While in Florida recently, I crossed paths with a former racer who ran the Little 500 several times back in the 1980s and ‘90s. Although he long ago retired from driving, I asked him if he still followed the race as a spectator.
“It’s probably been 10 years since I’ve been up there,” he replied. “But I hear it’s different nowadays…guys race hard all night.”
The Little 500 remains one of the most unique sprint car races in the world. It is extremely entertaining, and a great many people through the years – myself included – became utterly fascinated with the event.
The 73rd running of the Pay Less Little 500 is scheduled for May 26-29 at Anderson Speedway. Once again, on a Saturday night at the great old quarter-mile, high-banked oval, everybody will stand up and cheer at the sight of 11 rows of three.
My friend had heard correctly: the race is different today. It is still fascinating and highly entertaining; but the strategy and complexion of the race is not as it once was.
For a great many years, you had to balance speed and smarts to win the Little 500. The cars – and the human body – could not withstand an all-out pace for 500 laps. Brake fluid boiled out, engines blew up, drivelines broke, radiators spewed, and oil lines leaked. Not to mention that necks gave out, arms withered, and fingers and feet lost all feeling. Fatigue caused a lot of crashes at the Little 500; as drivers became exhausted, they made mistakes.
The winning strategy was to conserve your equipment – and yourself – and survive to race hard the last 100 laps if needed. And it took a strong individual – mentally and physically – to have anything left in the tank after lap 400. It was not uncommon to see fewer than 10 cars running at the finish; everybody else had either crashed, broke, or gave up.
That’s all changed. Racing components of every type have significantly improved in recent years. Better metals, better design, and superior engineering and manufacturing have dramatically improved the durability and lifespan of racing parts.
You can abuse your brakes without using them up. You can run hard into the corner without tearing up your suspension and driveline. You can turn major RPMs all night long without punching a rod through the side of the block.
But the most dramatic change – by far – has been the seats. Full-containment seats have greatly eased the stress of two hours of constant G-forces that try to separate your head from your shoulders. The seats have fundamentally changed the human element at the Little 500 because you can race so much harder without wearing yourself out.
In some ways, all this has made the race even more intriguing. It is truly a race today, and not just a luck-of-the-draw scenario of which car breaks first. And watching sprinters running hard at Anderson is always exciting, whether it’s 10 laps or 500.
There are other changes, such as air jacks and specialized fueling equipment, which have greatly reduced the time it takes to service a car during a pit stop. This is probably not a good thing; the imperfection of the process is partly what has made the race so fascinating. If I want to see 10-second pit stops, I’ll watch NASCAR. But that’s a subject for discussion on another day.
Different? Yes, the Little 500 is different now. But, improved or not, the race continues to be a very special and exciting event.
The Little 500 is unique in the truest sense of the word because there is no other race like it. Thirty-three sprint cars, lined up in 11 rows of three, with 500 laps to go. It is a very different proposition and it remains an extremely difficult race to win.
Plus, the Little 500 has something lacking at most other short track events: Spectacle.
The stands are full, and there is electricity in the air. The pre-race ceremony, honed through the years, builds the anticipation. As each driver is introduced and climbs into their car, a genuine sense of adrenaline courses through the scene. When the cars are fired and the field begins to form up, every heart is beating fast. A fog of methanol fumes hangs in the air. When the field does a parade lap, it is magical.
When the green flag waves and 33 feet stand on the gas, it feels like the earth shakes. Seriously.
I was a young kid when I first experienced all this, and I thought it was the greatest moment in the history of mankind. Nothing on earth could be more exciting than what was happening right here, right before my eyes. I vowed that I would never miss this spectacle.
Alas, life sometimes brings complicated choices, and my TV schedule has caused me to miss the race several times in recent years. It’s still a little painful to be somewhere else and know what is happening at that very moment back in Anderson.
Luckily, whether I’m there or not, the Little 500 has flourished in recent years. It’s a great event and a bona fide bucket list experience. If you have not witnessed the Little 500 personally, I highly recommend you get there. As soon as possible.
Eleven rows of three. Five hundred laps to go. Line ‘em up, boys. Let’s go.