Not a thrilling Indy 500, but not bad in the rearview

May, 27, 2009
A few observations in the aftermath of the 93rd Indianapolis 500:

As a car race, this year's Indy 500 won't go down as a classic. In fact, it had some unfortunate similarities to last year's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard NASCAR Sprint Cup event. Both races were a series of short sprints -- with little passing -- punctuated by yellow-flag pit stops with the field bunched up.

The longest stretch of green-flag racing in this year's 500 was from Lap 28 to Lap 56, which was less than a full fuel run. Everyone was in fuel-saving mode anyway, so there wasn't a lot of racing to speak of.

Although a few drivers (mainly Dan Wheldon and Townsend Bell) gained ground on the track, most changes in position occurred during pit stops. Every 20 to 30 laps, someone could be counted on to crash, and the whole scene got reset again. There was never enough green-flag running for anyone to develop or execute any kind of strategy.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing appeared to have the two fastest cars, but small mistakes during those high-pressure yellow-flag pit stops dropped Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti back into the pack. They couldn't finish better than sixth and seventh, respectively.

The third Team Penske entry, driven by Will Power, also lost four places (dropping from second to sixth) at the last stop and finished fifth, just in front of the Ganassi cars.

Despite having quick cars, those three couldn't make an impression on Wheldon, Danica Patrick and Bell.

Maybe that's not surprising in what has turned into a spec series where most of the teams have seven years of experience with the "current" cars. Too much parity is not a good thing.

Restarts became frantic because they were realistically the only opportunity for passing. Cars were forced perilously close to the inside wall on the pit straight, and Paul Tracy put Hideki Mutoh into the grass on the back straight.

Helio Castroneves certainly was a deserving winner, having dominated this past month. When HCN dropped to sixth place, you never got the sense that he or the Penske team was worried that he had dropped that far back.

In fact, Castroneves and the No. 3 team seemed to just bide their time while their competitors eliminated themselves one by one. Castroneves was fortunate that Ryan Briscoe and Penske's No. 6 team lost a lap with a handling issue at the 150-mile mark that they never quite recovered from.

Power pressured Castroneves with Penske's No. 12 car, but the final pit stop did him in.

It all made for a pretty dull race, but it was one with a happy ending. Thank goodness common sense prevailed and they finally allowed Helio to climb the fence.


The Indy 500 Victory Celebration (aka banquet) is one of May's annual guilty pleasures. Not attending, of course; that would be tedious, at best.

Instead, the best way to enjoy the 500 banquet is to soak up the spectacle on local Indianapolis television from home on the couch. The pace is quick (it's a two-hour program with at least a half hour devoted to the winner and his team), the fashion is often dubious and the mood is generally happy, in a "We're finally getting out of Indianapolis after three weeks!" kind of way.

The banter can be predictable. How many ways can a driver thank his team and the Hulman-George family? Though Ed Carpenter was the only one who addressed Indianapolis Motor Speedway chairman of the board Mari Hulman George as "Grandma."

But at the same time, the sterile, choreographed environment somehow brings out personalities in the drivers that aren't always apparent when they are wearing Nomex firesuits with their game faces on.

Wheldon is usually the sartorial champion, but this year he gave the nod to rookie Nelson Philippe.

There were a few good one-liners. Owner-driver Sarah Fisher quipped, "I wake up every morning asking myself what Roger [Penske] would do!"

Paul Tracy drew cheers when he said, "Racing here once every seven years isn't enough."

Castroneves drew the biggest laugh, however, making light of his recent trial for tax evasion charges just before accepting his record prize check totaling more than $3 million.

"Not everything's mine," he said. "You guys know what I'm talking about. … It's not mine.

"But it's definitely going to help to pay my attorneys, no question about it."



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