By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
I have now had a day to process the events leading up to and including the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, as well as an opportunity to digest the opinions expressed by the drivers and teams, various sources in the media, and fan reactions. I could easily write 20 or 25 takeaways, but here are five.
1 ) Was the finish a letdown?
There are some out there that were left feeling a bit empty with the way the final laps of the event played out. For the record, I do not share that opinion. Certainly, to see Rossi complete his final laps at a seriously reduced pace, and still maintain a lead of almost five seconds was a bit anticlimactic after a race that featured 54 lead changes, and more than 850 passes for position. There are, however, a few reasons why I found myself very satisfied with the outcome.
As much as Motor Racing is a sport about speed, skill, and bravery, it is also a game of strategy, and it always has been. Race strategy can be like a game of chess, and it is often as tricky as navigating through a minefield. To absolutely nail the strategy is no easy feat. A win, fuel mileage or otherwise, is still a win.
I would imagine that if Helio Castroneves, James Hinchcliffe, or Marco Andretti had won in the exact same scenario, that the bitching would be at a minimum. The fact that a newcomer to the series took the win might be a hard pill to swallow for some.
A lot of casual fans just don’t know much about him, especially since he has been racing in Europe for the past eight years with his sights set on Formula One. A few folks I spoke with didn’t even realize he was American, and at least one fan remarked, “Isn’t he that motorcycle guy?”
The fact is that Rossi has paid his dues, and worked just as hard as any other driver to make his way to into the Indianapolis 500 field. Could he have won the 500 without Bryan Herta’s decision to gamble on fuel? The world may never know, but one stat from the box score stands out: Fastest Lap of the Race: 225.288 mph (39.9488 seconds) on Lap 106 by #98 – Alexander Rossi
2 ) Pit Lane Havoc
Races are won and lost in the pits, and the 100th running was no exception. By the end of the day, there were thirteen penalties handed out to ten different drivers. The infractions ranged from improper pit exits and pit lane speed violations to improper lane changes and entering the pits when closed.
Penske Racing’s Simon Pagenaud found himself put to the back of the field for the restart not once, but twice, for infractions related to pit stops. The Frenchman, who had a three-race winning streak going into the 500, ended his day in 19th position and a lap down.
Marco Andretti had some troubles on pit road when his crew inadvertently mixed up his front tires installing the left tire on the right side, and vice versa. The loss in performance dropped him down the running order, and he was disappointed with his 13th place finish.
His teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had one of the more dominant cars in the race, found himself as the innocent victim of another Andretti Autosport driver’s mistake. Townsend Bell clipped Helio Castroneves exiting his pit, and spun into Hunter-Reay’s car, who was finishing his pit stop as well. The scuffle sent a loose tire bouncing into the pit stall of James Hinchcliffe, narrowly missing a crew member.
“We just screwed up this whole Indy 500,” said Hunter-Reay to his team over the radio.
3 ) The Crowd was Massive
In the days leading up the the 500, I heard a few conspiracy theorists suggest that the event wasn’t actually sold out, and that the Speedway had held tickets back to announce the historic sell-out. When the announcement was made that the General Admission tickets had sold out as well, some of the griping became louder. I even saw a Facebook page put together by a disgruntled ticket-seeker called “I’m Pissed that IMS lied to Me.”
Walking around the grounds on Sunday morning, it was quite evident that the sell-out was real. Sure, there was some empty seats in some of the lower rows here and there, but that can easily be explained by the tickets in the hands of the scalpers on Georgetown Road. And, for the record, the amount of available ticket that they had to offer was considerably less than in years past.
The crowd was indeed massive, and strolling around pre-race, there was a sea of people moving about like I haven’t seen since the late 1990s. The Indianapolis Police Department and the Indiana State Police deserve a lot of credit for managing the traffic before and after the race, and not allowing it to reach nightmarish proportions. Let’s hope that this trend continues for the 101st and beyond.
4 ) Alexander Rossi, what’s next?
It is no secret that Alexander Rossi has aspirations of driving in Formula One. His contract with Andretti Autosport is for one year, and he also maintains a position as a reserve driver for the Manor Team in Formula One. I asked Rossi if we may see him in a F1 car later this year, and he quite matter-of-factly told me that, as a reserve driver, the team lets him drive to the track, and that’s about the only driving that he gets to do.
The magnitude of his accomplishment, perhaps, hasn’t sunk in just yet, but the fact remains that he has made his name much more marketable that it has ever been in the past. Adding that little phrase, “Indy 500 winner” to his resume will likely open more doors than any race win he could ever dream of.
Winning the 500 certainly must be more satisfying than playing back-marker in Formula One with the Manor car. But, I wonder if this new title of his could have a Formula One team-owner like, say…Gene Haas take a harder look at Rossi. Perhaps a sponsor like, say…Napa Auto Parts might want to get on board with the only U.S.-based F1 team and an American driver.
These are all interesting points to ponder.
5 ) Honda vs. Chevy for the balance of the season
The first five races of the season have been a Chevrolet playground, fueled by four wins for Team Penske drivers, and Scott Dixon taking the checkers at Phoenix, utilizing the road-course and short-oval aero-kits. However, once the Super Speedway aero-packages were introduced, Honda put a stop to Chevy dominance by taking the pole, and taking 1-2 in the race.
Once we get back to the road course kit, will Honda keep their momentum, or will Chevy crush the rest of the season. I asked Chevrolet driver, Josef Newgarden, what he thought, and he replied with, “I think Honda’s going to be tough to beat all year. I think they have been tough to beat this year, even with Pagenaud having a nice little steamroll session that he’s had the last couple months.”
“I don’t think it’s going to be easy for us the rest of the year,” Newgarden continued. “I have confidence in our team. I have confidence in Chevrolet and our package. I’m not saying that. I just don’t think Honda is going to be a pushover. They’re going to be very difficult for us to beat the rest of the year. You’ll probably see it go back and forth a little bit more now. I really think you’re going to see that for the rest of the season.”
Image: Chris Owens/INDYCAR