The Indianapolis 500 and Indy Car Racing: A Perspective
ANOTHER INDIANAPOLIS 500 CHISELED INTO THE RECORD BOOKS
Is This Venerable Race Headed the Right Direction?
INDIANAPOLIS -RIS- (May 27, 2019) Yesterday’s Indianapolis 500-Mile Race began as so many before it did - will the threat of inclement weather affect the Race?; will the hell-bent-for-leather front row stay out of trouble?; “Will Roger Penske win yet ANOTHER 500??”; will we hear another Andretti “slowing down” during the race?; with some significant accidents (but no serious injuries) occurring during practice, will the race be accident-free and safe?
The answers: No (despite forecasts), yes, yes (of course), yes (poor Marco - it being worse that he was stuck in a bright red car you could see from Idaho), and yes - more or less.
I’ll start out by saying this was my 23rd Indianapolis 500 as a writer for Racing Information Service. I have attended 53 Indianapolis 500s - more than half - missing only two since 1964, due to out-of-state college. I’ve seen the Novi run, I saw the last front-engine roadster win the Race, I’ve seen or worked races or practices where drivers died, I’ve seen the Snake Pit (where it’s supposed to be in Turn 1) in it’s heyday, I’ve battled Soylent Green-level crowds on Georgetown Road after the Race, I’ve been attacked by hillbillies in the parking lot, I’ve met a lot of terrific drivers, owners and crew members, and I’ve also met a lot of the same who were #ssholes.
I’ve attended countless races on ovals, road courses, and street tracks over the years. Indy cars, CART cars, sprint cars & midgets, NASCAR stockers, and sports cars. And on two occasions, I’ve even reported on the second jewel of the motorsports triple crown - the 24 Hours of Le Mans - from that race course’s venerable media center.
More than any ball sport, motorsports is my love.
Each year, I look forward to Indy the way some look forward to the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup, or the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. It takes all kinds to make an ESPN.
Yesterday, we were treated to what became a sunny and fast 500. Simon Pagenaud, who I’d followed since his sports car days at Le Mans, earned his spot as a likeness on the historic Borg-Warner trophy. He will likely win over many fans with his bright, Gallic charm. Friendly, personable, warm - in the model of 2017 Indy winner Takuma Sato. These guys were approachable before Indy, and they’ll remain so after.
Pagenaud and his #22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet flat-out dominated Indy with a capital-D. Over the last 20 years, the drivers who led the most laps in a race let around 50-60 laps. Pagenaud’s team gave him a car that was on rails all day, and Pagenaud - after a high of winning the Grand Prix of Indianapolis two weeks ago and winning pole for yesterday’s race - wielded that Dallara like it was a hot knife through butter. Traffic appeared, Simon dispatched it.
Ed Carpenter did a fabulous job keeping up with Pagenaud, saving fuel, but never seemed to have the measure of that Highlighter yellow #22. Will Power did a fine job as well, until a pit box penalty for driving over an air hose removed him from the front.
The driver to watch, however, was Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi. The former F1 driver and 2016 Indy winner went after the leader like my Labrador retriever on a rawhide bone - teeth gnashing. Oriol Servia felt his 220 mph fist-shaking wrath after the Spaniard blocked Rossi following Rossi’s pitstop issues with a fueling rig.
Bad timing, Oriol.
Sadly, that fueling issue and blocking issue may have cost that NAPA-sponsored Rossi from winning his second 500. Rossi later admitted, however, that despite the dramatic last thirteen-lap duel with Pagenaud, his Honda didn’t have the acceleration of the Chevrolet powering Pagenaud.
Pagenaud, to be fair, also got a little help from his teammate, former points leader Josef Newgarden. Newgarden produced one of the few on-track, green flag passes of the race on Lap 150, allowing the Frenchman to draft Newgarden for a bit, and conserve fuel.
