For those of you who have visited here for a while, you know that J and I verbally spar on the merit of Indy Car Racing and MLB. I'm not much of a fan of professional baseball, and he feels the same about open wheel racing.
But the magnitude and spectacle around the Indianapolis 500 is pretty hard to debate...but some of the logistical planners around today's race tried to ruin the day, in my opinion.
The race wasn't very well-attended last year, by Indy's standards, and seemingly, those who made decisions around the track thought this year would be the same...it wasn't. The traffic into the oldest, greatest race venue in the world was slower than I can recall in my 25 years attending the race. A pedestrian was struck and a few more accidents occurred near the track this morning, and that was the excuse we were hearing on the radio, but as we got close, we found out that wasn't the real reason.
At nearly every intersection where applicable, Indianapolis Police Officers and Marion County Sheriffs were doing a very poor, very unprofessional job of directing traffic. Perhaps the reason this was surprising is because we've become pretty used to them doing a good job and moving us to the track with ease...it seemed their job was to make law-abiding citizens frustrated and angry- they were great at that. The real problem with that is there are so many people from outside of the city here just to watch the race- they didn't get to see the best of the city today, in my opinion. But, the drivers made up for the problems outside the track.
The field looked amazingly-sound on paper. There were no under-qualified Milka Duno, no Dr. Jack Miller types. In fact, the rookies seemed solid and the part-time (not full-time on the circuit) drivers were a good-looking group. Solid, but sometimes slow, John Andretti was in, Always-fast in Indy Ed Carpenter was set in Sarah Fisher's ride. Bertrand "The Sandwich" Baguette has a year under his belt. Thomas Schechter and Paul Tracy are madmen at times, but always agressive and fast. Ex-winners, Buddy Rice and Dan Wheldon strengthened the field by their preference. The only guy that really bothered or scared me for the rest of the field's sake really, was E.J. Viso. My best hope was that he would take himself out without sweeping anyone else up in the mess (kinda got my wish).
My family and I discussed recent race winners and couldn't think of a true dark horse winning in the last few decades. In hindsight, names like Lazier and Rice seem that way, but the race was a shell of itself in the CART/IRL split days. Teams were weaker and tons of underqualied drivers were the norm.
Andretti, Ganassi and Penske have pretty-much owned the Borg Warner for the last decade. Turns out, even in a spec series, the best engineers with the greatest resources and the best drivers still dominate.
So, when Ganassi's henchmen dominated for much of the first half, no one was surprised. But, Alex Tagliani (Sam Schmidt Racing) and Dan Wheldon (Bryan Herta Autosport) kept the red cars honest by mixing it up when the opportunity arose. But, Penske machines were no where to be found...and I loved that. Plus, the Andretti machines were seemingly continuing what they had done for the past few weeks in Indy.
I don't dislike Roger Penske. I hold no grudge toward him for ancient history...in fact, I think he's great for the sport because his teams seem to be better-prepared than anyone, usually. This month was not a typical May for Penske though. They struggled finding speed in practice and qualifying. That said, this seems to happen for one reason or another every decade or so for Penske.
The second half of the race was much different much to the chagrin of Chip Ganassi. The dominant 1-2 punch of the Flying Scot (II) and The Iceman was disrupted as long stretches of green racing and green flag pitstops that helped a ton of old favorites get into contention. Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti found their way into the top-10. Tony Kanaan scratched and clawed his way into the lead pack as did Graham Rahal. Oriol Servia raced aggressively and stayed out of trouble, and second-year American racer, J.R. Hillebrand hung around quietly.
The closing third of the race was a great example of why I like to watch this race. Fuel/pit strategy, new leaders coming out of nowhere, drivers putting it all on the line and an unexpected finish were the defining aspects of this period.
Old Indy fans loved watching Rahal revive the family name as he was on top. Then, the large crowd reveled in Danica leading. As she ran out of fuel, the crowd loved being surprised as "The Sandwich" held the lead, but the best was yet to come.
Baguette was forced to get a splash of fuel and relinquish his hard-fought lead, and rising star, J.R. Hildebrand took control. Everyone wondered about his fuel situation around me, but he kept his foot to the floor 7, then 6, then 5 laps remained. The white flag came out and the young American still held the lead as Wheldon, Rahal, Dixon and Kanaan fought behind him and hoped he didn't have the fuel to go the distance...But he did.
He flew around the 2.5 mile track but when he got to turn four, in view of the flag that was prepared to present his checkered flags, he stayed on the gas as he passed lapped traffic and got into the marbles. His National Guard-sponsored Dallara slammed the wall but kept enough speed to clearly get to the finish line...just not with the lead. Dan Wheldon's bright orange and White bullet streaked past the wounded machine of Hillenbrand without the yellow light flashing...and Wheldon claimed the unexpected victory, his second at Indy.
Here are a few more notes from the day:
-The double-file starts worked much better than I thought they would...and were very exciting. That said, I'm not sure if they'll work as well with a less-experienced field, but I think they served their purpose quite well for the most part.
-The Honda/Dallara era is over...and once again, the Honda engines performed amazingly. Be assured that while the two additional engines offered will return the race to what it should be, we'll NEVER see a more consistant engine than what we've watched during this era. I'm pleased that Dallara will be producing the 2012 safety cell (tub) as these cars have been astoundingly-safe.
Now, let's get back to the 230s, Indy Car...the technology can now keep the drivers safe at those speeds.
One "open wheel" concept for '12
-Hopefully the new era of Indy car racing will see a return of pace cars outside of the Chevy family. The Camaro convertible looked really slick today, but I really miss multiple manufacturers being part of the race.
How about this for an idea: Tesla Roadsters and Model Ss pacing the field?
-Danica will probably be gone soon as a full-time Indy driver...at least for a few years, and it'll be OK. Sure, Mann, Beatriz and de Sylvestra aren't as easy on the eyes as the Go Daddy girl, but the fact that so many women are competing in the league, is nothing but positive, in my opinion. If they can go fast enough, let 'em race...and while there are great parts to the circus around Patrick, her whining and (more recently) acting like the victim just pisses me off. Her performance in the Nationwide Series has been OK, at best, but we have no reason to believe she'll compete any more in Neckcar. I hope the cashgrab is worth it for the sassy vixen.
-I hope Hildebrand, Rahal, and Bell get upgraded rides in '12. It'd be nice to see a handful of young, talented American drivers give this series a boost and become household names a la Mears, Michael Andretti and Unser (you pick which one).
-In the same way, I'm hoping for greater sponsorship dollars, and in turn, better resources and equipment for teams like Sam Schmidt Motorsports, KV Racing, Panther, Rahal and others as the economy (hopefully) continues to recover in the coming years. I'm also hoping the hayday of Nascar is nearly over and TV advertising dollars can get fed back into the unified open wheel series once again.
-Most importantly, I'm choked up, if not moved to tears, each year before the race as members of the U.S. military are honored for their brave service. I love the fact that so much reverence is shown by the oft rowdy, and sometimes drunk crowd at IMS when the 21 gun salute is fired, taps is played, patriotic songs are sung and the gigantic flag is unfurled.
For those of you who have protected, and continue to protect our country- Thank you. A few days a year isn't enough to let you men and women know how much your sacrifice is appreciated.