The Indianapolis 500 tries to balance speed and safety. The scientists create ever faster, slicker open-wheeled cars. But too many crash. Men are seriously injured, even killed. Then come redesigns to slow them down a bit.
In the month-long practice for the Memorial Sunday race, cars were flipping over like children’s kites. Not just flipping but tumbling and disintegrating. There were four crashes, and it seemed like incredible good fortune that nobody was killed and only one driver hospitalized. James Hinchcliffe is in stable condition and is expected to drive again.
No doubt people are telling him he’s lucky to be alive, after being impaled on a piece of suspension and almost bleeding to death before pried from the wreckage of a car that tried to be a jet.
He could have been a lot luckier if the racing engineers hadn’t gone too far with their aerodynamics – adding so much wing to the cars that they went airborne at 220 mph.
Fortunately the Indianapolis Speedway, erstwhile Brickyard, knows how to respond to a crisis. No other sport – save perhaps bullfighting – grapples with life and death like motorsports. The race officials at Indy have been down this road a few times.
So they enacted emergency rules changes to reduce turbocharge boost and increase downforce. And they ended up with a near-perfect race. There were some crashes – wouldn’t be Indy without some of those – but no life-threatening, not even career-threatening, injuries.
The winner – for the second time – was Juan Pablo Montoya, who passed – on the outside — his Roger Penske teammate, Will Power, with three laps to go. Montoya won by a tenth of a second. After dutifully sipping and sharing from the milk jug, he proclaimed: “This is what racing in IndyCar is all about – awesome racing down to the wire.”
Following the final restart with 15 laps to go, the battle had come down to two drivers for Penske and two for Chip Ganassi. Penske took the top two finishes. He extended his own record with his 16th Indy victory, while Ganassi got third and fourth places with Charlie Kimball and pole-sitter Scott Dixon.
All the top four had Chevrolet-made engines. In fifth place, powered by Honda, was Graham Rahal, of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Yes, Dave Letterman, recently retired from late night TV. He grew up in Indianapolis, immersed in the 500 and its history. After the 99th Indy was over, he said, “This transcends sport. It’s American culture.”
And yeah, the milk jug is part of it. But Letterman points out other beverages. He told Bruce Martin of Fox Sports: “Jules Goux won in the early days, and with each pit stop he was drinking champagne.”
For the IndyCar community, the race is not just a memorial to the soldiers – and drivers — who have perished, it celebrates survival. Three-time winner A,J. Foyt was there at 80, recovered from open-heart surgery in November.
Foyt has always been a delight for journalists – more fun when he lost. He once told the press: “I coulda picked up a better crew at a Chevron station.”
Sunday’s race, televiewed by 6.3 million (less than half the size of the Daytona 500 audience), was uniquely dramatic. The 39-year-old Colombian Montoya twice made his way from the back of the field to the front. This was the fifth consecutive year the race was won with a pass on the final five laps.
Indy will never be what it was in its heyday of Foyt, Mario Andretti, the Unsers, Rick Mears. But Penske is still The Captain, and Sunday’s race lived up to being “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The drivers and crews did their part after technology corrected itself before there was tragedy.