Coronavirus (Covid-19) meant a lot of changes to this year’s Indy 500, but two things remained the same, unaltered by the impact of a global pandemic: Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted the event, and Indiana Oxygen Company provided industrial gases and welding services as it has done for over 100 years.
Restrictions to stop the spread of coronavirus saw the largest single-day sports event in the world moved from Memorial Weekend in May for the first time in its 109-year history to August 23. After rising coronavirus cases and deaths in most US states through June and July, organisers then decided not to allow fans to attend this year’s Indy 500. It was the first time Wally Brant, President and CEO of Indiana Oxygen Company, had missed a race since the 1970s.
“Due to Covid-19, my wife begged me to stay home, so I missed this year in person, but I will be at our garage during practice and qualifying days,” Brant told gasworld shortly before the event.
“The crowds are much smaller, and safe distancing is possible on those days. There is also a shorter preparations time than in May which could lead to more body welding repairs for us. I’ve got mixed feelings about missing the race and breaking my string of consecutive races. However, if the August temperatures are normal, it will be hot, so watching it on TV may not be so bad!”
Brant has attended a staggering 53 Indy 500s due to his company and family’s association with the race. This year’s fan-less Indy 500 was like no other before it, but IOC’s role remained the same at its garage at the northeast corner of Gasoline Alley (garage area at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway), located on the straightaway inside the track.
Indiana Oxygen Company has been a part of the Speedway’s history since its beginning. Brothers Walter – grandfather of current IOC CEO Wally – and John Brant founded Indiana Oxygen in 1915 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was one of its first customers. The brothers were also involved from the first Indy 500 in 1911 before they set up the gas business, and sponsored the 1911 runner-up (Ralph Mulford).
“You have to go back to before Indiana Oxygen was even an entity, when the Indianapolis 500 was created for our family connection with the race,” Brant said.
“The purpose of the Indy 500 was to demonstrate the quality of automobiles made in the city of Indianapolis. They challenged Mercedes, Fiat and Peugeot and all the other cars made in Detroit to come and test their capabilities in an endurance race over 500 miles here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At the time my grandfather and his brother were not in the gas business. They had a new car agency and sold two different brands (Lozier and Chandler) of luxury automobiles in Indianapolis. Because the Speedway did not have any garages for the teams to work on the cars that very first year in 1911 Lozier drove their cars down from Detroit to my grandfather’s agency, and every day during May, they would drive them out to the Speedway, practice, drive them back to my grandfather’s agency where they would work on them at night. Because of this my grandfather and his brother got really interested in the 500, they got the bug, and volunteered to be on the scoring team for that very first 500.”
Brant continued, “In 1911, 1912, 1913, and 1914 Walter and John served as timers and scorers. It was in 1915 when they started to the Oxygen Company and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway turned out to be one of their first customers. Up until 1915, the teams were using gigantic bicycle pumps to put the air into the racing tyres. Then Indiana Oxygen comes out with compressed air and, using a regulator and turning the wrist, teams could fill the tyres effortlessly in seconds. That may not sound much of an innovation now, but boy did it catch everyone’s eye. Our company set up a concession at the race and from 1915 until 1965 – albeit for a few years during the wars when they didn’t have a race – we were present with our gas products. Then in 1965, in addition to the gas products, we took over all the welding services that were needed in Gasoline Alley.”
Industrial gases’ role
Down the years, IOC staff have provided vital services beside the track since introducing the use of compressed air to decrease pit times. Industrial gases have played an important role at the Speedway. In 1925 Indiana Oxygen Company began providing nitrogen gas, in place of air, to inflate tyres for better performance.
“Nitrogen gas is used for the tyres but the primary use for nitrogen in the pits is to operate the pneumatic tools that take the lug nuts off the tyres during the pit stop,” Brant said.
“Also, the nitrogen operates the onboard air jacks that lift the car so they can take the tyres off during pit stops. We also have oxygen and acetylene for heat treating and argon for certain types of welding, from stainless steel to titanium. But mostly it’s nitrogen. We even supply the helium for the pre-race balloon release. We have had that concession for probably the last 30 years.”
Brant continued, “We have 17 different people that operate the garage. We have a couple people who are there all the time. Sometimes we will have three different deliveries from three different drivers, delivering loads of nitrogen or welding supplies on any given day. The day before the first day of qualifying there’s a lot of activity.”
IOC pays for advertising at the Speedway and rents a garage. Brant says the family tradition and connection with the racetrack from its very first race in 1911 is not only good for the company’s heritage but also for its reputation.
“This is one of the unique things that Indiana Oxygen does that some of our competition can’t claim and we will try to take advantage of that and try to show this great spectacle of racing to as many customers as we can. We feel it’s worth preserving,” Brant said.
As well as being the home of the Indy 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway also hosts the Brickyard 400 (NASCAR stock cars), Motocross and MotoGP. It was also formerly the home of the United States Grand Prix (2001-2007), with England’s Lewis Hamilton winning the last race there.
“When it rained during the MotoGP we went through so much nitrogen because they used it to dry off the drive chains,” Brant said.
Roger Penske is the new owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as well as the IndyCar series, after buying the Speedway from the Hulman-George family last year. Brant hopes the family tradition will continue in a new era for the largest sports venue in the world.
Brant added, “As long as we did a good job and bought a certain amount of advertising, we were assured to have our garage and we have a contract for that. From a racing standpoint, I think having Roger Penske as the new owner is the best thing that could have happened. I look forward to more races, more innovation, more improvements to the Speedway and I think it’s going to be much more fan friendly, and it will look brand new.”