Indianapolis: Paul’s Race Day thoughts — Part II

Uncategorized — By on June 2, 2011 1:52 pm
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To read Part I of Paul’s race day thoughts and observations covering the pre-race activities at the Indianapolis 500, click here.

 

Flashback to Friday, March 25th, at the opening IZOD IndyCar Series event of the season in St. Pete.  As I sat in the press conference announcing Dan Wheldon as the driver for Bryan Herta Autosport in this year’s Indianapolis 500, I actually found myself somewhere between amused and annoyed while Dan spoke at length about how he expected to be competitive right away and how he truly believed he could win the race.  At the time, I thought it would be a tall order for Dan to even make the field with a team that had run exactly one IZOD IndyCar Series event, that being the 2010 Indianapolis 500, and only qualified for that because of an unimaginable miracle.  Two months later, look who’s laughing now!

The victory of Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta Autosport in this year’s running of the Indianapolis 500 will go down in history as one of the most exciting and unexpected victories in the 95 races to date.  Even after a solid qualifying effort that put them on the outside of row two and strong runs all week in practice, I honestly never really considered Wheldon to be a serious contender for the victory.  Indianapolis is too difficult and requires too much preparation for a start-up team like BHA to win, right?  Apparently not in this case.  In his upset victory, Wheldon became arguably the most surprising victor at The Brickyard since Graham Hill won the great race in 1966.

Though all of the drivers understand what a big race the Indianapolis 500 is, very few of them wear their emotions and love for the event on their sleeves quite like Dan Wheldon.  At every opportunity, Dan heaps praise on the event and expresses his fondness for the race, the Speedway, the fans, and the city.  When it comes to ambassadors for The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, there simply is none better than Wheldon.

Bryan Herta’s own journey at Indianapolis has been long and winding as well.  As a rookie at the Speedway in 1994 driving for AJ Foyt, Bryan found moderate success with a solid ninth-place finish followed by 13th a year later driving for Chip Ganassi.  Sadly, like many other drivers of his generation, the years that held the greatest potential for Bryan at Indianapolis were lost as a result of the CART/IRL split.  When his Andretti-Green Racing team returned to the “500” in 2003, Bryan had to watch from the sidelines due to an injury suffered earlier in the season.  He finally returned to action at Indianapolis in 2004 with a fourth place finish, followed a year later by a career-best third.  After a few years of driving sports cars, Herta returned to the open-wheel ranks as an owner in the Firestone Indy Lights with an eye toward eventually fielding a full-time team in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

The pairing of these two former teammates has obviously paid off in spades — $2.5 million worth!  Their chemistry as part of the 2005 Andretti-Green “wonder team” has been well-documented over the years, and it was that familiarity that led to their eventual owner-driver relationship.  I didn’t believe it when I sat through their press conference in St. Pete — and if I hadn’t seen it at Indianapolis on Sunday, I probably still wouldn’t believe it — but this really is a team to be contended with.  Their victory not only represented a win for Wheldon and BHA but a triumph for all the little teams who have dreamed about putting together a small operation, showing up at Indianapolis, qualifying for the field of 33, and taking down the big boys in the world’s greatest race.  For that reason, this victory will resonate with many people for a very long time.

Unlike the 2010 running of the Indianapolis 500 that was essentially over in the first turn, this year’s race was up in the air literally until the last few feet of the race.  Though it seemed that the pair from Target Chip Ganassi Racing had a beat on the field for most of the day, neither Scott Dixon nor Dario Franchitti was ever able to pull away to a comfortable margin, and in the end, the dynamite Target duo ended up shooting themselves in the feet again.

During qualifying weekend, nearly everyone at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had to pick their jaws up off the ground when it was revealed that the team had run Dario Franchitti out of fuel on his qualification attempt, causing him not to post a time in the second session.  When teammate Scott Dixon, the very next qualifier, also ran out of fuel on his final lap — costing him the pole position and a $175,000 check — it was guaranteed that Chip Ganassi would make sure such a silly mistake would not cost his team a victory and the $2.5 million prize in the race a week later.  Yet, once again, fuel for the Ganassi boys played a pivotal role in the final outcome.

TCGR Managing Director Mike Hull said after the race that the teams weren’t trying to be “cute” with Scott Dixon’s fuel strategy and give him just enough fuel to run out as soon as he crossed the finish line.  However, when your driver only has to go 21 laps to finish the race yet falls short, there can be no other excuse than simply trying to cut it too close.  The Target team only fueled the car for as long as was needed to change the tires.  It’s obviously easy to look back with the benefit of hindsight and see that wasn’t enough fuel, but these teams have too much knowledge and real-time information to allow such a razor-thin margin to be even a slight possibility.  I would say that such a mistake won’t happen again with this team, but I think I already did.

The situation with Dario Franchitti is a bit more puzzling.  From the team standpoint, I understand what TCGR was trying to do by splitting the fuel strategy and ensuring that they wouldn’t get snookered out of a win by someone trying to stretch their own mileage.  By pitting on lap 164, Franchitti would have to drive 36 laps on a single load of fuel, making at least 4.1 miles per gallon along the way.  The likelihood of all 36 of those laps being run under yellow was slim, but if there is a driver in the Series who can make fuel, it’s Franchitti.  Helping Dario somewhat was the fact that he was not leading but was instead back in the pack.  Without running on his own, Dario should have been able to use the draft to help pull him through the field and make better fuel mileage.  As it turns out, Dario couldn’t make it.  In reality, he wasn’t even really very close.  Though he didn’t pit until lap 199, he was well off the pace for several laps before in a desperate attempt to milk the last few drops out of fuel.  Certainly, Dario tried his best to reach the checkered flag, and it appears that his crew packed the car as full of fuel as possible.  There were just too many laps to go and not enough of them run under caution.  (Remarkably, though, rookie JR Hildebrand, after pitting on the same lap as Franchitti, had no issues and was still running strong all the way to the checkers, or at least within sight of the checkered flag.)

