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For old-schoolers, purists and those of us who think NASCAR is more contrived than a TV evangelist, it was pause for thought, if not a shake of the head. With eight laps to go in Sunday’s 98th Indianapolis 500, IndyCar officials called for the red flag because of the debris from Townsend Bell’s accident in Turn 2.
It was the first time in 50 years the race had been stopped for a crash, but this didn’t have the tragic implications of Sachs-MacDonald. This was all about the show. I imagine the party line will be that the SAFER barrier needed to be repaired, so that’s why they brought out the red. But, don’t be silly – this was about the paying customers and ABC television audience.
Chief steward Beaux Barfield evidently decided the best crowd in the last few Mays deserved a slam-bang finish instead of checkered and yellow flags for the fifth consecutive year. Barfield, who red flagged the season finale in Fontana in 2012 to make sure the championship was decided at race pace instead of behind the pace car, also must have reasoned the best way to keep people watching was to give them a reason to stay tuned.
And, with apologies to Rodger Ward, the Unser family and Donald Davidson, it was the right call.
“Absolutely,” agreed Mario Andretti on the IMS radio network.
“Great decision,” tweeted former IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard.
“I congratulated Beaux afterwards,” said Mark Miles, the president and CEO of Hulman & Company.
“I understand why they did it – it’s still all about the fans,” said Michael Andretti, whose cars finished first, third, fourth and sixth.
Of course, the only votes that really counted were the 210,000-plus around the track and they roared their approval as the cars stopped on pit road. And they stood and stomped in every corner of the last six laps. We won’t know the TV numbers until Tuesday because of the holiday but, if people didn’t like what they saw Sunday afternoon, they shouldn’t watch racing.
The lead changed four times in the last four laps as Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves raced as hard and fair as two drivers can while dueling for the biggest race in the world. RHR’s dive bomb almost onto the grass in Turn 3 (somewhere, Lloyd Ruby was smiling) got him the lead on lap 197. And his nifty outside pass at Turn 1 on the last lap put an American nobody wanted a few years ago into Victory Lane.
“Sometimes this race takes you to a mental state you don’t have anywhere else and I guess that’s how I’d describe those last few laps,” said the 2012 IndyCar champion, whose moxie has been a big part of his success since Andretti gave him a chance in 2010 that blossomed into a well- deserved ride. “I don’t think it went to bravery or anything like that, it was just pretty nuts and I was going for it.”
Hunter-Reay, who held on to the title in that red flag two years ago, wasn’t sure he liked the call while sitting in his DHL Dallara-Honda and Castroneves said it broke his rhythm in the Pennzoil Dallara-Chevrolet. Both of those attitudes are totally understandable as those two were locked in and locked together and didn’t want to stop. Maybe the track would have gotten cleaned up in time to go green again if the race hadn’t been stopped, but chances are we wouldn’t have been treated to 15 miles of the most exciting stuff you’ll ever see at 16th & Georgetown.
I’ve always embraced tradition, what’s left of it, but when you’ve had 25,000 empty seats and depressing TV ratings (a 3.7 last year), you need to do something different to grab people’s attention – or hold it. Chances are if some guy in Nebraska was casually checking out the Indy 500, he probably stuck around to see what happened after the red flag. But there was no denying what the IMS crowd thought. Most of them weathered ticket price increases, or motorhome gouging in the Coke lot and $9 tenderloins to take in Sunday’s action.
And, after getting the courtesy of a rip-roaring race to the finish, most of ‘em likely will be back in 2015.
“I’m glad we got to race for it and it didn’t end under yellow,” said RHR, the first Yank to win in eight years. “I mean, I’d take it anyway I could get it, but it ended the way it should have, a fight to the finish.”
Barfield has taken plenty of heat in the past year. This morning he needs to take a bow.