Luyendyk’s “unofficial” 1996 practice lap of 239.260 mph is so well known, the “un” hardly seems to matter. He is the speed king of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and he made it official by setting records for the fastest averages in one (237.498 mph) and four (236.986 mp) qualifying laps, also in 1996. But slower runs later on stuck him in the back half of the field to start the race.
That year, 1996, remains the Indy 500’s undisputed anum of velocity—when another speed demon, Eddie Cheever, logged the fastest-ever lap in an Indy 500, at 236.103 mph. (And he didn’t win, either!).
Luyendyk and Cheever both got theirs—Luyendyk with Indy 500 wins in ’90 and ’97, and Cheever with a win in 1998. But for Luyendyk, one big milestone remained elusive.
It’s really hard to explain the feeling to someone who has never driven that fast.
The speeds were just mind-boggling in 1996. I had the fastest unofficial lap at the Speedway at 239.260 mph during practice, and I got up to 237.498 at qualifying, which is official.
All I can compare it to is going down a ski slope. You’re making those long, winding turns. You feel the skis about to lose their grip, getting away from you—but not quite.
The reason I was able to go that fast at practice is because I was able to pick up a tow just as I was coming out of turn 4. The guy in front of me punched a whole in the air and created less resistance. So I was able to pick up speed.
I did a couple of laps at 238 mph on my own. But man, we almost got to 240 mph that day.
We always wanted more.
Looking back, the track record on Sunday was really cool, but in the end it didn’t mean much. I didn’t get to start on pole position where I should have been. It put me back on the grid, and being back there exposes you to crap you’re not around if you’re up front. It was disappointing that we had the fastest car, we were the fastest all month, but we came away with nothing.
The following year, we ran 218—almost 20 mph slower. People think that must have been a lot easier, but it was actually more difficult. Those cars weren’t as good as the older cars. The level of confidence and grip that the older car gave you just wasn’t there in 1997. It also had a really heavy engine compared to the ’96 car.
So yeah, speeds were high in ’96, but it doesn’t reflect the degree of difficulty. It’s all about the feel. If you feel uncomfortable, if handling it just isn’t right, you could drive around at 200 mph and get spooked. We were lucky to have such a terrific group of guys and a great engineer.
In ’96, we had a really good car, and we were fine-tuning it, picking up a quarter-mile here, a half a mile there. By the time we were done, we were able to get up to those crazy speeds. They had also just repaved the track at the Speedway that year. They took out the rumble strips, which gave us a few more feet of track, and those Firestone tires were just unbelievable. All of that played a part.
But also, you just really have to like to go fast. I was one of those guys who thrived on going fast on Pole Day. I always thought Pole Day was more exciting than the actual race.
When I think about it, it’s probably time for someone to break my record to get that excitement going for the 500 again. I’ve been the record holder for 20 years now, and that’s long enough for me.