As a racing fan, Memorial Day Weekend has long been a treat with a twin bill of the Indy 500 and sports car racing at Connecticut’s Lime Rock road course.
Starting on Saturday, this year’s combo was everything a proud American could ask for as U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Liam Dwyer, who lost much of left leg to an IED explosion in Afghanistan, took his first win in IMSA’s Continental Tire Series Street Tuner class with teammate Tom Long.
If a wounded warrior winning on Saturday wasn’t enough to stoke national pride, Ryan Hunter-Reay, draped in the Stars & Stripes, whipped fans into a frenzy at Indianapolis on Sunday as the first American to win the 500 since 2006.
Dwyer’s success in his Freedom Autosport Mazda MX-5 easily deserved as much national attention as RHR’s win for the home team, and knowing what the holiday weekend means to those who’ve served and been lost in war, I imagine we’ll have a hard time topping what took place at Lime Rock and Indy in a 24-hour span.
SO THERE’S SOME LIFE IN THE OLD DOG AFTER ALL…
Ratings are up for the Indy 500, excitement was up throughout the event, the track reported a slight increase in ticket sales over the 2013 race, and the general feeling of positivity surrounding the Verizon IndyCar Series should have racing fans – not just open-wheel fans, but all purveyors of motorsports – feeling good about where America’s signature event is headed.
Even if the gains are marginal, motor racing needs the Indy 500 to succeed, the IndyCar Series to grow, sponsors to receive value for their participation and the auto industry to continue engaging fans outside of NASCAR. Stock car racing is and will continue to be the unquestioned industry leader for many years to come, but for those who live and work outside of that all-consuming world, it was nice to feel justifiably optimistic about open-wheel racing’s gradual restoration.
ONE TEAM, ONE DREAM AWARD: Michael Andretti
Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 entry may have won the Indy 500, but if you were there for the traditional Monday morning photo session with the winning car, driver, crew and Borg-Warner trophy, you’d have easily mistaken the victory as having gone to all five of Michael’s entries. I’d need an org chart to tally all of the people in attendance during the two-hour shoot: the crew from each car there for photos, the PR team, executives, hospitality and catering staff…Michael Andretti’s dog wearing a DHL hat…even the army of Andretti Autosport offspring posed for a group photo with Ryan Hunter-Reay.
The it-takes-a-village-to-win-the-Indy-500 approach made by Mikey on Monday was pure class, and speaks to how far his program has come since 2010 when the outfit was better known for its internal strife and dysfunction than how to win as a tight-knit unit.
SCAPEGOAT AWARD: James Hinchcliffe
There were no winners in the Lap 175 tangle in Turn 1 that claimed Ed Carpenter and Hinch on the spot, but despite Carpenter’s comments after their crash, Hinch wasn’t at fault for what took place. Seething from his own disappointment, it’s hard to blame Ed for venting in Hinch’s direction, yet with a quick glance at the replays, there’s clear proof of what triggered the spin that sent him into the wall and it certainly wasn’t Hinch.
To spin as he did, Carpenter, turning left into Turn 1, would either need someone to hit him near the left rear – driving the rear of his car towards the outside wall, or to take a hit near his right front – driving the front of his car towards the infield grass.
As the replays showed from multiple angles, it was a hit between the right side of Carpenter’s car and the left side of Bell’s No. 6 KV Racing Chevy that broke Ed’s No. 20 loose in Turn 1. Looking at Carpenter’s in-car camera, the left-front anti-intrusion fin on Bell’s floor and Carpenter’s right-front wheel hit first – a puff of smoke comes off Bell’s floor as a small donut is left on his bodywork.
Bell’s left rear tire also comes together with Carpenter’s floor – the Firestone lettering on Townsend’s tire is all but missing after being scraped against Ed’s car. The No. 6 and No. 20 hit, followed by the No. 20 starting to spin. Watching Carpenter’s in-car, no jarring motions or movement from a hit by Hinch prior to the contact with Bell is seen.
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Viewed from Helio Castroneves’ in-car camera, Hinch is nowhere near Carpenter when Ed and Bell make spin-inducing contact.
Bell and Carpenter both said they were unaware of the 3-wide happening, meaning the two drivers to the right of Hinch were not making moves in reaction to the Andretti driver being below them – they were taking their chosen lines and racing as if it was a two-car fight. Remove Hinch’s car from the track, and Bell was still going to try and make that pass at that spot on the outside of Turn 1.
