The calendar once again rolls onto June and another Indianapolis 500 is in the books. The race weekend saw hero’s etching their name in the lore that is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, even more hearts were broken in ways never before seen, and a new pilot elevates himself to the two time winners club. Truly, this was a race for the ages; another of its kind may never be seen again. The story lines began coming to life months ago, some bold and some light, but all ending with the drop of the checkered flag on Sunday. This, my friends, was one to remember. This is not a recap about the events of Sunday, but final thoughts on everything that has transpired in the last two weeks.
I have always said that I have no real interest in who wins a race. Competition and drama are what I require from a race weekend. The almost-month-of-May proved to fill these wants better than I could have imagined. From the close of qualifying I, as with many in the indycar world, felt that the race was wide open. With Oriol Servia sitting third in the championship and starting battle from P3 on the grid, he was my man for the race. I even drew him in the driver pot luck we do each year, it could not be more perfect. But alas, Oriol and Newman/Haas could not keep the speed seen in qualifying, faltering to a respectable but disappointing P6. My main man is TK and he had another TK like day at the track. Coming home P4 is nothing to sneeze at, but for Kanaan, anything less than a win here is worthless, he has accomplished everything in indycar racing short of taking home a baby Borg. During my schmoozing at the track this year I was able to procure a panther racing JR Hildebrand National Guard hat that I was proudly sported on race day in support of my favorite young American driver.
In the late evening, when I switched the last few minutes of that other race and saw their favorite JR also lose the race in the final corner, all I could think about was how close the National Guard came to having a banner day. Two Americans winning two of the most storied (Ed: I almost lost is here… but I guess in the grand scheme of things the taxis do have a triple crown and the 600 is one of the jewels… ) races held in the United States. At Indy, we could have instantly crowned a new hero, an American, a rookie no less. But Indianapolis has its quirks and as fast and hard as we all wished and wanted, it was over in the blink of an eye. We have all watched races where the announcer all but awards the win to the guy who takes the white flag and at an oval, with the exception of the false racing that occurs at Talladega and Daytona, that guy almost always takes the checkers. But I have never witnessed such drama filled final seconds of a race. The crew members in Hildebrand’s stall were on their way over the wall when he entered turn 3, and crying behind it upon the exit of 4. Amazing.
Wheldon, the newest addition to the two time winners club bring the total to nine, lays it to the big teams. With his win, Weldon proved that experience pays at the brickyard. Bryan Herta was using Sam Schmidt equipment on Sunday. Assuming that Schmidt has procured every last available used IRL Dallara tub from here to Italy, you know his three drivers, Tags, Bell and Howard had the six best from the Schmidt stable. Although well prepared, I am sure the tub was older, heavier, and more flexible and Wheldon drove that sucker all the way to victory lane. I was really doubtful about Herta’s ability to supply a quality product to Wheldon after Sebastian Saavedra unexpectedly quit the lights team last year due to a string of odd equipment failures. In the months off since the close of last year, Bryan Herta Autosport really got their act together. I am sure that not having the pressure of preparing the chassis helped erase some of the question marks after last year. The pit crew serviced the car with veteran skill and Wheldon’s proven ability to be there at the end sealed the victory for the entire organization.
Ryan Hunter-Reay was caught in the middle of a firestorm that he had no part of creating. The Andretti Autosport camp has been on a steady decline since the end of 2006 and with two cars missing the show, the descent is almost complete. The drain of skilled mechanics and engineers has put stress on the entire team and Michael Andretti’s persistence to run four cars each year only spreads the workload even thinner. On one hand I am thoroughly impressed that he can field a team on all four rungs of the ladder and keep a four car team running on most cylinders some of the time. On the other hand I am disappointed that he feels the need to single handedly add to the car count by running four mid level cars, when he could combine the brains and run two top teams. I don’t claim to understand the dynamics of running a championship level motor sports team and I am sure that sponsorship dollars and cents drive the urge to keep four cars on the grid.
With that said, I am not disappointed about what happened between AA and Foyt. It has always been, and should always be, that it is the car that qualifies for the race not the driver. The owner owns the car and the driver is just another employee of the owner, hired to compete. The owner can make any decision he sees fit with his entry, it is a right that has been earned. If we change the rule to read the driver qualifies for the race, then we close any possibility for a driver from another series to compete in our crown jewel. Is the 24 hours of Daytona a better race for locking out Le Mans teams? Was the Indy 500 a better race for locking out CART? No, and no one in motorsports has anything to gain from being technically unable to compete when the will, want, and dollars are there.
The one offs really came to play with the big dogs this year. Bell, Wheldon, Rice, Scheckter and Carpenter all showed that you cannot by race lap experience, it must be earned. The teams willing to pay for the skill will reap the rewards. Although PT also has had his fair share of laps around the oval, I believe that he has been out of the car too long and may not be able to wheel it like he used to. Having Tracy full time in the series would be wonderful but it’s doubtful whether he still has all the tools he needs to compete to the level he wants to be at.
The ladies had a great day. Simona cemented herself as one of the tough new kids to be dealt with. Taking a heap so bad it was nick named porkchop and qualifying it P23, charred hands and all, she proved she is here to stay. (Ed: hopefully stay and not spring to F1 the first time a multi-million dollar payday is waved in her face… she is better than Danica…she is better than Danica… She is better than Danica…) Pippa took yet another aging, overweight Dallara and made the show. On race day her water bottle broke on the pace laps, yet she drove through intense pain and muscle cramping to bring the car home in one piece two laps down. Upon arriving in pit lane post race she was rushed to the infield care center and treated for extreme dehydration. And you can’t talk about the ladies without mentioning everyone’s soon-to-be-favorite racing mom Sarah Fisher. Resisting the urge to pull out the second car during qualifications, she focused her resources on Ed and was rewarded with a shot at pole, clean race and respectable P11 finish.
The coverage and analysis could go on forever, the memories sure will. Wheldon wins a stunning 2011 Indianapolis 500. Don’t quote me, but I believe this was the closest starting field by time and the fourth closest field by speed. With this kind of competitiveness the feat of a one off stealing the win is nothing short of miraculous. The records show that right now in indycar racing, it is closer now than it has ever been. One three-time, two two-time, and two one-time winners will all be racing together next year. This is a good time to be an indycar fan.