Monday, May 28, 2007

Fast objects and the Indianapolis 500

Auto racing is one of the world’s most popular sports and the Indianapolis 500 - a Memorial Day tradition since 1911 – is the biggest auto race in the world, probably, that is: neither seating capacity nor attendance figures are published. But it wasn’t the first.

Auto racing began in France in 1895. The first US auto race later that year in Chicago was on a course just over 54 miles long. The winning time was 10 hours 23 minutes. That’s five and a quarter miles per hour. The course would be covered by today’s Indy 500 drivers in under eighteen minutes. But the 1895 race included two electric cars. Where are they today?

The top winning speed in Indy 500 history is 186 mph. Just how fast is that? Are there sports with objects speedier than race cars?

Surprisingly, table tennis is a big loser here, with top speeds at just 70 mph. Baseball does a bit better, with the fastest recorded pitch at just over 100 mph. In 1931, “Big Bill” Tilden supposedly served up a tennis ball at a blistering 163.6 mph. But the fastest recorded ball was in a game of Jai-alai, reaching 188 miles per hour.

Cars and balls are one thing, but how fast can people go without an engine? American Jeff Hamilton and Austrian Harry Egger are speed skiers who reach speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour – Hamilton once crashed at 151 miles per hour and only broke three minor bones, not bad for going from the speed of a Category 5 hurricane to zero in a hurry. Egger is now working with a rocket scientist with the hope of reaching 165 to 170 miles per hour. I know what you’re thinking, why?!

If you consider skydiving a sport, the winner is Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger, who in 1960 jumped from a balloon almost 20 miles above the earth and went 614 miles per hour during free fall. Just a little faster and he would have made his own sonic boom.

Otherwise the winner of the fastest sport designation goes to 16 goose feathers and a piece of cork. Badminton is the fastest racquet sport in the world with shuttlecocks going 206 mph. Badminton became an official sport in 1873, so in all fairness it does have a 22 year head start on automobile racing. And with the rain yesterday in Indy, those cars are still trying to catch up.

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