Hot on the heels of one of the best Monaco Grands Prix for a few years, we saw one of the most best Indy 500 climaxes for a few years. It was on the same level as the year when Marco Andretti and Sam Hornish Jr raced over the last few laps to the flag, though this was dramatic for completely different reasons.
The build-up and pre-race festivities were as captivating as ever. The half hour leading up to the event, starting from the moment the drivers are introduced to the crowds, is one of my favourite periods in sports build-ups. Obviously nobody does preamble and build-up quite like the Americans but even this is something else again. As Steph, a Canadian, said in her must-read recap of the day at the track, that whole 30 minutes was enough to make you feel patriotic even if you aren’t from the US.
I was watching on a web feed because I can’t afford Sky Sports and IndyCar pulled their official live web stream this year, setting back their web presence by several years. My feed stuttered at the start so I missed it.. which was very annoying because I love the start at Indy.
I quickly learned from Twitter that the Dixon had got a bit of a jump start, apparently going before the green went out. I’m not sure if that’s true or if he just had better reactions, still, the race was green! Amazingly the full field of 33 squeezed through the narrow turn 1 and out of turn 2 without any great problem, it is always a nervous time waiting for a near-inevitable crash on any start or restart at Indy.
For the opening laps it was a joy to watch so many cars running so amazingly quickly, drivers ducking around to stay within the draft whilst cars ahead of them moved to break the tow. Every year I forget how that looks, how fast they are.
After a while things settled into the usual form for a long-distance oval race, pounding around making laps between safety car appearances – except this year they were very good, I was pleasantly surprised at the relative lack of yellows this year which meant we had a fairly fast race – it clocked in at just a few minutes shy of 3 hours when it can run 15 or 30 minutes beyond that, what with the speed of cleanups (or lack of it) at Indy.
When we did have yellows the drivers then faced the double-file restarts which most seemed to dread. They all trod carefully and somehow, somehow got through the first restart lap unscathed on all but one occasion. Many were expecting carnage and I commend the drivers for playing it safe yet still racing hard, that looked like the trickiest thing they had to handle all day. Indy wasn’t thought to be wide enough – okay it is a wide track by dimension but as the speed increases the more space the cars need, and at these speeds every minor movement moves the cars a lot, so a lot of space is needed. Hence the perceived narrowness. At 220mph it must feel like a narrow tunnel. There were some fraught, frenetic restarts.
We had some good racing during the green periods too which doesn’t always happen at Indy, or if it does the TV coverage misses it whilst they focus on the leaders (in this rase the Ganassi team were for the most part in control of the lead). ABC did their best to avoid showing us some actual racing but some of it did creep on to the screen and it was great to see. ABC were diabolical from the moment the race began. Pre-race? Fantastic. Post-race? Mostly good too. The coverage from flag-to-flag was largely awful. They missed some restarts. They cut away from battling drivers to show someone running alone seemingly sometimes just because they wanted to talk about the driver they cut to (tip: you can talk about someone without them being on the screen). They played out too many commercial breaks, one even followed just 30 seconds behind another which is inexcusable. The entire team didn’t seem to be on their game which was disappointing.
However, I do give them credit for sticking with the final 20 minutes of the race without going to a break, I was so gripped by the closing laps I didn’t notice it was that long so thanks to those on Twitter who pointed it out. I also give them credit for, at long, long, last getting the flags of UK participants correct. For so long they’ve run a Scottish flag for Dario and a UK flag for everyone else, this time they ran Scottish and English crosses. You can’t have it both ways, either a UK flag for all or nation flags for all. Pet peeve of mine!
The culmination of the race was fantastic. A handful of cars ought to have made it without needing to stop again but they had to conserve fuel (Franchitti and Hildebrand). Others could stretch it to the end with a yellow flag if they saved fuel under green, but if it went green all the way a pitstop would be needed and their chance of a win would be over. One by one those hoping for yellow realised they wouldn’t make it. It became a game of chicken, how long do you stay out on a lean fuel mix, hoping for a yellow flag before giving in and pitting to give your driver a chance to make up lost time on full-rich with new tyres?