If Hinch is guilty of anything, it’s being inside of Ed when he began to spin, and with nowhere to go, the front of his No. 27 car tangled with the front of Carpenter’s No. 20. Without Hinch there, it’s possible Ed could have caught the slide from the Bell contact – a slim chance, but not impossible. If Hinch is going to be blamed for anything, taking away Ed’s chance to possibly save a spinning car is all I can come up with, and even that’s a stretch.
CARTOON ANVIL AWARD: Josef Newgarden
The Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing driver was running a solid 10th when he ran out of fuel on Lap 123, sat on pit lane for almost a dozen laps as his team tried to re-fire his Honda engine and eventually returned to the track with no hope of a decent finish. With his dreams dashed, Newgarden was then plowed into by A.J. Foyt Racing’s Martin Plowman under yellow on Lap 168, leaving his No. 67 Honda battered and broken on the infield grass. All he needed was a poke in the eye to complete the miserable Indy 500 trifecta.
GETTING IT RIGHT AWARD: IMS
Fans were vocal about the painfully long wait to enter the facility last year, and after a steady volley of complaints, IMS added more entry points, expanded the number of staff at each point to expedite the ingress procedure and came away with nothing but compliments from ticket buyers. Funneling 300,000 or more fans into any event is a logistical challenge, yet IMS made it look easy.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR AWARD: Sage Karam
I loved every single thing about Kurt Busch’s participation in the Indy 500 – the visible humility he carried throughout the month, his studied and measured approach to participating in his first IndyCar race on the sport’s biggest stage, and his flawless performance on race day. He was the highest-placed rookie at the finish, taking sixth, for the best team on a day where Andretti Autosport dominated with a 1-3-4-6.
But I’m not a believer in determining the Indy 500’s top rookie going solely by finishing position. What did a rookie driver do along the way to the checkered flag to earn the award? In the case of Busch, he ran a clean race and stayed out of trouble, yet with one of the fastest cars in the race beneath him, he spent most of the afternoon losing ground or gaining positions when others fell out of contention. Heap praise on Busch for everything he accomplished during the month of May, but when it came time to put the hammer down, there were no fireworks and few actual wheel-to-wheel passes coming from the No. 26 Honda.
12th at the start, he fell back to 18th by Lap 24, sat in 20th through Lap 57, used a bit of attrition or misfortune of others to hold 17th by Lap 108, and then began to creep up the running order as cars fell out, dealt with blistering tires or met the wall. Through it all, Busch was smart and composed, yet did very little racing.
No disrespect to Kurt, but if I’m choosing a Rookie of the Year, it goes to the 19-year-old kid who was also making his IndyCar debut, drove his balls off, let everyone know he was in the race, took chances that led to advancing his position and, if we’re honest, wasn’t sitting in one of Andretti’s rockets.
Starting 31st, Karam, engineer Jeff Britton and Dennis Reinbold’s rag-tag assembly of veteran crew members put on one heck of a display once the green flag flew.
28th by Lap 5, 25th by Lap 17 and 24th by Lap 26, Karam held 18th through Lap 57 – two spots ahead of Busch, cycled through pit stops and went on a charge, rising as high as eighth on Lap 87 before pitting again. He’d rise to eighth once more by Lap 147, but would pit on Lap 148, just before Charlie Kimball brought out the first yellow of the day, which caused a significant setback for the No. 22 Chevy. He’d recover to 13th by the time of the red flag on Lap 193, while Busch held sixth.
Karam would jump from 13th to as high as eighth as he fought with Will Power in the final laps, settling for ninth at the finish. Busch held his position and took sixth.
One rookie started on the last row, improved 22 positions and raced hard every single lap as he scrapped for a little team doing a one-off race. The other started 12th and finished a very credible sixth. Given the context of their respective teams, equipment and inexperience in an Indy car at the 500, the easy, popular vote went to Busch, but it was Karam who put in the drive that deserved to come with the Rookie of the Year nod.
BRASS BALLS AWARD: Beaux Barfield
Some fans bitched and moaned – even called for Beaux to be fired – over his choice to throw the red flag to clean up the big mess from Townsend Bell’s crash. All I can say is the complainers probably weren’t at the track when it happened.
Barfield’s decision to freeze the race in its final stages gave the paying fans and millions watching worldwide the best chance to see a proper run to the finish and, for those who were wondering, it was met with a huge cheer throughout IMS when the bold call was announced.
It was a fan-first decision, and was clearly appreciated by the majority of those who invested a lot of time and money to be there.
