Random Thoughts On The Indianapolis 500

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The 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 is now behind us and carved into the history books. History was made (and almost made) on several fronts. Twenty-six years after Hiro Matsushita became the first Japanese driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, Takuma Sato became the first to win it. We already knew that of all the Japanese drivers that have come and gone since then, that Sato was the best of the lot and the most personable. Not only is he personable compared to past Japanese drivers – he is one of the most personable and well-liked drivers in the current paddock. I think he has always been respected by most of his fellow drivers. Now fans have seen first-hand, what an exceptional driver he is.

History was almost made when Helio Castroneves missed his chance to put a fourth likeness on the Borg-Warner trophy by two-tenths of second, tying AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only members of that exclusive club. It was pointed out to me on Sunday that Helio is now about a second and a half from being a six-time winner, when you consider Sunday’s finish along with his second-place finish to Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014 and his close loss to teammate Gil de Ferran in 2003. He vowed Sunday that he would get it some day, but at the age of forty-two – his chances are running out.

It was a great battle from Lap 188, when Helio was running fourth at the restart. He summarily picked off every car in front of him until he took the lead from Sato on Lap 194. All he had to do was hold on as he appeared to be widening his lead. But Sato fought back hard and overtook Castroneves on Lap 195. Helio mounted a couple of charges, but his Chevy engine was no match for the Honda of Sato. But Sato didn’t win just because he had the more powerful engine on Sunday. He won also because of his driving ability to hold off one of the very best. This victory was earned by Sato and anyone saying otherwise is kidding themselves.

Most of us in the stands also thought we might be looking at history before Fernando Alonso’s Honda let go on the front straightaway on Lap 180. Alonso led twenty-seven laps but was looking stronger as the day played out. Had he not suffered an engine failure when he did, I fully believe we would be talking about his victory today and not Sato’s. I appreciated everything about Alonso being here this month. He said and did all the right things and never put a wheel wrong. But it would not portray the rest of the field or the entire event in a good light had he won in his first attempt. If he comes back next year, have at it.

This was not the cleanest of races. Altogether, there were eleven caution periods for a total of fifty laps. It would have been more than that had race officials not Red-Flagged the race on Lap 55 in order to repair the catch-fence after the frightening crash involving Jay Howard and pole-sitter Scott Dixon. There were another nine laps of caution to clean up the debris from the crash involving Conor Daly and Jack Harvey; and seven more after 1996 winner Buddy Lazier had a very hard hit coming out of Turn Two. There were twelve total caution laps for the three Honda engine failures of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Charlie Kimball and Alonso.

Fifty laps of caution spread over eleven caution periods and a Red-Flag gave this race a very disjointed feel. It was a strange race that had no real rhythm to it. But in the end, Sato and Castroneves gave us a battle that will be talked about for a long time.

Pre-race Ceremonies: There were major hits as well as major misses in Sunday’s pre-race ceremonies. Actually, there was really only one miss – that being Bebe Rexha singing the National Anthem. I can’t say it was a big surprise that I wasn’t thrilled with her rendition. I had set the bar pretty low, yet she still was a disappointment. I’m not sure whose idea it was to recruit her, but I came across no one in various age groups, down to late teens, that had heard of her. In my opinion, she was a very poor choice.

On the positive side, the choice of Angela Brown to sing God Bless America was a home run. She had some unbelievable pipes and did an excellent job belting it out. No disrespect to the late Florence Henderson, but Ms. Brown probably did the best live version of that song I’ve ever heard. Another strong performance was the Service Man, whose name escapes me at the moment, who sang America the Beautiful. As his tenor voice echoed throughout the speedway, you could hear a pin drop because people were so enthralled with his rendition.

I was also pleased to see the Purdue Band being utilized a lot more than they had been in recent years. That’s a trend that I hope continues.

