INDIANAPOLIS -- Twenty-five years ago this week -- on May 14, 1988, to be specific -- Rick Mears turned the first official 220 mph lap in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Since then, the 220 mph mark has been commonplace at IMS. For a while, the cars continued to get faster; Arie Luyendyk set the record of 237.498 mph during qualifying for the 1996 Indianapolis 500, and the Dutchman ran a 239.260 mph lap in practice.
But for the past 10 to 15 years, there has been a concentrated effort to keep speeds right around 220 mph at Indy and other superspeedways -- sort of like putting restrictor plates on race cars that could be going much faster.
"The hardest thing in this business is to slow cars down, especially when you have talented engineers trying to make them go faster," said Mauricio Gugelmin, who in 1997 turned the fastest unofficial lap in Indy car racing history -- 242.333 mph during a practice session at what was then called California Speedway. "The problem is when you get a bunch of talented people together with a racing car. They want to make it work better than anyone else."
In recent years, those speed-seeking engineers have had almost every avenue of development significantly restricted. Teams are no longer allowed to design their own suspension parts or aerodynamic components, and although engine competition returned to the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012 after six years of a single engine supplier, the rules were written with cost containment prioritized over performance, discouraging major development.
Because it is essentially spec-car racing, the competition on the track is very close and often spectacular. But for a variety of reasons, that quality on-track product is not connecting with the general public.
At Indianapolis, Pole Day used to be an event in itself, attracting huge crowds well into the 1990s. The prospect of PA announcer Tom Carnegie excitedly trumpeting a new track record was a major part of the appeal.
With pole position for this year's Indianapolis 500 likely to be in the 227-228 mph range -- numbers that were achieved more than 20 years ago -- speed is clearly no longer a draw.
But there's a movement afoot to bring back speed and innovation to Indy car racing.
"If you ask the fans what defined Indy cars, 90 percent of them would say, 'They are the fastest cars on the planet,'" said Gil de Ferran, who is the official Indy car speed record holder with a 241.428 mph run at California Speedway in 2000. "Indy cars were defined by speed. They were brutally powerful, and their speeds around the superspeedways were mind-boggling.
"It's what separated Indy cars from all these other series, including NASCAR and Formula One. The pure speed of qualifying in those cars -- pushing the car and yourself to the limit -- often made it as rewarding as the race itself."
Almost every aspect of safety has improved in the years since Gugelmin and de Ferran broke the 240 mph mark. Chassis are constructed to stronger impact standards, engines are more reliable, and driver safety equipment like the HANS device has dramatically reduced head and spine injuries.
In addition, the concrete walls of every oval track are now lined by the SAFER barrier, perhaps the single greatest safety advance in the history of oval racing.
Today's drivers are certainly eager to crank the speeds back up to where they used to be -- and maybe beyond.
"There's still an element of danger, but cars and tracks are a lot safer than they used to be, and for 100 years, the Indy 500 has been about going fast," said Panther Racing's JR Hildebrand. "When I was growing up, Arie Luyendyk was smashing records at the Speedway and I didn't dream of running around there at 210 mph.
"They were doing that in the 1980s. The problem is we won't know what the limit is until we try it out."
The speed and innovation proponents have an important ally in the form of recently instated Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles. An Indianapolis native, Miles is aware that the buzz about speed and track records is an important component in the history of the Indianapolis 500.
Miles' first key hire for INDYCAR was Derrick Walker, a longtime Indy car team manager and owner, who will serve as president of competition and operations.
"Speed and safety have to go hand in hand. I'm sure that's a widely held view," Miles said. "It's something that we've talked about; it's something that I believe is part of INDYCAR. We're the fastest series, and it's part of our brand; it's part of what we're about.
"But we're not quite as fast as we used to be, so if we can work through Derrick and through the paddock to think of ways to make incremental improvements in that, I think that's a good thing. We'll be talking more about that."
The challenge is how to bring the speeds back up at Indianapolis and other tracks in a safe, cost-effective manner.
"Indy cars were -- and should be -- about innovation," Walker said. "If you look at the evolution of racing, we got very smart, we got very good at doing things, and we made cars better and better and we went faster and faster.
"One day, there were fewer people in the stands for whatever reasons, and the cost of racing became a major talking point," he added. "A major concern is survival and the cost. So it's a delicate balance between innovation, the speed and the cost of racing. … Our goal should be to open up that door just enough to allow it to grow and improve and innovate but yet keep it in a measurable amount -- not only for the teams but the manufacturers, every supplier that is involved in our business."
One solution is to open up engine development, but that's an expensive method. Gugelmin and de Ferran set their records with one-off qualifying engines; de Ferran called his 1000-horsepower Honda "a rocket" that produced wheelspin in fourth gear at 150 mph.
The current drivers are especially keen to have more power for the road and street circuits. Today's 2.2-liter turbocharged V-6 engines are tuned for about 550 horsepower on speedways and 700 for road racing.
"We need to be at least back to where we were in the few last years with Champ Car, where those Cosworths were at about 800 horsepower," said Team Penske's Will Power. "I'd love another 200 horsepower or so because this car has so much grip, it's almost too easy to drive."
Manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda are proponents of developing independent aerodynamic kits for the basic Dallara DW12 that would increase performance and help add some visual spice. It's likely that these aero kits will be implemented on a limited basis in 2014, first at Indianapolis and the other superspeedways on the IndyCar Series schedule (Pocono Raceway and Auto Club Speedway).
At Indianapolis specifically, there's a potential way of finding more speed with minimal cost: adjust the racing line to include the apron, returning the circuit to its pre-1993 configuration.
Although drivers were discouraged from using it, the apron widened the notoriously narrow IMS racing line and produced higher speeds and additional opportunity for passing. But it was eliminated and replaced by rumble strips as IMS modified the track to introduce stock car racing, installing higher walls and creating new pit entry and exits.
Taking away the apron in 1993 produced a pole speed 8 mph slower and more processional racing compared to what had been seen in the past.
"The narrow track configuration definitely makes racing more difficult," said Luyendyk, who won the Indianapolis 500 on both circuit layouts (in 1990 and 1997). "The narrow groove was really restrictive and took away some of the fun of racing there, though it appeared to be safer."
One thing is for certain: Whoever wins pole position at Indianapolis this weekend will push his or her car to the absolute limit -- whether that limit is 225 mph or 240.