After 53 Indys, I know that, to a casual fan, most of the race laps are a bore until Lap 180. The last twenty laps are worth every dollar of admission. That’s the time where Rick Mears did his annual magic, resulting in his four wins. Rossi kept the pressure on Pagenaud, and kept the fans’ attention riveted.
It was a close finish - two tenths of a second at the flag.
And Pagenaud was joyous - stopping his Dallara at the yard of bricks to celebrate, to the fans’ cheers.
For all this, and through these somewhat jaded eyes, it was a good race, not a great one, despite the social media adulation it sometimes receives.
Pagenaud led 116 of 200 laps. We haven't seen such a race domination in over a decade. In 2007, Dario Franchitti led 155 laps on his way to his first Indianapolis victory. Seven years before that, Juan Montoya (then, Juan Pablo Montoya) dominated Indy, leading 167 laps. On average, most winners lead one-half or less of the laps Pagenaud led - the last 13 laps yesterday not withstanding.
Roger Penske has written the book on winning the Indianapolis 500. His management style, preparation, professionalism, and keen eye on who to hire on the other side of the wall (nowadays, the outstanding Tim Cindric) have earned him 18 Indy victories out of 103, and eight of those wins in the last 19 years. As Indy-winning team owners go, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti are giants, but they stand in Roger Penske’s shadow when it comes to Indianapolis.
“You lead with direction, and you try to lead by example. I try to be there when things are not good and obviously share the spoils of success.” - Roger Penske
Looking back at the month, what do we see?
The biggest faux pas of the month was clearly Team McLaren’s spectacular failure. Poor Fernando Alonso, who has suffered enough at the hands of McLaren’s F1 “engineering” of late, suffered again under what appears to have been the McLaren Indy program’s chutzpah about concurring a race course with only four corners. It’s almost as if Alonso willed Kyle Kaiser to bump his car during qualifying so he wouldn’t have to soldier along all afternoon as a moving chicane for Pagenaud and the leaders on Race Day.
Will Alonso be back? We hope so. A more-talented driver is hard to find.
Will McLaren be back? Former Hoosier and McLaren motorsports head Zak Brown clearly wants a mango-colored car to take the checkers at Indy. But after this disaster and the team/s ongoing F1 problems, can McLaren ownership be patient, or just cut bait?
When it comes to the Mayor of Hinchtown, that are few who don’t enjoy the smarts, talent, and quick wit of James Hinchcliffe. But Hinchcliffe’s near life-ending 2015 accident, his dramatic airborne accident this year, his failure to qualify last year, and the serious accident his close friend, Robert Wickens suffered last year at Pocono, led many in the media center here in Indy this year to suggest that - though the fire to win still burns brightly in Hinch - we’d prefer he stay safe, and join fellow Canadian Paul Tracy and the safety of the NBC Sports IndyCar broadcast team. He’s too smart, too funny, too valuable to his family, fans, and friends to take another serious chance.
But the decision to resign as Mayor of Hinchtown is entirely his own to make.
Concerns about the 500:
This year’s red flag following the Bourdais/Rahal accident late in the race was, despite explanations to the otherwise, bogus. There was no reason to reset the stage for a shootout, because the clean-up would have been done quickly, and said shootout was inevitable. The prolonged yellow flag conditions after the restart were loudly booed throughout the grandstands, as Race Control juggled the field. A bad call made worse.
Pit control is a problem. During a pitstop by rookie driver Jordan King, one of his crewmen, Chris Minot, was injured when King slammed into tires in his pit box.
Earlier in the race, rookie Marcus Ericsson spun in pit lane, damaging the nose and rear end of his Indy car.
The notion of moving from 220 mph to the pit lane speed limit of 60 mph without the wisdom/experience of warming up cold brake discs in a era of an Indy car formula that condones flat-footed laps around the track makes no sense. Rookies need more high speed oval pit lane experience, possibly as part of their Rookie Orientation. (Even veterans aren’t immune.)