But what everyone was talking about after the race was the booming performance of Back Home Again in Indiana by Jim Cornelison. When it was announced that he was going to perform this beloved song, I was ecstatic and immediately scoured You Tube for samples of his singing. After two years of what I consider mediocre performances, I was thrilled that my favorite moment amidst all of the great traditions at IMS was finally going to be performed as it should be.

From what I can tell, it was. Unfortunately, I happened to be sitting near a complete dolt who thought it would be funny to sing along with that iconic song in a voice that mimicked Bill Murray’s version of Nick the Lounge Host. It completely ruined the moment for me and left me feeling deflated. I remember a few years ago some young drunks in front of us had locked arms and swayed back and forth singing what they thought was a comical version of that sacred song. I was furious that day and Sunday was no different. Why anyone would have the desire to purposely butcher that moment, is beyond me. At fourteen, we took Susan’s oldest son to the Indianapolis 500 and explained how sacrosanct that moment is and he has always given it it’s due respect. This was a sixty-something year-old man, who was old enough to know better, showing off for those among his group. I was not amused.

Tony George: The torch has apparently been passed from Mari Hulman George to son, Tony, for the honor to give the command to start engines. Forty years ago, his grandfather, Tony Hulman, agonized over how the command to start engines would be altered to accommodate Janet Guthrie – the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. He agonized over it because he wanted to preserve the last four words that would always be Gentlemen, start your engines. On Sunday, Tony George opted for the gender-neutral Drivers, start your engines, that has become the norm at other tracks over the past few years, but the Indianapolis 500 has always finished it’s command with the traditional Gentlemen, start your engines. When there are one or more female drivers in the race they have simply added "Lady" or "Ladies" in front of it. For example, Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

I don’t know if Tony George got nervous or if this was by design. If it was the latter, this is just another stab at the traditions that many of us hold so dear. It may sound like a little thing to some, but I can promise you that this was prominent in the conversations I had with many people after the race and none of them were happy about it.

Cherish the Bricks: Just before the start of the race on Sunday, Susan and I were on the grid experiencing the madness and chaos that takes place on the starting grid. In the midst of that chaos, I came across this moron who apparently thought it was a good idea to take a Sharpie and write his name on one of the bricks. If that weren’t classless enough, he felt the need to take a picture of his handiwork. I should have gotten a yellow shirt to haul him out of there. As it is, I’ve posted this picture on Twitter, Facebook and this site hoping someone might recognize him and INS officials can take away his grid credentials for the future.

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What if everyone wanted to sign a brick on the start/finish line? We would have a solid black, graffiti-laden yard of bricks. It amazes me how some fans can be so self-centered and show no respect for the honored traditions on the hallowed grounds of IMS. You just wonder what goes through some people’s minds to think that something like this is a good idea.

The Alonso Factor: When it was first announced that current Formula One driver and two-time World Champion, Fernando Alonso would skip the Grand Prix of Monaco in order to drive in the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 – some people scoffed, including some prominent Motorsports journalists. I didn’t. I knew this was going to be a big deal. It was.

Fernando Alonso did not come to Indianapolis as a boisterous former World Champion. Instead, he came wanting to learn as much as possible and was humbled at the opportunity to run in this great race. He said and did all the right things and never put a wheel wrong throughout the month. Formula One’s, Lewis Hamilton joked about Alonso’s Indianapolis 500 competition, or lack thereof, when he noted that that he qualified fifth. That comment ruffled more than a few feathers in the IndyCar paddock. It would not have been good for the perception of IndyCar had Alonso simply dusted the rest of the field on Sunday.

Alonso was impressive and led twenty-seven laps. He did appear to be getting stronger as the race wore on Sunday, but I would not say he dominated. As I said earlier, I do believe that Alonso would have won on Sunday had his Honda engine lasted.

