The Month of May has come and gone again with the completion of another 500-mile stroll around the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
There have been plenty of Mays in the last 16 years — the time in which U.S. open-wheel racing endured a crippling 12-year civil war and its aftermath — that have gone by without much of the luster that traditionally has accompanied the Indianapolis 500, that have left observers wondering if the race could ever again truly live up to its billing as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
I’m here to tell you this: On Sunday, the 96th running of the 500, which Dario Franchitti claimed for his third career Indy victory, it did. In every way imaginable.
The speedway and the IZOD IndyCar Series got pretty much everything it could have hoped to get out of this year’s 500 — the on-track action, the crowd response, the special tributes, the victory and more.
The racing. I think we have an absolute slam dunk on our hands in Dallara’s new DW12 formula. The car, which features turbocharged engines powered by multiple manufacturers for the first time in seven years, produced some of the most memorable racing seen at the 500. From the drop of the green flag, drivers took advantage of the car’s aerodynamic characteristics and proceeded to sling-shot each other with great frequency. The race saw 34 lead changes, shattering the previous record of 29. There almost was a 35th; Japanese driver Takuma Sato, who led 31 laps on the day, attempted to dive inside Franchitti on the first turn of the final lap but fell below the white line and spun out, eventually smacking into the wall and bringing out the caution, which sealed the win for Franchitti.
The cars also made for eye-popping restarts, including the second-to-last one within the final 20 laps. Tony Kanaan, an immense fan favorite at the speedway, made a daring move on the inside from sixth position and dove through turn one in the lead, causing the crowd in excess of 200,000 to roar with approval. The tow a leading car creates for one behind it, though, might also have shown a minor drawback for front-runners on the restarts: Kanaan, like most other drivers in the lead on restarts, was instantly passed by Franchitti and Scott Dixon coming out of the final caution.
Speaking of cautions, the race featured just 39 laps under the yellow flag, which was remarkable considering the aforementioned on-track action as well as the heat. At upwards of 91 degrees, it was one of the hottest race days in 500 history, and heat historically has translated to a slick race track. The fact the racing was so clean for most of the day is a testament not only to the skill of the drivers in IndyCar but also to Dallara and how compatible to versatile racing its new race car is.
The crowd. The fans attending the 500 seem to have more and more fun each year, and they responded mightily to this race, particularly at the end. Kanaan’s reception was comfortably the greatest, while Franchitti initially received a massive chorus of boos when he won — fans likely believed he came down low on Sato on the final lap when in reality it was an ambitious move by Sato. It seems IndyCar’s drivers, who long have drawn criticism for being vanilla, are beginning to move the needle with viewers.
Having said that, something else was evident this time around the 2.5-mile race course: the crowd was enthralled to see competitive racing. When the drivers started putting it all on the line coming out of the final two caution periods, the fans roared delightedly at any pass for the lead. It didn’t seem to matter that Danica Patrick, the most successful woman to date in 500 history and the longtime face of open-wheel racing, wasn’t in the race this year, having defected to NASCAR full-time. The fans were enamored with the product, which is every bit as important to IndyCar’s growth as the interest in the series’ personalities is.
The tributes. The Indianapolis 500 is all about tradition and honoring that tradition, and no small part of that tradition is paying respects to past champions of the event. This year the 500 was without one of its finest champions of the last decade and its defending champion: Dan Wheldon. The Englishman, who claimed his second 500 victory last May, was killed in a terrifying accident in the 2011 IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and his loss rocked the entire sport, including this race, the race he loved so very much.
The 500 reciprocated that love beautifully Sunday. Many of the drivers and crew members wore white sunglasses, a choice fashion of Wheldon’s, and the speedway provided fans with plastic white glasses to wear on the parade lap as well as on laps 26 and 98, denoting the numbers of Wheldon’s 500-winning cars. Bryan Herta, Wheldon’s former teammate and owner of the one-off race team Wheldon guided to Victory Lane in last year’s 500, drove the winning No. 98 around the track during the traditional pre-race performance of “Taps.”
Even the race ended up being a tribute of sorts to Wheldon. Three of his best friends on the circuit, Franchitti, Dixon and Kanaan, finished 1-2-3. Franchitti spoke emotionally of Wheldon in Victory Lane, thanking the fans and the speedway for their tributes, and poured the winner’s milk on his head as Wheldon did both times he won the race. Kanaan spoke of how Wheldon would have been proud of the action-packed racing. Susie Wheldon, Dan’s widow, rode with Franchitti and wife Ashley Judd during the winner’s trip around the track.
Wheldon might not have been physically present at the 500, but the speedway made absolutely sure he was here in spirit.
The winner. The argument certainly can be made that the 500 could have made a bigger splash had its winner been someone like Marco Andretti, who led a race-high 59 laps in his Chevrolet before the Honda machines took over with their more efficient fuel mileage, or James Hinchcliffe, a personable driver carrying the Go Daddy banner who had been fast all month. However, when fans look back on this race, they should and will appreciate seeing Franchitti emerge victorious a third time.
Franchitti, who now is one of 10 drivers who have won the 500 at least three times, is becoming synonymous with the 500 just as his predecessors — Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, A.J. Foyt, Bobby and Al Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves — have become. The Scotsman joined this fraternity after one of the drives of his career. He charged back to the front after being spun out in the pits, changing a front wing and reemerging at the back of the field during the first caution just past 10 laps into the race. He and teammate Dixon dominated the second half of the race.
With three Indianapolis 500 victories and four IndyCar Series championships, all attained from 2007-12, Franchitti easily is the best driver currently in U.S. open-wheel racing and is perhaps its greatest competitor thus far in the new millennium. The things he can do over the course of a race are truly worthy of praise. Franchitti also has a great appreciation for the history of auto racing and of the 500 in particular, and with as much history as all forms of auto racing have written, open-wheel fans should feel very fortunate to be seeing an all-time great write his name into that history before their eyes.
The excitement, the competitiveness, the class, the greatness — it was all there at the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500.
All seemed right.