While on the issue of the pits, what’s the logic behind closed pits? For decades of Indy car racing, the pits have ALWAYS remained open. They should ALWAYS remain open now. Being penalized for service in a closed pit is like being ticketed for jaywalking. RIS stands behind the “Open Pits All The Time” movement.
Closed pits join alternate tire compounds and “push-to-pass” as contrivances created by people with no experience watching motorsports.
RIS was horrified early this month when some IndyCar team owners suggested guaranteed Indianapolis 500 spots for series-participating teams. Guaranteed spots. Just for participation in the series.
Aren’t these the same folks who were outraged in 1996 when the Indy Racing League proposed the same thing to protect full-time IRL participating teams?
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” - George Santayana
Tires? Firestone (and their parent company Bridgestone - bless them) make an excellent racing tire. Teams purchase their allotment of 36 sets of tires per car for the month of May.
What keeps Firestone from making a tire capable of 500 miles without a change?
Fan favorite Jim Clark won Indy in 1965 having run on the same set of tires for the entire race. Mario Andretti remarked that his Indy win 50 years ago came with a right rear tire that had had to run the full 500 miles because the crew couldn’t remove the knock off to change it.
Turbulence? Every driver remarked at how the current aero kit is tricky to tune, and that passing (in the absence of serious horsepower - see also: Honda) was difficult.
We at RIS stand by what we believe is best for the sport - remove the wings (particularly the underwing), keep the tires wide (and harder, to last longer), and give the drivers 850-1000 horsepower. Make the cars produce less of an aerodynamic tornado, and require the driver to occasionally consider brushing the brake pedal in the corners.
It might make the cars harder to drive. (That’s a bad thing?) But Indianapolis was always the pinnacle of open-wheel motorsports. The way the NTT Data IndyCar Series schedule is currently arranged, most of their rookies’ first ovals is Indianapolis. That’s crazy, particularly as most of the IndyCar rookies came from lower-horsepower European road racing series, like GP2.
Longtime Indianapolis 500 steward Harlan Fengler - who denied many talented drivers a chance to run Indy, sending them back to gain more experience first - must be spinning in his grave like a 255 Offy crankshaft at full song.
The future of the Indianapolis 500 has rebounded since years after the CART/IMS split, due to the centenary of the Race in 2011 and the 100th running in 2016.
But it was clear from the aerial shots of Sunday’s race that many grandstands still aren’t anywhere near full, nor are they likely to be.
The overnight television ratings for the race were 3.86 - up from last year, but well below the most recent high of 4.1 in 2016, and Indy car television ratings used to be twice that. Times are changing. Should the product?
The IMS admits to booking events into Race Month to bring in the sub-30 crowd, but are the Lime Scooter-riding Millennials really ever going to be interested in loud internal combustion engines when, unlike my generation, getting them to even be interested in drivers’ education and owning a car is as easy as prying their eyes out of Instagram?
It’s time for the eyes in the INDYCAR offices to be looking toward developing a formula - support series, at first - to inevitably replace internal combustion as a means of power. Generational concerns about environmental change will affect race attendance soon enough as Baby Boomers age away from buying race tickets, and fans find more social-conscious alternative amusements.
Make no mistake. I adore everything about this race. I know the Indianapolis Motor Speedway like the back of my hand. I can name the winners of every race. I’m pretty good at naming the pace cars for each year, as well.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 outlived co-founder Carl Fisher and former IMS owners Eddie Rickenbacker and Tony Hulman. It did so by being relevant, entertaining, and daring - ON-TRACK.
But for this institution to remain such, sticking with tradition is important, but keeping your eyes “20 car-lengths down the track” is also important.
Our two-cents. Until next time, keep it shiny side up, oily side down.
Tom has been a contributor to RIS since 1992, and has covered IndyCar, Formula 1, NASCAR, Grand-Am, ALMS and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In addition to his RIS work, Tom has been a contributor for General Motors, Nissan, Toyota and the ACO.