There’s been a bit of consternation recently about how to make the Indy 500 popular again. Not that it doesn’t have any friends, but it’s not the absurdly massive spectacle that it used to be. One of the reasons is that much of the innovation is gone. And a lot of that is thanks to the monster hidden in this race car.
(This story originally ran in May 2014 and is being reposted for the 100th running of the Indy 500.)
To the naked eye, the Penske PC-23B doesn’t look like much. Sure, it looks like a blisteringly-fast race car fit for the Indy 500, but every car at the Indy 500 should look that way. It doesn’t look very special, or like it heralds some genius new idea.
That’s because the real genius is hidden away, under the engine cover. In case you haven’t guessed yet, it’s the engine itself, the infamous Mercedes-Benz 500I.
A 3.43-liter, turbocharged, methanol-sucking V8, it was created in less than six months, and only for one race. Built by Ilmor Engineering in conjunction with Mercedes for Team Penske and the 1994 Indianapolis 500, it was an absolutely dominant force.
“We hope we’ve got enough power that it’s competitive,” Dan Luginbuhl, a Penske Racing spokesman, told the New York Times about a month before the race. He must’ve been laughing like a window-licking maniac when he said that, because the Mercedes definitely had “enough power,” and it was, how shall we say it, “competitive.”
Or rather, it wasn’t competitive at all, because it completely blew the competition out of the water. Because it had somewhere north of 1,000 horsepower.
For comparison, its contemporaries were getting up to speed with a mere 800 horses. And while 800 horsepower may sound like a lot, the power disadvantage was monumental on a track that emphasizes high speeds.
Long story short, it helped Al Unser, Jr., and Team Penske win the 1994 Indianapolis 500 in frighteningly short order, lapping pretty much the entire field. Then-rookie Jacques Villeneuve was the only other driver to finish on the lead lap.
Like all proper racing legends, the Mercedes-Benz 500I engine and the chassis that held it, the Penske PC-23B, was the fruit of that ultimately race-winning combination.
No, not grit, luck, and moxie. An interesting reading of the rulebook and oodles upon oodles of money.
It was the kind of thing a storied race team like Penske could only provide, and Mercedes paid Ilmor for the engine, allowing them their first Indianapolis 500 entry in 79 years.
Back in 1994, the Indy 500 wasn’t just a race among races, one that happened to have a strip of bricks on the track and some milk at the end. It was set apart, with its own rules and everything.
Every other race required four valves per cylinder, operated by an overhead camshaft. The Indy 500, in an effort to be more proletariat, or something, allowed what was known as “stock blocks,” or engines with only two valves per cylinder, operated by pushrods.
That sort of thing is all well and good, but the technology is considered a bit antiquated, fit mostly for NASCAR and not much else in today’s modern world. So, in keeping with the spirit of allowing such “simple” and “backwards” engines to used for this special race, an equivalency formula would be applied.
Engine displacement would be allowed to increase from 2.65 liters to 3.43 liters, and turbo boost would be allowed to be increased from 45 inches to 55 inches. If you could make the engineering work, those increases could be translated into huge power advantages.
Most teams at the time saw a pushrod monster was technically possible, but implausible, as it would require massive resources to build a special engine just for one race in the entire year. But when Penske debuted the Mercedes 500I, everyone else knew it was special.
It was developed in only 25 weeks, and the fact that Roger Penske owned two race tracks let it be tested in secret.
But everything worked out, remarkably. A stupid mistake put Penske PC-23B driver Emerson Fittipaldi into the wall, but his teammate Al Unser, Jr., managed to take the win.
We haven’t seen crazy one-off engines since the Penske-Mercedes car dominated everything. On the one hand, it almost made the victor of the race a foregone conclusion.
But on the other, Indy was back on the bleeding edge. And that’s why so many watched.
Photos credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Morio, Ilmor Engineering