WAITING TO EXHALE AWARD: Honda
If the rumors are to be believed, American Honda has been under exceptional pressure to gain the upper hand against Chevy. An emphatic win by RHR with HPD’s new twin-turbo engine and a statement-making 1-3-4-6 to dominate the top-6 should hopefully ease any lingering tensions.
MR. INVISIBLE AWARD: Jacques Villeneuve
I was quite excited about the prospect of JV returning 19 years after his Indy 500 win, but he was damn near invisible from the time practice opened on May 11 to the final lap of the race on May 26.
He started 27th and finished 14th, which certainly wasn’t bad, but for a former Indy car series champion, “500” winner and Formula 1 champ, I think we’ve all come to expect a little more than “not bad” from the French-Canadian. Having watched him up close during his days terrorizing the Atlantic Championship and again during his two seasons of CART competition, I’ll admit that I didn’t recognize the quiet, smiling, docile guy piloting the No. 5 Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. At least from what I observed, those sharpened fangs of youth were blunt and rounded on his return to Indy.
Villeneuve was once known for his fiery character – the guy who would push everyone around him. If he comes back for another crack at the Indy 500, I think he’ll be the one needing the push.
LIFE AFTER PANTHER AWARD: Numerous
This one goes to JR Hildebrand, Dan Miller, Dave Cripps, Anna Chatten, Big Dave Molder and the rest of the former Panther Racing employees who found employment, success, or both after Panther’s turbulent demise.
JR, his former crew chief Miller and former truckie Molder were reunited at Ed Carpenter Racing in the No. 21 Chevy and made themselves known from the outset, qualifying eighth and finishing 10th. Cripps engineered low-buck hero and 1996 Indy 500 winner Buddy Lazier in the No. 91 Chevy, Chatten looked after Sage Karam’s transmission on the No. 22 Chevy and many other ex-Panther crew members comprised James Davison’s No. 33 KV Racing Chevy team.
With experienced talent hard to come by these days, it was great to see so many from the Panther Pack get the call for Indy.
MR. VERSATILE AWARD: Sebastien Bourdais
KVSH Racing readily admitted they put all of their money and development resources into winning last year’s Indy 500, which paid off in grand fashion with Tony Kanaan. The emphasis for 2014 has been on the season-long championship with Seb as the team leader going for glory, and knowing how KVSH looked rather lost leading into the race – bog slow on Carb Day – it was impressive to see Bourdais and the No. 11 Chevy crew rock their way from 17th to seventh. It was Seb’s best finish in four tries at Indy, and spoke to his emergence as a genuine all-round threat at every type of track visited by the Verizon IndyCar Series.
PLEASE HIRE AN EXORCIST AWARD: Graham Rahal
His nightmare season continued at Indy as the first car out with electronics issues. After five races, he sits one point behind Kurt Busch in the standings…
COLLATERAL DAMAGE AWARD: Justin Wilson
Bad Ass was a superb eighth when the red flag came out for Bell’s late crash, and as one of the first through the big debris field, Wilson’s front wings were damaged and he was forced to pit for a replacement nose once the race went back to green dropping to 22nd where he ultimately finished.
ASS-KICKING RISK TAKER AWARD: Ryan Hunter-Reay
It’s easy to imagine RHR cast in a Western as the fastest gun in the west. He takes pride in taking big risks that come with bigger rewards, and definitely deserves all the praise we can muster for going out and taking the Indy 500 from Helio Castroneves. The Brazilian did his best to conjure up fake smiles after finishing second to RHR, yet looked almost inconsolable once the cameras were turned off. He wants to join the four-time winner’s club more than anyone, but when it came time to put in the work at the end of the race, RHR combined desire and effort to make it happen.
RHR 2.0 AWARD: James Davison
The kid is scrappy, has seen his career on life support a half-dozen times in the last five or six years, yet refuses to give up, finds ways to land rides and manages to keep his dream alive. Once he secures a drive – in IndyCar or sports cars–he goes out and drives the wheels off the thing, yet rarely gets the attention he deserves in whatever underdog situation he’s in.
As an Indy 500 rookie, he started with a half-month program, took his rookie test on Thursday morning, did as much running as he could when the weather cooperated, qualified 28th and rode the No. 33 Chevy home to 16th, third best among the six rookies in the field. Countryman Will Power reckons Davison’s a serious talent, and the Team Penske driver doesn’t lavish false praise on anyone who isn’t deserving of it.
