INDIANAPOLIS, May 29, 2016 – The 100th running of the Indy 500 lived up to pre-race expectations. Usually this cynical journalist would refer to hype when writing about the build-up to a big race. But how can you overstate a long-running family feud finally ending in such joyous circumstances?
Under powder blue skies and a wash of shadow-trimmed clouds that made the horizon look like an endless vista, the twenty-year hiatus of capacity crowds at Indy came to an end. Sure, there are plenty of hatchets lying around and the stewing resentment generated by the CART versus IRL wars may last some until the end of their days. But on this day people came to see a great motor race. The damn (pun intended) finally broke.
An hour before the green at 16th and Georgetown, the infield was a jigsaw of humanity. The estimated 260,000 grandstand seats and suites were full. Sheltered from a pleasant breeze by the forever-and-a-day skein of double-deck grandstands, the front straight was sweltering as a crowded grid and pit road watched a parade of previous winning cars.
It was a dream-like sequence. There was a 1959 Watson Roadster driven by ageless Paul Goldsmith. Here’s the McLaren driven by Mark Donohue to Penske Racing’s first victory in 1972 and this time driven by his son David Donohue. There went Tom Sneva in a 1914 Duesenberg. Who would join the parade at the end of 200 laps? Who would have predicted Alex Rossi?
The Formula 1 refugee who has suffered the politics of trying to climb the ladder to the world championship by dint of talent, Rossi figured he was fast enough to win by lap five. It wasn’t until five laps remaining that anybody else outside of his Andretti Herta Autosport team might have considered him a potential winner.
If ever there was a test case that getting one’s face on the Borg-Warner trophy can make a driver world famous and solidify his career chances, here it is. The Californian who migrated to Europe has never been one to beat himself, is usually found at the sharp end of the field and cool to the point of arrogance. He won an epic 500 with an O. Henry finish.
“I was stoked and heartbroken, then I was stoked again and heartbroken again,” said Rossi of his rise and fall and then a fuel mileage resurrection. “I’m going to have to see a psychiatrist after this race.” Having been schooled to remain reserved by the backstabbing “professionalism” of European racing, that’s about as animated as Rossi’s been since arriving for his first three weeks of May.
For runners-up Carlos Munoz and Josef Newgarden it was an “Oh, shit!” finish. They were the most consistently fast and luckiest to survive a 500-mile saga that saw 54 lead changes. But their luck soured after Rossi drafted lapped teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay skillfully enough to run – and coast — the final 36 laps. It was a clutch win in the literal sense as Rossi needed to save fuel on the back straight on his final lap by disengaging the engine while he lost most of a 13.2-second lead.
Ironically, it was two guys who had their moments in the sun at the Speedway without ever winning who were behind the rookie’s stunning and phenomenal debut. Michael Andretti inherited father Mario’s lousy luck before passing it on to son Marco, who lost by inches his rookie year and finished 13th on Sunday. Bryan Herta came close in 2005. But each has multiple wins now as a team owner, in this case as co-entrants for Rossi’s number 98.
So were the last two decades worth it – all that vitriol and disdain between the owners of the Speedway and the IRL versus the team owners of CART? Suffice it to say there was misjudgment and miscalculation on both sides, which helped NASCAR steal a march on Indy car racing to become America’s most popular racing series.
(And forget about IRL founder Tony George being the culprit because he reserved 25 starting positions in the 1996 race for the IRL teams; CART teams had long since committed to not showing up.)
The feud started in 1996 with two capacity crowds on the same day – one in Indiana and one at the Michigan International Speedway hosted by CART – that together totaled nearly a half a million fans between them. Passions ran high as an advantage was squandered over one question: was the Indy 500 the foundation of open-wheel racing in America? Differing points of view is what created the IRL.
In 2000, Juan Pablo Montoya and the team of Chip Ganassi started the gradual return of the CART teams to Indy’s 500 after the Michigan race turned into a one-hit wonder. But it took another 16 years for the fans to come back. As the wags have been saying, they should run the 100th Indy 500 every year.
Maybe it’s a tribute to the danger of three cars flipping prior to qualifying last year and James Hinchcliffe’s near-fatal accident that so many fans responded. (I doubt it.) Perhaps it’s a tribute to the painful process of developing differentiated chassis associated with Honda and Chevy – which last year raced very well, too. (The race in 2013 had more lead changes than this year’s event, but that did not pump sales for 2014.)
Popular drivers have won and lost at the yard of bricks, American or otherwise. The great names of racing have been participating as team owners, including Andretti, Foyt, Penske and Agajanian (the latter accounting for Rossi’s number 98).
No, this was a demographic thing. Even though the crowd was young and vigorous, the excitement was driven by those who had stayed away and realized, finally, how much they missed the old place. What better occasion to return than an anniversary marked by events and not necessarily time – the better to forget one’s own aging while reconvening with one’s youth. (Ah, yes. I remember that 1996 race like it was yesterday.)
Let’s be honest. The idea that it was a privilege to witness a driver, team, car builder, tire and engine manufacturers win the Indy 500 was never quite the same in the face of so many empty seats – even last year when Montoya came back to win his second 500. So what a privilege to see a stunning victory like the one turned in by a “previously undiscovered” American talent – a guy who made it clear that he was at Indy to win before the race ever started and then pulled it off against some very long odds.
(Note: this story first appeared at RacinToday.com.)