Personally, I’m glad he did not win Sunday, if for nothing else, to keep the likes of Lewis Hamilton silent. I think it all worked out for the best because Alonso saw how well he could do, which might entice him to come back next year. That would be a win-win for everyone. There are some that say he may have a full-time IndyCar ride next season. I don’t think so. While I would love to see it happen, I think he has unfinished business in Formula One. But I do think he will return for the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500.

Good Day for Coyne:  As much as Dale Coyne racing appeared rattled to the core after the horrifying crash of Sebastian Bourdais, they rebounded nicely in Sunday’s race. Pippa Mann had her all-time career best finish when she came home in seventeenth. James Davison, who replaced Bourdais, in an unqualified car that started thirty-third, had a spectacular day that found him in twelfth place before the halfway point in the race and leading the race in the latter stages. He seemed destined for a Top-Ten finish when he instigated a five car crash on Lap 184.

The biggest star by far for Dale Coyne Racing was rookie Ed Jones. Unlike Alonso – who won Rookie of the Year, Jones was a true rookie with only 5 races at this level under his belt. Jones barely missed the Fast Nine in qualifying when he posted the tenth fastest time. He came back the next day and backed that up with a time faster than a couple of the Fast Nine drivers and started eleventh. Jones ran up front all day and finished an impressive third. I credit/blame Jones for racing Helio Castroneves so hard in the closing laps that Helio probably used up his tires while battling Jones. But give credit to the young rookie, he was not intimidated at all by Helio or IMS. If I had a vote, I would have voted him Rookie of the Year; but my feelings don’t match the outrage that hit social media last night after Alonso won it. Rookie of the Year is really not that big of a deal to me. In the history of the award, there are many drivers who have won it that went on to do nothing with their careers. I just don’t see the point of all the outrage. Some people just like to complain.

Bad Month for Schmidt: After winning the pole for last year’s Indianapolis 500 and winning this year’s race at Long Beach, you would have thought that James Hinchcliffe would have been a contender for the pole and the race win this year at Indianapolis, instead Hinch, his full-time teammate Mikhail Aleshin, and new teammate for the "500" Jay Howard, all had very quiet months for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Of the three, Aleshin had the best month, starting and finishing thirteenth. James Hinchcliffe started a forgettable seventeenth and finished twenty-second after getting caught up in the five car melee on lap 184. The crash just punctuated an already bad day because Hinchcliffe was already a lap down when the crash took place.

The worst day for a Schmidt driver belonged to Jay Howard, who started 20th and finished thirty-third (more on that later).

I don’t know what the problem was at SPM, but with the preferred Honda engine and at least two fast drivers, one would have expected a better showing than what we saw.

The Crash: While there were several mishaps in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, the most enduring image is that if Scott Dixon being launched, hitting the catch-fence while airborne and the car hitting the SAFER barrier upside-down, what appeared to be cockpit-first before what was left of the car landed upright. It was a spectacular crash which unfortunately, the most viewed highlight from the race. Fortunately, Scott Dixon was fine and seemed calm and collected as he was interviewed exiting the Infield Care Center.

Scott Dixon was an innocent victim when he got caught up by Jay Howard’s car after Howard got high in turn one, glanced off the wall, and ricocheted directly into the path of Scott Dixon. Like Dixon, Howard was unhurt in the crash, but instead of showing class in his interview outside of the Infield Care Center – Howard chose a different path by claiming that Ryan Hunter-Reay ran him up into the wall. I have watched this replay several times and cannot fathom how Howard can lay the blame at Hunter-Reay’s feet.

No one likes to admit fault for anything – that’s against human nature. But sometimes you just need to man up and accept the blame when something is obviously your fault. These things happen in racing and they are only made worse by trying to pin the blame on someone else. This was Howard’s first ride at Indianapolis since 2011. That’s a long time. If he never returns, that will suit me just fine.

All in All: The win by Takuma Sato was a very popular win throughout the IndyCar paddock. It was also popular with fans who embrace his mantra, "No attack, no chance." That style of driving resonates with fans who have grown tired of watching points racing – mostly in NASCAR.

