Q: After watching the Indy 500 Sunday, I was left wondering how they get all that fuel in those cars so fast. Can you explain?
Vic, of Fairview Heights
A: Let’s say your house is on fire. How would you feel if the fire department arrived and started hooking up your garden hose to your outdoor faucet to put it out?
You’d be pretty shocked (not to mention irate), wouldn’t you? Well, in essence, that sort of describes at least one of the major differences between you filling your tank at the neighborhood Gas-’er-Up and an Indy pit crew loading their racer’s tank in just a few seconds.
The analogy crossed my mind as I was gassing up myself a couple of days ago. Just for fun, I timed it. It took about 70 seconds to pump 13 gallons. And, this seemed to be a fast day. Did you ever have the experience where the flow is so slow that it feels like you’re siphoning gas through a straw? You could almost read a chapter in “War and Peace” while you’re standing there.
Even on a good day, filling an IndyCar’s 22-gallon tank under similar conditions would take nearly two minutes. Not exactly your greatest spectacle in racing, right? So how can they do it in almost a blink of an eye at Indy? Two main reasons:
First, there’s the placement of the fuel storage tank and the means used for getting the contents into a car. You probably know that gas at service stations is stored in large, subsurface tanks. So to fill your tank, they have to defy gravity by pumping gas up from underground into your car. They generally do this in one of two ways. They can use a submersible pump, which is placed in the gas and, like a fan, uses a propellerlike device to “blow” the gas upwards.
Or, according to howstuffworks.com, they can use a suction pump in which a pipe is placed in the gas. By removing enough air, the pressure inside the pipe is lowered, allowing the gasoline, which is at normal pressure, to flow up the pipe and eventually through the nozzle you hold.
At Indy, it’s much simpler and more efficient. Storage tanks are raised above ground, allowing Mother Nature to do her thing. The fuel simply flows out of the tank by gravity.
Then, there’s the other part of the delivery system: the hose. Risking possible police questioning for suspicious behavior, I took a ruler to the station to measure the hose. It was roughly an inch in diameter. No wonder it takes so long to fill up. Like my original analogy, it’s like trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a garden hose.
At Indianapolis, they have 5-inch diameter hoses coming off those gravity-feed tanks. (There’s also a second hose that vacuums up any overflow.) So, put the tank and the hose together and it’s like those firefighters hooking up their own hose to a hydrant. No wonder crews can force in 22 gallons in less than 10 seconds.
It’s an art form that has only improved over the years. In the mid-’60s, for example, pit stops were in the 50-second range, according to a 2016 article in USA Today that took a look at the revolution the Wood brothers — Glen, Leonard, Delano and Ray Lee — brought to Indy.
In 1965, the Ford Motor Co. asked them to work the pit for British driver Jim Clark, who had finished second in 1963 and won the pole the year before. Arriving at The Brickyard a week before the race, the Wood crew studied Clark’s Lotus-Ford and his pitting process. They quickly instituted new procedures that drastically cut Clark’s time in pit row. The result: Clark made only two 20-second stops and led 190 of the 200 laps as he zoomed to victory.
The key, Leonard Wood said, was the faster fuel delivery.
“The fuel hoses had sharp edges where the connections were made, and we filed them off and rounded them off and polished them so they would connect and disconnect easily,” he said. “Another key was keeping the hoses level so they didn’t sag, keeping the fuel flowing. We put in 58 gallons in about 20 seconds.”
And those were just the start of the changes Indy has seen in the 50 years since. After starting out with ordinary gasoline until about 1965, Indy cars in 2007 made the switch from pure methanol to pure ethanol with an octane rating of 113, according to Ethanol Producer Magazine. So even though Indy drivers get just roughly 4.2 miles per gallon, the ethanol was enough of an improvement in mileage to prompt the reduction in fuel tank capacity from 30 gallons to 22. If they last the entire race, the 1,600-pound cars with their carbon-fiber chassis will burn through about 125 gallons of fuel.
Who coined the phrase “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” to describe the Indianapolis 500? When? Why?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: If you want to see a comprehensive display of works by Old West artist Frederic Remington, you have to venture to tiny Ogsdenburg, N.Y. (population 11,000), to tour the Remington Art Museum. Constructed in 1810, the building became the home of his wife, Eva, after his death in 1909. Five years after she died in 1918, it was turned into a museum and education center, which houses many of his sculptures, oil paintings, possessions, and studio contents. For more information go to www.fredericremington.org.