Scrambled Thoughts About an Odd Yet Fun Indy 500

indy 500. Shutterstock user Jonathan Weiss

Yesterday, I got up, made myself breakfast, ran to the grocery store, and hustled home because I had a date with my television.

Yes, the Indianapolis 500 was finally taking place, months late, and sans fans. The delay and the decision to not allow fans was, as you know, due to the coronavirus pandemic that isn’t just taking lives but also wreaking havoc with large social and sporting events. The list of cancellations and delays is longer than… well, let’s just say it’s long.

The 500 is appointment viewing for me every year, although I’ve missed a few in the past because of other social events or whatnot (hey, it usually takes place Memorial Day weekend). Last year, I dragged myself out of bed in Vegas (figuratively – I watched the race from a prone position in a nice, comfy bed at the Tropicana) for the 8 am West Coast start time. I, and everyone else, was treated to a pretty entertaining race.

This year’s race had an odd feel to it, and not just because 300,000 fans weren’t in attendance. Nor was it because I’m still not quite use to NBC taking over the broadcast after ABC had it for so many years (this year’s NBC broadcast was much better, by the way, and Paul Tracy refrained from remarking about Danica Patrick’s footwear, which he was unable to do earlier in the week). No, the race itself was strange.

It started with the exploding right-front of James Davison’s car on just the sixth lap. I’ve never seen anything like it, and neither had the commentators, most of whom have watched a lot more racing then I have, and some of whom are current or former drivers. That incident threw pit strategy into chaos.

Eventually, the race became the Rossi-Dixon show. Alexander Rossi and Scott Dixon were passing each other back and for the lead, and Dixon looked dominant, with Rossi seeming to be the only real challenger, although eventual winner Takuma Sato was hanging around. But Rossi tagged Sato in the pits after a bad release, and he got penalized for the contact, being sent to the back of the field. He got aggressive off the restart and was trying to get back in the mix when he lost it in turn 2 and got into the wall, thus ending his day.

From there, Dixon looked like he’d be taking the checkered flag. He had a fast car and his fuel strategy seemed to be working. He didn’t seem to mind Sato taking the lead late – it was clear he was waiting for the chance to go all-out to the end, with the idea of outlasting Sato on fuel mileage.

And for a while, that’s what happened. Once Dixon knew, via info from his pit-crew chief, that he had enough fuel to run flat-out until the end without needing a stop, he unleashed hell. But Sato fended him off. Still, with lapped traffic in the way and Sato running low on fuel, it looked like Dixon would continue to have chances. Drama!

But just a few laps from the end, Spencer Pigot slammed the pit wall attenuator hard. The crash shook him up and he was attended to by medics right there on the front straight. It was clear the restart wouldn’t happen before the final lap. Since IndyCar doesn’t have the same overtime rules as NASCAR, the race would finish under yellow, unless it was red-flagged.

Commentator Danica Patrick, a former IndyCar and NASCAR driver, seemed to be calling for the red flag, ostensibly to give us a five-lap shootout between Sato and Dixon. Maybe the door would be opened for Graham Rahal, who was sitting in third?

I thought the race should be red-flagged for safety – Pigot was being attended to right there on the track, the attenuator was badly damaged, and safety vehicles were parked all over the front straight. Yes, the likelihood of further trouble happening as the cars paraded around at interstate-highway speeds was unlikely. The safety crews and the pace-car driver, like the racers themselves, are professionals, after all. But it still seemed like a bit of a mess, even if the chances of a driver losing it at 65 mph or so seemed ludicrous. Better, I thought, to park the cars, clean the track, take a break, and sort it all out with five frantic laps to the finish.

Instead, we got an anti-climatic finish. Sato was guaranteed the win the moment race control decided not to red-flag the race. A writer for ESPN called it an example of 2020 striking again.

I didn’t have a favored driver going into the race. I don’t have a favorite driver that I root for, in general. But Dixon is likable, and with the performance he’d had all day, I was starting to root for him at the end. I was bummed that the crash denied him a shot at the win.

Then again, Sato is apparently well-liked in the garage area, too, and he’s had some heartbreak at the track (I saw his spin in turn one on the final lap of the 2012 race with my own eyes, thanks to a junket sponsored by an OEM heavily involved in Indy that I attended for a previous job). And this win makes him a two-time Indy winner. The club of multiple 500 winners is exclusive.

At times I had hopes for other drivers. Part of me was rooting for pole-sitter Marco Andretti to do what his dad never did, and what his legendary grandfather did only once, and win Indy. But he faded almost immediately.

I’d also like to see Graham Rahal follow in his famous father’s footsteps, but I have a mild bias here – I’ve met Bobby Rahal a couple of times and he seems like a pretty cool dude. Of course, Rahal the elder still had reason to walk away happy, as Sato drives for him and partner David Letterman (yes, that David Letterman).

Speaking of mild biases, covering Helio Castroneves last year for this site caused me to have a slight rooting interest for him, too. Yes, journalists are supposed to be objective when covering races, but since I wasn’t covering the race for a news story, and since I was watching from my couch at home with my metaphorical fan hat on, I allowed myself to root for certain drivers in a way I wouldn’t have had I been covering the 500 from a news angle. Castroneves finished eleventh.

While on the topic of aging Brazilian fan-favorites, I also had hopes for Tony Kanaan. I’d like to see him and/or Castroneves snag at least one more title before both retire. Kanaan came in nineteenth.

There really wasn’t a driver I was rooting against – I just didn’t want to see a 200+ mph parade led by the same driver from wire-to-wire. Unless there are extenuating circumstances (a rookie who comes out of nowhere, a veteran finally getting that first Indy win, an aging veteran getting one last trophy, a female driver getting the first win for a woman, an underdog doing the unbelievable, etc.) that kind of dominance can be boring.

Dixon’s dominance of the race was different – as fast as he was, the race was still in doubt, even after Rossi dropped out. There was still drama, right up until there wasn’t. And he finished second, because Indy can be cruel that way.

Whether 2020 or Indy itself is responsible for pulling the rug out from under what looked to be an exciting finish, I still walked away mostly satisfied that the race I’d spent an entire afternoon watching was worth my time.

In 2020, or any year really, that is all you can ask for.

[Image: Jonathan Weiss/]

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