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We don't need no stinkin' aprons

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Michael Andretti (R) passes Rick Mears (L) on the apron at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the 1991 Indianapolis 500 (Photo: IMS)
Michael Andretti (R) passes Rick Mears (L) on the apron at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the 1991 Indianapolis 500 (Photo: IMS)

The latest cause célèbre among fans of INDYCAR racing is a movement to "bring back the aprons" at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It's gotten into some people's minds that the best racing at the Brickyard came in the era when there were no pit entry and pit exit roads in the North and South Chutes. Instead, a wide apron served to allow cars to either get up to or back down from full speed.

The aprons, which bordered immediately to the infield grass, became during the late 1970s a prime passing location - once drivers figured out that nobody was going to penalize them for going below the white line, that is. For almost two decades, Indy racers "shortcut" the track by driving through the aprons. And, in fairness, there were several now-classic battles that happened because drivers "skirted the grass," so to speak - including a real beaut between Michael Andretti and Rick Mears.

But the calls to bring the aprons back - from people as high-profile as Robin Miller as well as fans - miss the mark in terms of what would be accomplished and how. Moreover, they fail to realize that the desired results could be obtained without expanding the racing surface a single inch.

The North and South Chutes today are narrower than in the past. Where the aprons formerly resided, pit entry and pit exit roads now cut through the infield grass. The track surface itself is now separated from the grass by rumble strips. The narrower track surface was implemented after it became clear that a car that spun while at speed in the lowest part of the apron would impact the outer wall with cataclysmic force, resulting in serious, even permanent injuries or, worse, death.

These track renovations occurred prior to the implementation of the SAFER Barrier at IMS - indeed, this is one point that apron-boosters cite as justification for reverting the track surface back to the older configuration. The argument goes that SAFER - along with vastly improved and more protective safety cells in the race cars themselves - mitigates the risk to the drivers in instances of impact; therefore, the increased risk posed by widening the track surface back out to previous measurements would be offset by modern safety devices.

The more energetic apron-boosters even go so far as to say that the track could conceivably be more dangerous for drivers in its current configuration thanks to the changed circumstances since the original renovations. Part of the logic behind narrowing the track surface, they claim, was to keep the cars from rotating completely to a dangerous side-on impact that could seriously injure or kill the driver. However, with the new safety cells built into the cars and the SAFER Barriers in place, side impacts might actually be the lesser of two evils compared to rear impacts, which could actually result in serious back injuries. So go the arguments, anyway.

Safety aside, apron-boosters claim that the ability to race below the white line added a legitimate second racing groove to IMS - a groove that no longer exists, they complain. By restoring the aprons, they assure us, that second groove would return and the racing would be better.

This is where the apron-boosters have their strongest point of contention. Indeed, the aprons did provide a legitimate second racing groove. But the reason for that was not because the track was wider - it was because the apron and the lane immediately above the apron created a variable banking zone. Indeed, the track surface outside of the regular racing groove was as inhospitable as it is today - there is simply less of the "no-man's-land" now than there was before the reconfiguration.

The aprons, banked a few degrees less than the racing surface, provided real estate for short-term track position gains. The actual racing groove still retained its "raciness," however, because of the additional banking. This variable banking principle has been engineered into tracks like New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where the track's one-groove racing prior to reconfiguration produced stultifyingly dull motor races, in the hopes of creating more exciting on-track action.

That is the solution for bringing multi-groove racing back to IMS - adding variable banking. The change could be made on the existing track surface without having to add back any more width. The difference in banking need not be more than a couple of degrees - the same difference, in fact, as the difference between the apron and the track surface in days of yore - but even that small difference would be critical to opening up the competition in the turns.

Adding variable banking to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway might be an idea that irritates traditionalists, but it is the best way to add a second racing groove to the track without expanding the track width. The fact is that the track was narrowed for a good reason that even SAFER and modern racing technology cannot erase. Expanding the track width again reintroduces those risks, and the potential gains are not worth that. Better to look to a different - better - solution instead.

There is a great temptation among long-time fans to cave to the fallacy that doing things "the old way" is doing them "the best way." It stems from emotion and the way the mind romanticizes the past. Reality, however, usually conflicts with gauzy sentimentality.

The bottom line is this: if you want a second groove at Indy, variable banking is the only real solution. Bringing back the aprons is about as useful as putting Rick Mears back in a race car.