In 1957, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway underwent a major improvement along the frontstretch pit lane. Prior to 1957, the pit area was located along the inside of the mainstretch, and was not physically separated from the racing surface. Cars would simply pull over to the inside to be serviced. In the interest of safety and modernization, a new dedicated pit lane was built, separated by a concrete wall and a grass parapet. The “Grass Strip,” as most people referred to it, became a recognizable sight at the Speedway, particularly since it was located along the mainstretch, pit area, start/finish line, and victory lane area. However, few may have realized that the grass strip actually underwent some changes as the years went by.
Prior to 1957
Up through 1956, the pit area was not separated from the racing surface. It was located along the inside of the main straightaway, although the pits did protrude inwards, and that part of the mainstretch was wider than the standard 50 feet.
In the very early years, the inside pit wall may not have been much more than a wooden fence, although at some point well prior to W.W.I.I., the inside wall appears to have been made of concrete. The biggest noticeable difference, however, was the length of pit lane. The north end of the pits (beginning) was located just in front of the Pagoda. That would put the length of pit lane at that time at approximately 900 feet. North of the northernmost pit stall was mostly just general admission car parking, although at some point there were some small bleachers in some spots. The patrons were separated from the track by a simple inside wall, and a fairly wide grass corridor, which at one point, still had some trees.
In 1957, a $1 million improvement project was completed at the Speedway, which drastically changed the look of the frontstretch. The old wooden Pagoda (actually the second ever built at that location), was demolished and in its place the new steel and glass Master Control Tower was constructed.
Adjacent to the tower was the new Tower Terrace grandstand, with seating for 12,000 spectators. They replaced the bleachers known as the “Parquet” seats. But also important was the new separated pit lane. The new pit road, paved in concrete, was approximately 35 feet wide and physically separated from the racing surface by a concrete wall and grass strip. The grass strip was designed to accommodate the pit crew sign board man, as well as officials, including the flagman. Bill Vanderwater was the flag man at the time which it was built. Starter Pat Vidan (1962-1979) famously had a short wooden platform upon which he stood to flag the race. The length of the pit lane in 1957 is up for some further clarification. The northernmost limit was somewhere a short distance north of the northern edge of the Paddock grandstand standing across from it. That would make the total length of the pit lane somewhere between 1,850 and 1,900 feet. North of the new pit lane, a concrete inside wall lined the track up to turn four. The entrance to the pits was a rather tight opening in that concrete wall, a quick left-right turn, almost like a chicane. At the time, a tight entrance was thought to be desired to help slow the cars down as they entered the pits, as well as prevent spinning cars from finding their way into the pit lane.
The Grass Strip: 1957 to 1958
When it first built in 1957, the grass strip was originally 15 feet wide. The concrete pit lane was 35 feet wide, and the famous scoring pylon was not yet built. It became the place for sign board men to signal their drivers during the race. It would also be used by photographers for close-up shots along the mainstretch.
The Grass Strip: 1959 to 1973
In 1959, the iconic scoring Pylon was built inside the grass strip towards the south end of the pit lane, near the Gasoline Alley opening. The grass strip itself was not altered in any way, although a small guardrail was eventually installed in 1974 to prevent cars from hitting the pylon. The pylon was situated close to the middle of the strip (at the time). It appears that going back to the beginning, there was a small raised concrete curb along the edge of the Grass Strip which was to help keep cars from hopping up into the grass.
Throughout this time, the USAC officials, led by chief steward Harlan Fengler, regularly congregated in the Grass Strip, near the start/finish line. This was both convenient and hindering, as the officials were somewhat vulnerable out in the open. When controversies would arise, the officials were in full ear of the competitors and their crews, occasionally leading to heated exchanges – in full view of the spectators.
There have been questions over the years if anyone has ever hit the pylon. Particularly back in the days where there was little to no protection on the pit road side. The answer is no, at least there is no record or recollection of it. Although, in the 1972 race, eventual winner Mark Donohue came a little too close for comfort. See the video above at approximately the 14:20 mark. Somewhat surprisingly, despite his near-miss, they did not install a protective guardrail for another two years.
The Grass Strip: 1974 to 1988
After the tragic 1973 race, major safety improvements were made at the track, including along the pit lane. The pit lane itself was lengthened approximately 450 feet to the north, and the area inside of the track from the exit of turn four to the entrance to the pits was paved in asphalt, creating a large apron. The entrance to the pit lane was no longer the tight left-right turn-in, as cars could now drop down onto the apron coming off of turn four to head for the pits. The outside retaining walls were raised to a uniform 30-inch minimum, and the pit wall was also raised to protect the crews.