It’s also good to see a driver survive their tenure at AJ Foyt Enterprises. Everyone knows I’m a Foyt fan and I also pull for his team. But I also realize that the Foyt team is where racing careers go to die. Once a driver leaves Foyt’s team they are either headed for another form of racing or are never heard from again. To his credit, Sato praised AJ Foyt for teaching him everything he knows about IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis 500 specifically.

To those that say this win will not move the needle, you are sadly mistaken. While Sato may not have a very big following in the US, he has a huge following internationally. So, good for Takuma Sato for pulling off the win that not many people saw coming. He will not be overlooked anymore. He has a fast car and one of the top teams in the business. Who says life ends at forty?

George Phillips

Please Note: After posting every day in May, and sometimes multiple posts each day from IMS – I’m tired. I will take off the rest of this week and even forego the usual “Belle Isle Preview” on Friday. But I’ll watch both races of the double-header and return here next Monday June 5th. There will more than likely be a guest-post from Paul Dalbey this week, and I might post a lot of pictures I took over the past three weekends, but then again – I may not. Did I say I’m tired? I’m tired. – GP

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25 Responses to “Random Thoughts On The Indianapolis 500”

  1. Spot on with your comments on the pre-race ceremonies. Seems they get longer and more drawn out every year. Really need to tighten it up. Maybe the Purdue Band could just play the National Anthem.

  2. Must admit I missed some of the pre-race at home, did they do the grid intros? I actually enjoyed that as of recently. Dixon is lucky. I tell you though, I hate seeing drivers die of course, I was worried initially, but also, that contributes to why I am a fan. I was telling the people I was with that watching these drivers out there wheel-to-wheel like that just takes my breath away. I don’t get that feeling watching other motorsports. These are warriors. I always liked how Jim McKay and those types would describe the drivers in the 80’s, as the playboy types who lived dangerously, a real life Crockett and Tubbs, haha. That’s why I watch though, those guys are fearless, I pray for them, I wince when they get an inch apart, my heart beats faster. That’s real excitement!

    On to the race, I am one who doesn’t pull for HCN to get the 4th win, I like the 4 time winners club just the way it is, but I feel for him coming so close. Another reason why Indy isn’t for the faint of heart.

    Ed Jones should have at least been co-ROTY with Alonso. Also glad he didn’t win. Hope he comes over full-time, imagine him on he road courses!

    • madtad1 Says:

      ABC Did an interesting driver intro, using Dennis Leery. At first I thought it was going to suck, but it was well done and very amusing.

      • billytheskink Says:

        Agreed. I’ve long thought that showing the live, on-track driver introductions came across a little awkwardly on TV, though it was cool to gauge who the crowd favored by the level of their cheers.

        The Leary intro was funny, and gave several drivers a chance to show off their personalities. ABC gets kudos for that.

    • S0CSeven Says:

      I was up on my feet or the last 15 laps yelling at the tv screen. It was a brilliant finish. Too bad Helio is stuck at 2 wins. Oops, FTG is now in charge and I guess that’ll never be corrected.

  3. There are drivers I wouldn’t mind joining the 4 time club, but HCN is not one of them
    Franchitti definitely would have been a great addition.

    • I would agree with that, I have just never been a fan of HCN. I am also one who believes that he is only a 2-time winner. Franchitti would have been a much better member. From a talent perspective, Montoya would have been a good addition though I don’t care much for him. I think that ship has sailed though. I hope George doesn’t read this, haha!

  4. Thanks for your coverage this past month George. We couldn’t get there this year and your perspective helped as always. Our coverage in the UK, which is normally very good, was spoilt by an ‘in house team of experts’ who were terrible presenters. We had to listen to them pontificate while missing nearly all of the pre-race and the “start your engines” was shown mute!! We were told while seeing a studio shot how fantastic the crowds looked! Show us then! Also we had ad breaks which we normally don’t get. Shame on BT Sport. The US commentators were good and we had a great time watching the race.