So far, Davison – who brings a ton of energy and humor to the paddock – is stuck in the same kind of situation Ryan Hunter-Reay went through prior to landing a ride with Andretti Autosport – ups and downs, career on life support, a diversion to sports cars… Hopefully someone throws the young Aussie a lifeline for something more than one-offs because I reckon he’s better than many of the full-timers in the series.
MAKE THAT ZERO AWARD: The local Fox affiliate in Indianapolis
The channel ran a graphic during its Sunday night news show that broke down the various arrests and offenses the Speedway police reported. I don’t recall all of the numbers, but most of what they listed was rather predictable – 11 citations for intoxication, etc.
I do, however, recall one stat that halted the broadcast: Murder: 1.
An argument between two people in the Coke lot led to one man being shot and killed. Another was shot the following day. I’ve yet to camp in the Coke lot, and I imagine shootings Friday and Saturday night could cause some to rethink their sleeping arrangements next year.
MR. MILEAGE AWARD: Juan Montoya
I’m fairly convinced Team Penske’s Montoya was actually refining E85 ethanol and filling his own fuel tank while competing in the Indy 500 on Sunday. His first stop came on Lap 32, one more than teammates Helio Castroneves in the No. 3 and Will Power in the No. 12. His teammates stopped next on Lap 63, while JPM went to Lap 66, and the fuel-making gap widened ever further on the next stop. Helio was in on Lap 92, Power on Lap 94 and Montoya stretched it out to Lap 99. He’d take the lead when others pitted, holding it until Lap 132 when he stopped for service – five laps more than Power and 10 more than Helio – but surrendered the advantage when he earned a drive-through penalty for speeding upon leaving the box. At the rate he was going, Montoya appeared to be on the way to making one less stop than everyone else.
He’d fall to 16th and fight his way back to fifth, dealing with excessive understeer in the closing stages. Minus the penalty, something closer to third or fourth would have been realistic. For a return to the Indy 500 after his one and only win in 2000, it was a treat to see Montoya racing at the front like he’d never left.
AT THE RACE, BUT NOT IN THE RACE AWARD: Takuma Sato
Sato, who was within three turns of possibly winning the race in 2012, qualified poorly, hovered towards the bottom of the top-20 for much of the day and had debris from Dixon’s crash slow his car for the last 33 laps.
Taku finished right behind Briscoe in 19th which capped a surprisingly uncompetitive event for the A.J. Foyt team.
FIX IT AWARD: IMS
The track had a lovely backdrop created for Victory Lane at the Indy 500 which featured names of the winners from each year – Indy car, Formula 1, NASCAR and MotoGP. As I initially missed (and was pointed out by a former colleague), winners of the Grand-Am Rolex Series races at IMS were omitted. Someone else pointed out MotoGP support series winners were missing, and even some of NASCAR’s lower division winners from Brickyard events were left off the honor roll. It’s a small item to nitpick, but if they stood on the top step of the podium at IMS, they deserve to be listed among all the other winners.
I NEED A DO-OVER AWARD: Martin Plowman
Plowey had a forgettable month with A.J. Foyt Racing, starting with the Grand Prix of Indy where he lost control under braking and used the back of Franck Montagny’s car as a vert ramp. The 500 was another disappointment as a pair of drive-throughs for a pit lane infraction and later nerfing Newgarden into retirement left the Englishman with finishes of 18th and 23rd. He also drew the ire of a few veterans who cursed him out after the race for failing to give way. He’s far better than either result indicates, but there’s no hiding the fact that he failed to cover himself with glory in the No. 41 Honda.
THE GREATER GOOD AWARD: Pippa Mann and Dale Coyne
Mann had a rather nondescript day after starting 22nd and finishing 24th, but the impact she made for the Susan G. Komen breast cancer awareness foundation went far beyond her race result.
“They thought the reach of it was fantastic and overall they had very positive impressions,” she told RACER. “This is the beginning, just the beginning.”
Coyne, who foots the bill for Justin Wilson’s No. 19 entry and uses it to promote the Boy Scouts of America, deserves continual appreciation for his benevolent nature. Of Dale’s three Indy 500 entries, two were used to promote social programs in the field of 33.
BAD VIBES AWARD: Multiple drivers
Simon Pagenaud was one of a number of drivers who complained of bad tire vibrations on Sunday, commenting his mirrors had become unusable because of the shaking. He’d make an unscheduled stop to try another set which solved the problem, but it effectively ended any chances he had at victory. He was one of a few drivers who dealt with blistering right-rear tires, most likely the result of too much sliding due to light downforce on a hot and slippery track. Both Ed Carpenter Racing entries suffered blistering issues, and after the race, Firestone told RACER they would seek more information to understand the sporadic instances that cropped up.
