Hitting The Apex: Track Record Possibilities Bring Even More Intrigue to Rolex 24
Thursday, January 9, 2020

“Hitting The Apex” is a new IMSA.com editorial column by Nate Siebens, a longtime motorsports publicist and journalist. Siebens has more than 20 years of industry experience – including the past seven as part of the IMSA Communications staff – who will offer his own observations and insights throughout the 2020 season.

The first time I went to Indianapolis Motor Speedway was Saturday, May 9, 1987.

I was 14 years old and I went with my sister and brother-in-law for Indianapolis 500 Time Trials. The crowd in attendance at the Speedway that day was measured in the hundreds of thousands, and we all were there to see – and more specifically to hear – one thing.

We all wanted to hear legendary IMS public address announcer Tom Carnegie utter his most famous phrase, “…and it’s a new track record!” as the bravest of brave drivers posted their qualifying times for the race. And based on the speeds we’d seen in the week of practice leading up to Pole Day, it seemed like a good possibility.

But it was an unseasonably hot early spring day that Saturday in Indianapolis, making track conditions less than optimal. At the end of the day, Mario Andretti turned in an impressive four-lap average at 215.390 mph to take the pole, but shy of Rick Mears’ four-lap record average of 216.828 mph from the year before.

It wasn’t until the next year’s pole day – Saturday, May 14, 1988 – that I finally got to hear those most anticipated words for the first time.

Danny Sullivan – my favorite driver – triggered them first with a one-lap record at 217.749 mph. A while later, Sullivan’s Penske Racing teammate, Mears, one of the greatest ever at Indianapolis, became the first to officially break the 220-mph barrier with his first lap at 220.453 mph. Three laps later, he had the pole position with a record 219.198 mph average.

And when it happened, it was pandemonium. The huge crowd roared in response to Carnegie’s signature “new track record” bellow that day. They did it again the next year, when Mears set more one- and four-lap records and again the following year when Emerson Fittipaldi broke the 225-mph barrier.

One of my most vivid memories as a race fan came on Pole Day at Indy in 1992, when I watched Roberto Guerrero break the 230-mph barrier with a four-lap average of 232.482 mph. As I watched his run from the penthouse seats high above Turn 1, I’d never seen a race car as “stuck” to the turns as that green No. 36 Buick-powered Lola was on that late Saturday afternoon. He. Was. Flying.

I was lucky enough to be at California Speedway for the first CART race in 1997 to see Mauricio Gugelmin set the closed-course speed record of 240.942 mph, and I was there again three years later when Gil de Ferran broke that record with a lap of 241.428 mph in a Penske Honda-Reynard.

Talk about flying. Those cars looked like they were stuck on fast-forward.

I wasn’t at Daytona in 1993 when PJ Jones set the all-time IMSA speed record with a lap of 136.521 mph in the No. 98 Toyota Eagle MKIII for Dan Gurney’s All American Racers team. But I was there during qualifying last year, when Oliver Jarvis went 136.792 mph in the No. 77 Mazda Team Joest RT24-P DPi to topple Jones’ longstanding record.

Jarvis’ official record run for the 2019 Motul Pole Award at Daytona came after he had unofficially broken Jones’ record a few weeks earlier at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 At Daytona in qualifying for garage and pit stall selections. On that day, he and teammate Harry Tincknell in the No. 55 Mazda DPi both eclipsed the Toyota Eagle’s speed, but only Jarvis managed to do it officially on race week.

It’d been a while since I’d seen a track record like that go down, and it instantly brought back all these memories. That’s why I’m even more excited for Thursday, Jan. 23, when qualifying for the 58th Rolex 24 At Daytona will take place.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of other reasons to get excited about this year’s Rolex 24. But in last weekend’s qualifying session at the Roar, where two cars were under the record in 2019, this time there were no less than five drivers who eclipsed Jarvis’ record.

Jarvis’ own teammate, Olivier Pla – in that very same No. 77 Mazda DPi – led the way at 137.321 mph. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and check out the in-car footage Mazda shared of Pla’s record lap. If I didn’t know better, I’d think it was somehow stuck on fast-forward.

Conditions were pretty much perfect last Sunday. Here’s hoping they are again two weeks from today when it counts.

Because – while Tom Carnegie is no longer with us – I know John Hindhaugh will more than make him proud with his call when another Daytona speed record goes down. And I don’t know about you, but I want to be able to say it again.

“I was there.”

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