The field got mixed up through the final stops due to people mixing up their strategies, shuffling cars from the pack up to the front. So it was that we had Danica Patrick leading from Bertrand Baguette in the closing stages. First Patrick peeled off, some later Baguette did the same, and then were able to race hard without worring about fuel to claim 10th and 7th respectively.
Incredibly, the dominant Ganassi cars of Franchitti and Dixon had been short-filled! They’d held the advantage between them all race long, only to throw it away by gambling on a yellow.. or simply by making an error.
JR Hildebrand was left in the lead for the final run to home. I have to be honest, I hadn’t clocked he was good to the end at this point. I assumed he would be the next one to duck into the pits.. but the laps kept ticking down. 3 to go. 2 to go. White flag to signal the final lap, he’s going to do it! This was something special, a rookie in the series was going to win their biggest race, one of the big pillars of motorsport.
Except… he didn’t win. Charlie Kimball was minding his own business at the tail of the lead lap trying to make the end of the race. Hildebrand comes up behind him in turn 3, somewhat faster it must be said, and has to make the choice of holding back or passing him through turn 4. People had been lapping cars in turn 4 all day so he decides to make the move.. but goes too high, into the marbles, into the wall. To his credit he still mashes the throttle whilst his car is still at speed dragging along the wall, anything to get to the finish line! It nets him second position in his first Indy 500 which is still an incredible result.
As JR scraped along that wall a white car flashed by in between he and Kimball. For a few moments – which seemed much longer but can’t have been – nobody knew who had won, not on the TV broadcast, not on Twitter or anywhere else. Partly I suspect because the livery was unfamiliar, possibly because we hadn’t seen much of him all day despite having run in the top 6 for a lot of the race. Then it was announced:
Dan Wheldon won the Indy 500 in a one-off entry for Bryan Herta Autosport! A phenomenal result from a man who always runs well at Indy no matter what his fortunes are elsewhere, one of the ‘nice guys’ of the paddock, and that label also applies to his team boss Bryan Herta. I was a fan of Herta when he was driving and I’m so pleased he’s won this race as an owner, along with assistance from the team of the amazing Sam Schmidt.
Chaos ensued. I’ve seen fans at the Indy 500 that cheery and ecstastic once before and that was when Helio Castroneves won the race after acquittal at a tax trial which could’ve seen him jailed. Yet these fans seemed even louder and there were more of them! The place was jumping. Wheldon was crying on the radio and again on the podium. The US was denied a home winner at the last turn but nobody could argue against a Wheldon win, he puts so much into Indy and I sense the locals treat him as one of their own.
If you missed the race or want to relive it, do watch these 15-minutes of highlights from the official IndyCar YouTube channel. You just have sit through some abysmal commentary from the track feed, which is so poor it even makes IMS Radio (also included) sound professional when really it is tear-your-hair-out frustrating to listen to. The video is still worth watching.
What a race. After some lean years Indy is once again back where it belongs as one of the great pillars of world motorsport. Fantastic!
- Wheldon (Herta)
- Hildebrand (Panther)
- Rahal (Ganassi)
- Kanaan (KV)
- Dixon (Ganassi)
- Servia (Newman/Haas)
- Baguette (Rahal Letterman Lanigan)
- Scheckter (KV)
- M.Andretti (Andretti)
- Patrick (Andretti)
- Power 194 (14th)
- Franchitti 178 (12th)
- Servia 150 (6th)
- Kanaan 135 (4th)
- Dixon 129 (5th)
- Rahal 120 (3rd)
Amazingly both Power and Franchitti took a similar points hit, so there’s no change at the top.
The next event was the double-header Firestone Twin 275s at Fort Worth on Saturday 11th June, which I haven’t really seen yet. The next event after this post goes up is the Milwaukee 225 on 19th June.