By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Cars hurtling into Turn 1 at 240 mph, grandstands packed with upwards of 300,000 people, the pomp and circumstance of the pre-race festivities. A race that can turn an average driver into a superstar and boost the career of a driver that is already a superstar into the stratosphere.
I had heard the stories about how magical race day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was and how much it means to everyone involved, but for years, the Indianapolis 500 has been an event that I took in from afar and really couldn’t grasp just how special this weekend is. Until this year.
Days later, I’m still blown away by the magnitude of it all.
While I’ve had the grateful opportunity to attend and cover some of the biggest races in various locations all over the country, from the moment I step foot on IMS soil a few days before race day, there was a special feeling surrounding the 103rd running of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” that no other event has even come close to matching.
From the time the first cars hit the track on Carb Day and came screaming down the frontstretch before barreling off into the first turn, I knew it was going to be a hell of a weekend. Turns out that first day of on-track action was just an appetizer for what was to come two days later on race day.
Arriving at the track on Sunday before the sun rose and the cannon sounded to signal the track was open for the day, the early talk was of the weather and if we’d be having to battle Mother Nature as the hours passed. As daylight broke, the clouds parted and the rain chances diminished, giving way to beautiful weather for the remainder of the day.
As the pre-race festivities ratcheted up, so did excitement for the 12:45 pm green flag. Making my way to the grid about an hour beforehand, the sea of people in the paddock, grandstands, and on pit road was already immense – almost unfathomable that more than a quarter of a million people were on the same piece of real estate at 16th and Georgetown getting set to watch the stars of the NTT IndyCar Series do battle.
In the midst of it all, it was not lost on anyone in attendance that this was still Memorial Day Weekend and the track did the day right, from a moment of silence to honor the fallen to the playing of “God Bless America,” “Taps,” and finally the National Anthem. Topped off with a thrilling flyover of an A-10 Warthog, F-16 Viper, and other planes, patriotism was on full display and more than enough to give you goosebumps.
Then came the moment we all had waited for, drivers who stood laser-focused at their cars began their final preparations for the race, putting on their helmets, gloves and other safety gear before strapping into their own jet fighters on wheels, ready to give it their all to earn their place among the legends to win the Indianapolis 500.
All this before the main event of the day got the green flag.
Once the race started, it had it all. Simon Pagenaud drove the race of his life, keeping his No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet out front for most of the first half of the race, with Andretti Autosport standout Alexander Rossi following right in his tire tracks.
The race seemed to be headed toward a battle of outright speed vs. fuel mileage as the Chevrolets had the speed, but the Hondas had the better fuel efficiency, but that went out the window late in the race and in the end turned into a dogfight between the two drivers down the stretch.
There was Rossi’s aggressive, anger-fueled drive as he had to recover from an issue on pit road at lap 138, followed by run-ins with lapped cars later in the race, all of which prompted wild gestures behind the wheel at both his crew and the drivers that got in his way on the track. He left no doubt how much winning this race a second time would have meant to him.
After Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais tangled at lap 178 to bring out the caution, followed by the red flag, the fans in attendance were treated to a thrilling final 13 laps in which the lead swapped five times during that period before Pagenaud finally took over the lead for good on the penultimate lap en route to the victory.
When the checkered flag had finally fallen and the Frenchman was officially the winner, he stopped at the start/finish line and buried his face in his hands before leaping into the arms of his waiting crew and celebrating with the fans on the frontstretch for a few moments.
Pagenaud then made his way to Victory Lane when the celebration began in earnest, letting out his trademark celebratory scream before dumping a bottle of milk on his head. He had won the biggest race of his career, swept the entire Month of May, and all but secured his place at Team Penske for the future.
Long after the victory celebrations were over and the thousands of fans had left the grandstands that were packed just hours before, Pagenaud was still busy doing interviews from Victory Lane as I walked out on the track to take in the view before heading home.
As I soaked in the quiet of the moment with the sun setting in the background, I knew I had witnessed something special. It may have been my first experience with the Indy 500, but after this weekend, it certainly won’t be my last.
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