“There were a few cars that blistered right rear tires during the race on Sunday,” said Dale Harrigle, Firestone’s chief racing tire engineer. “We believe the vibration problems were related to the blistering of the right rear tire. We will be working with the teams in an effort to determine the root cause of the tire blistering, and why the issues were limited to certain cars.”
HORRIBLE ANNIVERSARY AWARD: Target Chip Ganassi Racing
No one wanted to see defending Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, the most popular driver in the race, limping down pit lane to have gearbox issues tended to on Lap 65. He’d lose three laps before returning and would end up being credited with 26th. His teammate, Scott Dixon, known for his consistency at Indy, finished 29th after spinning and clouting the wall hard. Both Target cars sported special 25th anniversary liveries to commemorate Target’s tenure with the team, yet had little to celebrate when the race was over.
Based on the double points offered for Indy, some of the championship contenders who struggled in the 500 now find themselves in a much bigger hole than expected. Reigning IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon left the GP of Indy fifth in points, 47 behind Will Power. Poor qualifying and a crash in the race has Dixie down in ninth, which might not seem like much of a concern, but his deficit is now a whopping 142 points to championship leader Ryan Hunter-Reay. One race…triple the deficit…
His teammate Tony Kanaan, eighth with 82 points after the GP, is now 16th, 170 behind RHR. Barring a miracle, his championship aspirations are over by Round 5 and we still have 13 races left to run.
Power led RHR by 1 point after the GP and thanks to finishing eighth to the Indy 500 winner, is now down by 40 points.
I like the idea of IndyCar’s biggest race carry some extra significance in the standings, but not when it blows legitimate contenders out of the championship so early in the season.
• What’s the worst thing for a guy with serious fear of heights? Standing 20 feet off the ground with cars going 200mph beneath him. Dallas Mavericks owner and honorary starter Marc Cuban, who probably didn’t understand his duties included climbing into an exposed cradle above the start/finish line, is said to have exited the starter’s stand flag faster than anyone could remember after waving the green, trembling the whole way down.
• Townsend Bell took some punishment in his big crash, banging up a knee and his back, but will still race this weekend in Detroit during the 100-minute TUDOR United SportsCar Championship event on Saturday.
• I’m a sucker for such things, and hope RHR (and any other race-winning Americans) keeps pulling out the American flag to celebrate in Victory Lane and in front of the grandstands.
• Great to see Bob Varsha leading NBCSN’s Carb Day coverage. Varsha, the longtime SPEED/Fox Sports1 host, has been given some flexibility to share his talents outside of FS1 if and when suitors come calling.
• I can’t say if my informal crowd counting skills came up with the same figure of 60,000 people that IMS says attended the GP of Indy, but whatever the number was, it was impressive.
• The Indy 500 had some star engineers in attendance. Kyle Brannan, who looked after James Davison at KV Racing, got his first chance to engineer a car at the 500. We came up through the open-wheel ranks together, and he joined Tasman Racing’s CART Indy car team…in 1996, the first year of The Split. He’d go on to win Atlantic and Indy Lights championships before moving onto sports cars where he won a pair of Rolex DP titles with the Bob Stallings Racing/GAINSCO team. Mark Weida, who propelled the likes of Paul Tracy and Robbie Buhl to Indy Lights championships while driving for his Leading Edge Motorsports team, can usually be found engineering a car at the 500, but with that role filled by Jeff Britton, he dusted off his crew chief skills and ran Sage Karam’s car for Dennis Reinbold. Weida’s regular gig these days is engineering cars for the race-winning Black Dog Pirelli World Challenge team. I also ran into my good friend Brad Kettler, the Indiana-based race engineer and car chief for the Audi Sport WEC/Le Mans program, who came out to watch the proceedings on Carb Day and professed his long-held desire to engineer a car at the Indy 500. With overall Le Mans victories and ALMS championships to his credit, the American, who I nicknamed the “Tire Whisperer” for his old school ability to tune a chassis based on the look, feel and smell of the tires, stands out as one of the most intuitive and intelligent race engineers I’ve ever met. Based on the Formula 1 levels of engineering, simulation, vehicle dynamics and aerodynamics he’s accustomed to with Audi, I’m thinking Kettler would be a month of May revelation for the right team.