Sunday, May 24, 2015
Indy 500 produces quite a show
(by Ryan McGee espn.go.com 5-24-15)
"Hell no, it wasn't a great race. We didn't win, did we?!" said the Indy 500's largest living legend.
The 99th Indianapolis 500 was barely in the books. From Gasoline Alley one could hear a wave of roars from the crowd as Juan Pablo Montoya finished chugging his jug of milk and started the traditional convertible ride around the Racing Capital of the World.
Mixed in with those cheers was also more than a little relief.
As a parade of motorized vehicles towed the nonwinning race cars back into the garage, every nose cone was streaked with melted rubber and a handful of sidepods were marked with the beginnings of black doughnuts delivered by the tires of opponents.
That's the kind of bruising that one expects from a stock car race at Martinsville or a sprint car race on some countryside dirt track. But these scars came on a 2.5-mile superspeedway via open wheel cars racing at speeds exceeding 220 mph. Badges of honor earned during one of the most thrilling final stanzas in the history of the world's most famous racetrack.
"OK, yeah, OK ... it was a pretty good race," A.J. Foyt finally confessed as he dismounted the cart he'd just driven back into the garage, his three cars having finished 13th, 17th, and crashed. "The guys up front looked like they were having a good time, didn't they?"
Yes, they did. Finally.
Both the celebratory and the defeated couldn't help but crack grins when they were asked to recap a race that featured 37 lead changes, second most in the event's storied history. A stunning five of those took place over the final 16 laps. And those were only the official lead changes as they were recorded at the start-finish line, a statistic that doesn't include the swapping that takes place all the way around the racetrack.
"I am exhausted, yes. I am disappointed, yes. But you can see that I am also smiling," said Scott Dixon. He walked hand-in-hand with his wife back to the Ganassi Racing garage, having just led a race-high 84 laps, but falling from the final four-car throwdown after making contact with Montoya with four laps remaining. "There is something to be said for an exciting day at the office. And that's exactly what that was. And as exciting as it was, it was also safe."
In the end, safe would have been enough.
The two weeks leading into the race had become testy at best, terrifying at worst, thanks to a series of frightening practice crashes, three of which featured cars sailing into the air. For the drivers, the pre-Indy media rounds became a never-ending series of questions about safety.
Were they scared? Had the cars become too fast? Were their lives being carelessly placed in harm's way? Was this brand-new speedway aerodynamic package doomed to be scrapped before it had barely made it off the engineers' laptops?
On Sunday, they finally answered.
"I think what we saw here today is all the proof people should need that IndyCar racing is the most exciting racing in the world," Montoya giddily pronounced to the crowd as he made his winner's lap around the place they call The Speedway. Then, referencing his time in CART, Formula One and, most recently, NASCAR, he stated, "I know because I have done all of the other types of racing, too."
Though no operating officer of any motorsport sanctioning body would ever admit so publicly, the best races are the ones that consistently ride the razor's edge between thrill and terror. The second half of Sunday's race rode that line like a skateboarder on a stair rail.
There was a multicar crash early. Like, really early, on Lap 1. There was a heartbreaking crash as the race headed for the final segment, involving fan favorite and 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan. And there was a visually shocking incident that ultimately set up the race's final dash to the finish. The three-car crash created a rain of debris, some settling into the Turn 4 grandstands and along the wall.
There were also two incidents involving pit crews, including an accident that silenced the grandstand and the media center as two Dale Coyne team members were flipped by an onrushing car and left laid out on pit road. One walked away OK. The other was taken to the hospital with an ankle injury.
In the end, they were the only things to flip at Indy all day.
"On a positive note, we didn't go upside down," Kanaan said in typical self-deprecating style after his solo crash. "No one flipped. And some of us really tried."
Yes they did, almost as hard as this 99th edition of the hallowed month of May tried to be a total mess. But as those tattered and torn race cars and egos were towed back into Gasoline Alley, the people who were doing the towing weren't talking about cold weather, clandestine qualifying sessions or aero kits that put a little too much emphasis on "aero."
"What did I tell you the other night?" Roger Penske said as Montoya's celebration began to break up. He had just extended his record for Indy 500 wins by a car owner to 16. On Thursday night at the annual Penske Racing media dinner, the man they call The Captain had explained that all of the controversy and fear and speculation of May's first two weeks could be erased with a great 500.
He pointed to this year's Daytona 500 Speedweeks, a February that was every bit as wonky as May at Indy, perhaps even more so. That strange buildup ultimately ended with a great race and one of Penske's cars, driven by Joey Logano, sitting in Victory Lane.
"Yeah, at the end of it all we saw a tremendous race and one of our drivers won that race," Penske had said nearly 72 hours before Sunday's finish. "Let's hope that this unusual May has the same outcome as that unusual February. All the way down to the team that wins."
And that, race fans, was the only accurate prediction of this most unpredictable Indianapolis 500.