  5. I thought Hunter-Reay had the best car and might have won had the engine held out. I did not have the same feeling for Alonso toward the end as he seemed to have lost a little in the laps before his engine failed (he could have already been having engine issues).

    Very thankful that Scott Dixon’s car was not airborne a fraction of a second longer as you could see how that car was turning and what part of the car hit that wall.

    Sato ran a good race and probably this makes up for 2012 or 2013 when he wrecked on the last lap. I like team Andretti and was happy to see them win another 500. However, I have never been a fan of promoting Indycar as an “international event” like F1 does. Sato is a good driver and did a great job, but watching the Japanese meatball flag flying through the air after the race on Memorial Day weekend at the track in Speedway Indiana was disconcerting to say the least.

    Like you, I’m pretty tired after three weekends in Indy. However, come Saturday I think I’ll feel a little strange not heading up to Indy. And then I’ll be missing it already.

    • The Indianapolis 500 Mile Race has always been an International Sweepstakes since its inception in 1911. Carl Fisher and the gang insisted on it and actively promoted it as such. They loved the idea of the United States’ best cars, engines and drivers going against the best the rest of the world had to offer. I, for one, agree completely with them and applaud Takuma Sato in the strongest terms. It’s been 72 long years since WW II and Japan herself has become one of the United States’ best and most loyal allies, time to put that “meatball” stuff to bed….

      Phil Kaiser
      Indianapolis

      • Don’t mind the drivers from all over the world, but we’ll have to agree to disagree on Indycar marketing themselves as the Motorsport Olympics to imitate F1. And yes, that flag was disconcerting to me on that day and in that place, just a fact. At least you apparently are not one of the people complaining about the Confederate Flag and monuments over things that happened over 150 years ago.

  6. Kyle W Ford Says:

    Great job George! Thanks for pointing out Tony George’s flub of the command to start engines. As soon as he said it I wanted to crawl through the screen and shake him! Indy is distinct – keep it that way! Hopefully his mother will give him a stern talking to!

  7. billytheskink Says:

    Thanks for an excellent month of 500 coverage, George. Please get some well-earned rest.

    After that last restart, I thought a Sato win was almost inevitable. He showed more speed throughout the race than the other remaining contenders and, obviously, was going to be aggressive enough to go for the win. An engine failure was the only thing I thought could stop him. Helio drove an amazing race to get ahead of as many Hondas as he did, especially considering that he lost a winglet avoiding the Dixon-Howard incident.

    The Dixon-Howard wreck looked like something out of Driven. I’m glad Dixon came out of it better than Memo Moreno…

    Big thumbs up for Back Home Again. I’d be fine seeing Cornelison do it every year for as long as he is willing.

    Big thumbs down for Tony George’s command to fire the engines. I’ve long been disappointed that “(ladies and) gentlemen” has all but disappeared from the command in favor of “drivers” across motorsports, and to see it leave Indy is especially disappointing. I just don’t understand this trend, are there really people who had a problem with the traditional command?
    The most ridiculous thing about this: We have heard the “gentlemen, start your engines” command this season, for what will likely be the only time. It happened at Barber. It was given by a dadgum robot!

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    I would have been happy with either a Sato or Helio win. They put on a good show. I think the ABC coverage from start to finish was excellent. The leary driver intro segment was well done and funny. I have come to enjoy the ABC announcing trio and their “cliches”. When what you can see and hear on your TV screen is pretty damn exciting, no need for them to get all Diffey on us. The “Back Home Again in Indiana” rendition was excellent. I think that guy has earned a new gig. Hopefully he won’t be forced to continue to watch Chicago Bear games. For those of you who are hung up on the exact wording of the “start your engines” deal, just be grateful that we did not have to listen to that “RACE FANS, ARE YOU READY??!! guy screaming at us.