A notable visible change was the widening of the concrete pit lane itself. The concrete pit road was widened by four feet. Since the pit wall remained in the same place, the extra width was taken out of the Grass Strip. Four feet was paved over, reducing the Grass Strip’s width from 15 feet to 11 feet. This was still adequate room for pit sign board men. However, the officials would no longer reside in the Grass Strip. Former chief steward Harlan Fengler was replaced by Thomas W. Binford. One of Binford’s first acts on the job was to construct a new flag stand on the outside of the track. On top of the flag stand was an officials’ booth where Binford and other officials would now oversee the race from an elevated vantage point (and incidentally, isolated from the participants).
The decision to widen the pit lane by only four feet was undoubtedly due to the physical limitations that existed. The scoring pylon was not going to be dismantled and could not be moved for the project, thus the Speedway widened the pit lane as far as they could without touching the pylon.
Along with widening the pit lane itself, the inside concrete wall separating the racing surface from the Grass Strip was raised by several inches. In addition, a raised curb was installed to help keep cars from hopping up onto the grass.
The small curb protecting the Grass Strip did not prove to be much of a deterrent from out-of-control race cars. Several incidents exposed its vulnerability. In an effort to keep the area free of overcrowding during the race, it was stenciled on the wall at the Grass Strip, “THIS AREA LIMITED TO TWO MEN PER CAR”. In 1984, Gordon Johncock spun and crashed into the pit area. His car bounced back, hopped the curb onto the Grass Strip, and hit the wall where the sign board men usually stand. No crew men were injured. In 1986, the big multi-car crash on Carburetion Day resulted in cars spinning into the pit entrance, and some up into the Grass Strip. Sign board men were seen hopping over the wall (onto the mainstretch racing surface) to escape possible injury. Several other similar incidents occurred over the years.
The Grass Strip: 1989 to 1993
During the summer and fall of 1988, the entire track was repaved in asphalt, including the pit lane. By this time, the concrete pit lane had become very worn, rough, and bumpy. While it is not entirely clear if any of the concrete pavement was dug up and removed, it is believed that the pit road was simply paved over in asphalt, with most, if not all, of the original concrete still remaining underneath.
The new asphalt pit road was smooth and much safer, especially considering the very low ride height of the modern Indy cars. However, it did not take long for the drivers to exploit this improvement. Gone was the bumpy concrete, which acted as a deterrent to them speeding down pit lane. In the late 1980s, there still was no speed limit in the pits, and now drivers were starting to enter and exit much faster. Tire changers would literally be just a few feet, or even just inches, away from cars zipping down pit road at close to 200 mph. At the time, crew members were not yet mandated to wear helmets and other safety gear, and the pits were becoming a increasingly dangerous place.
Speed limits in the pits started early on, namely during practice and time trials days. But for race day, a speed limit was not implemented until 1992. For the 1992 race, 100 mph speed limit was imposed during caution periods, then for 1993 it was imposed at all times. Over the years, the speed limit was incrementally reduced to the current 60 mph.
Another major improvement during the summer/fall 1988 project was the installation of a metal guardrail (“Armco” style barrier) along the grass strip. This was to protect the sign board men, and any officials that were stationed in the Grass Strip.
The Grass Strip: 1994 to present
During the winter months of late 1993 and early 1994, the pit area was once again refurbished. In preparations for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, the pit lane was widened, repaved, and slightly reconfigured.
Fist and most noticeably, the pit boxes themselves were repaved in concrete. This was for two main reasons. The concrete better supported the pneumatic jacks on the Indy cars, and the concrete also withstood gasoline spillage, common in NASCAR due to the use of dump cans and catch cans for refueling. The entry and exit lanes were also repaved, but in asphalt as before.
In addition to resurfacing, the pit area was also widened. The entry/exit lanes, and pit boxes were widened, and the crew’s work area behind the pit wall was also widened. Since the Tower Terrace grandstand was to remain along the inside of the mainstretch, the additional room necessary was not able to be taken from in the inside of the track. Construction crews instead took the additional feet out of the Grass Strip. The Grass Strip (previously 11 feet wide) was removed and replaced with a concrete trough. The width went down to about 4-5 feet wide. The trough was recessed into the ground by about a foot, which offered the sign board men a little extra protection to duck down for safety. A number of years later, work was done to the wall that separates the trough from the track surface. In 2003, drainage inlets were installed, and some years later, the wall itself was extended up several inches.
The familiar “bullhorn” speakers for the public address system were removed from the strip/trough after the 2002 race. They were replaced with an upgraded audio system that was mounted instead to the inside catch fences.
With the Grass Strip gone for 1994 and beyond, the look of the mainstretch changed permanently. As part of the project, the old scoring pylon was removed. Due to the widening of the pit lane – and subsequent elimination of the Grass Strip – the pylon was now in the way. However, by 1993 the original Pylon had seen better days. It was suffering from considerable rust damage inside and out. Water had been leaking into the structure for years, and the inner workings were corroded. The ever-improving technology of the timing and scoring system had also left the original Pylon as antiquated and increasingly incompatible with modern computers. Regardless of the pit widening project, the old Pylon was in need of replacement soon anyway.
