large industrial chimney south of the course (see map)—even the leaves on the trees in the infield. Since prevailing winds are from the west, the southwest corner is especially tricky, for the wind tends to push the racers into the wall. On the home straightaway the wind may come in gusts between the grandstands. This can mean that Bryan will have a calm stretch, then a gust, calm stretch, gust, etc. for nearly a mile of each lap.
If driving the straights is taxing, consider the problems in the corners. Chassis builders and mechanics devise new gimmicks each year to keep the cars in the groove at higher speeds, and last year, with the track almost completely repaved, the fastest cars were approaching 135 mph in the turns. Like most of the best drivers, Bryan has a new, lighter car this year, weighing only 1,850 pounds, and although the engine is smaller, he will be getting more "bite" in the turns and therefore taking them faster.
"I never get off the throttle all at once coming into a corner," says Bryan. "I always come off easy. And I never come off all the way. I always keep a little power on."
Bryan eases through the corners in a mild four-wheel drift, countering the tendency of the rear wheels to lose traction by turning the front wheels a bit to the right. He knows that he must come as close as possible to the absolute minimum of adhesion without actually losing traction entirely.
"Halfway into a corner," he says, "you'd better be pretty well back on the accelerator. Coming out of it you'd better be flatfooted. I take the corners at the ends of the long straights about the same way [see map for Bryan's route and the points at which he accelerates and decelerates], but I can get into the north turn a little hotter because the asphalt back there is a lot smoother than the bricks on the front straight. The bricks will shake your teeth out at 100 mph, by the way, but they're not bad at 140 and up; you just skim over the tops."
If everything goes according to schedule next week, Bryan will take two breaks from the exhausting grind—two pit stops. "We'll take on 50 gallons of fuel and change tires, and I'll get a cup of water and a new pair of goggles in the 35 to 45 seconds we use up in a good pit stop," Bryan explains.