    It is distressing to see some clown writing on one of the bricks, but if you have ridden in an airplane recently or watched the most recent political campaign, you know that we have become a nation of slobs.

    All I could think of when watching Dixon’s crash (and car) unfold was Dan Wheldon. Thank God and Dallara that Dixie survived. I was directly across the track from Vukovich’s fatal crash years ago. I am of the opinion that Vuky might have survived that crash if he was in a Dallara chassis. Kudos to all the folks who have made IndyCar racing safer over the years.

    Early on I was thinking that RHR was going to run away and hide from the rest of the field before his engine died. I suspect that Honda may have detuned their engines slightly before the race.

    Here are the two main differences between Jay Howard and Takuma Sato: One has both skill and class. The other has neither.

    • Yes I agree about Mr Howard. As he is a fellow countryman of mine I feel embarrassed by his stupid remarks. Where is his pride? Not good at all and someone needs to have a word with him and point out the value of etiquette.

      • Ron Ford Says:

        Hi Trevor. Thanks for your interest in the sport. I honestly don’t know much about Jay Howard. In the light of a new day, perhaps he will temper his remarks. At the same time, he did qualify for the race which is more than I can say from my chair.

  9. Matt B. (Dayton, OH) Says:

    Thanks George for your always enjoyable and insightful posts. YOU are becoming part of the “500” tradition for many of us. And you’ve certainly earned a little break! Enjoy your week. I always like to see a first-time winner, especially one who’s been at it for a while. Add to that that Sato is a likable guy and from a country that’s never produced a winner, it was great to see him get the win. And what genuine joy he demonstrated in Victory Lane. Easy to be happy for him. Castroneves is a good guy too, and has had a great career, but as others have mentioned I don’t feel he’s quite worthy of membership in the 4-win club. Maybe that’s unfair, as the present members have had many years for their legend to swell to gigantic proportions. That makes it harder to see an active driver as “one of them”. Plus I’m also one of the ones who question his 2002 win. I believe the decision that awarded him the win was a political one. But I’ve always been a Paul Tracy fan too. Looking forward to the rest of the Indycar season and of course next year’s Indianapolis 500!

  10. Chris Lukens Says:

    First off, Thank You George, for the effort you put into your blog this past several weeks.

    While listening to the Anthem singer I kept thinking “Keep trying honey, there’s a melody in there somewhere.”
    I thought it showed ultimate class that AJ went to winners circle to congratulate Sato.
    I really hated to see Alonso go out, he proved that he should be there. I think he learned a lot during the early stages of the race. I think he would have gotten a post grad level education on oval racing during those last 11 laps.

  11. Ron Ford Says:

    I’ve been having fun listening to some Japanese calls of Sato’s win Sunday. Imagine Diffey on speed. And regarding the mini-controversy over Tony George’s ‘start your engines” deal, I still think the best start your engines call ever was the one by the Japanese guy who gave it at Motegi a few years ago.

    • How about AJ Foyt at Milwaukee one year with “Boys and girls, start your engines!”? Now, THAT was funny. But all kidding aside, I don’t like seeing yet another tradition broken…especially when it didn’t have to be. Sometimes I think Tony George is his own worst enemy. Just when he’s starting to be accepted by fans again, he has to tweak their nose again. – GP

    • billytheskink Says:

      The command at one of the last NASCAR races at North Wilkesboro is up there too: “Gentlemen… and Jimmy Spencer, start your engines!”

  12. The writing on the bricks is a crime. Men died pursuing the fastest lap and victory at the speedway. It deserves respect, as does any of the accompanying traditions.

    Sato wasn’t my pick or even in my short list of drivers I’d like to see win the race, but he was gracious and proved he belonged in victory lane. It was an epic race with everything one could possibly want. When those cars nearly went 6 wide on the backstretch?! Unbelievable.

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