The new Pylon (now known as the Second Pylon) was installed atop a concrete pedestal which was molded into the trough. It was raised such that people could walk underneath it. The walkway allowed a continuous pathway all along the trough. In 2014, the Second Pylon was removed – due to age, incompatibility with technology, the lack of modern amenities, and the desire to make capital improvements in time for the 100th Indianapolis 500. A newer Pylon (i.e., the “Third Pylon” or the “LED Pylon”) debuted at the 2014 Brickyard 400 in July 2014, featuring an all-LED display, capable of unlimited displays, color graphics, animations, and video. The LED Pylon was installed atop the same pedestal that the Second Pylon used, thus besides the Pylon itself, there were no significant visible changes.
The most recent improvements made in the pit area came over the winter of late 2017 and early 2018. The trough was not altered, but the concrete pit boxes were dug up and removed. New concrete was poured in their place, giving the teams fresh new pit stalls.
Sign board men
The primary function for the Grass Strip was to accommodate the pit crew sign board men. This is mostly associated with race day, however, sign boards were used often during practice and time trials as well. During practice, the teams were typically assigned or allowed a temporary pit stall (or a partial pit stall) to set up their equipment during practice and time trials. Since the officials cordoned off a stretch of the pit lane for technical inspection, the qualifying line, and the photography area, most of the assignments were towards the north end. As such, that spot became the team’s pit road “homebase” for several days, or even a couple weeks. After numerous days of on-track activity, a driver would become accustomed to where his pit stall was, and the general location of where his pit board man would be with respect to the main straightaway.
The Grass Strip was also the location where a crew member(s) stood during qualifying to alert the officials that they were starting or waving off their qualifying attempt. Prior to 1974, when a driver was ready to start his qualifying attempt, he raised his hand in the air to signal the officials. To wave off a run, he had to pull into the pits, or actually stop out on the track. Beginning in 1974, a crew member was stationed up at the north end (in the Grass Strip) and instructed to hold up a green flag if they were ready to start the run. A yellow flag or no flag would signify that the run would not start, and the attempt would not count. Additionally, the crew could wave a yellow flag during the attempt to wave off the run if they were not satisfied with the speed.
When time trials concluded at the close of Bump Day, the race day pit selection would occur. Teams in the starting field select their race day pit stalls in order of their qualifying speeds. Multi-car teams that desired to pit side-by-side can do so, but have to take the average of the two cars’ speeds to determine their selection order. Once the final pit stall selection was completed, the teams could begin moving their equipment to the new permanent pit stall. Carburetion Day was the first day of on-track activity where the teams were pitting in their permanent pit stall. This sometimes required the driver to re-learn where his pit stall was, and where his pit board man would be with respect to the mainstretch. Some sign board men not only signaled the driver while out on the track, but also helped signal his driver into his pit stall.
The “Run Across”
Early on, the pit sign board men would take their position in the Grass Strip as the cars were pulling away for the parade and pace laps. It was common for the sign board man to hold out his sign during the parade and pace laps, so the driver could gauge its location. The mainstretch would appear much more congested and busy with all the grandstands filled and the race underway. It was one last chance for the driver to survey his pit location and sign board location.
However, crashes at the start in 1966, 1973, and 1982, sent cars spinning, tires bouncing, and debris flying along the mainstretch. In some cases, into the Grass Strip, where sign board men would be seen ducking for precious cover behind the concrete wall. The start of the race was identified as an especially dangerous time to be stationed in the Grass Strip. Beginning around 1974, some sign board men would take their position during the parade and pace laps, but abandon their post during the final pace lap. They would run across the pit lane to the safety of the pit area with their crews, and wait until the field had taken the green flag and disappeared into turn one. Once the pace car had passed down the pit lane, and once the race had safety begun, the sign board men would be re-assume his post in the Grass Strip. This mass “Run Across,” (in both directions), was seldom noticed, and rarely picked up on television, as the focus of the attention on the track for those many seconds was generally away from the mainstretch.
The mass “Run Across” of pit board sign men does not appear to have been required by the rules in the 1970s or 1980s, but as speeds increased, incidents at the start of the race became serious, namely 1973, as well as the pace car crash in 1971, it became important to take safety precautions. At some point in the 1990s, in either 1993 or 1994, all pit board sign men were required to “Run Across” to the pit stalls, and await a safe start before permanently taking their post.
The end of the sign board men
It may come as a surprise to some, but sign board men at the Indianapolis 500 is now part of a bygone era. The last time sign board men were used was during the 2013 race. Beginning in 2014, sign board men were eliminated and no longer have a post along the mainstretch. Advancements in two-way radio communication, as well as steering wheel dashboard LED displays take the place of chalkboards and number boards. In addition, the general safety of the crew members was also a concern.
EDIT: 12/21/2018 – Corrected date of LED pylon installation.
EDIT: 5/3/2019 – Added information about bullhorn speakers; corrected spelling error.