Speaking of Hildebrand, no discussion of the 2011 Indianapolis 500 will take place for a long time without mention of the 23-year-old Californian.  When people look back on this race many years from now, they will likely not remember the fuel mismanagement of the Ganassi team.  They likely won’t even remember the details of how Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta got themselves into position to pull off the greatest upset victory since Al Unser, Sr. won the 1987 “500” in a car that started the month in the lobby of a Pennsylvania hotel.  The lingering memory will be how JR Hildebrand survived 799 trouble-free turns but found the wall on the 800th turn while leading as he attempted to pass a car that was significantly off the pace.  While I will say Hildebrand was unfortunately conservative in his attempt to pass Charlie Kimball in the fateful moment, I won’t second guess his decision to make the pass as others have, and I sure as hell won’t say this was the biggest choke job in the history of sports.

It irritates me to no end to hear sporting commentators who have absolutely no knowledge of auto racing attempt to speak intelligently about what young JR should or should not have done.  From their position behind a camera or in front of a keyboard, I can pretty safely say that not one of them has ever felt the pressure of leading the last lap at Indianapolis.  Not one of them has ever driven an IndyCar through a minimally-banked turn at 225 mph hitting a groove that is about 12 feet wide, outside of which are marbles of tires that hadn’t been swept for nearly 40 laps, on tires that are the very end of their useful life.  Not one of them has had to make a split-second decision to pass or fall behind that could be the difference between racing immortality and second place.  Until I see any these attributes on their records, their opinions are worthless to me.

I will admit to immediately wondering if Hildebrand would be lumped into the category of sporting gaffes with infamous names like Bill Bucker, Chris Webber, and Jean Van de Velde.  After considering this for a short time, I realized quickly that it is completely unfair to even mentioned Hildebrand in the same breath as these men.  Consider these facts:

  • In the time it took for Mookie Wilson’s slow-ground ball to reach Bill Buckner in game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Hildebrand would have traveled 1.5 times the length of the north short chute.
  • In the time it took Chris Webber to grab his rebound and jog down-court in the 1993 Mens’ NCAA Tournament Final before calling a timeout that Michigan didn’t have, Hildebrand would have navigated turn 3, the north chute, and turn 4.
  • In the time it took Jean Van de Velde to make a triple bogey and give away the 1999 British Open Championship with multiple opportunities to reconsider his options and vanquish his previous errors in judgement, Hildebrand could have completed nearly 30 laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Of course, in none of these situations had the athletes been competing at the very top of their game continuously for the better part of three hours, making thousands of decisions which could literally have meant the difference between life and death and doing it without the benefit of a seventh-inning stretch, a time-out, or even so much as a casual stroll between holes.  Calling Hildebrand’s crash the greatest choke in sports history is just a completely asinine declaration and one that should carry zero weight.

Another major story coming out of the race was the collapse of Team Penske and their failure to place a car in the top-10 for the first time since 1992.  After a tumultuous start to the season for the teammates of Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves, Indianapolis was expected to be a turning point to get the duo back on the road to salvaging a respectable 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season.  Disappointing results for both now must leave the team wondering how long the black cloud will stay overhead.

To be completely fair, none of the three Penske drivers were put their position because of their own driving on track.  Championship leader Will Power lost a lap early on when his pit crew failed to fully secure his left rear wheel, causing him to complete an entire circuit on three wheels.  The ensuing damage required several pit stops for Power, but once fixed, I expected to see Power quickly move back through the field and salvage a good result.  Instead, he was mired at the back of the pack and only near the end of the race was he eventually able to move into the top 15, soldiering home with a disappointing (yet Penske team high) 14th place finish.

Ryan Briscoe’s tough-luck season continued when he was taken out of the race in a crash with Townsend Bell on the 158th lap while running strongly in the top 10.  Like previous accidents this season at St. Pete and Barber Motorsports Park, Briscoe seemed to be the victim of another driver’s error, yet Briscoe continues to be criticized by many for his performance this season.  In the races Briscoe has finished, he has a pair of podium finishes for his efforts.  Unfortunately, he seems to have a bad case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time this year.  With the Series moving on to Texas Motor Speedway, a track that Briscoe has run at very well for the past several years, perhaps this will finally be the turning point for his season.

Why Helio Castroneves struggled is a bit more of a quandary.  Although the team was caught out by the rain in qualifying before he could make a second attempt to crack into the Fast Nine, I completely expected Helio to move to the front of the field quickly in the race and to be competitive throughout.  As it turns out, Helio struggled all day long, and after starting 16th he was never scored higher than 13th at any point during the race.  It was by far Helio’s worst performance in 11 starts at Indianapolis.  While many once considered it a near-certainty that Helio would eventually win his fourth Indianpaolis 500, his relative lack of competitiveness over the last two years has started to make some people wonder whether he still has the drive required to be an Indianapolis champion.  I think he does, but at age 36 with a budding family, it’s difficult to believe that Helio’s fastest years are still ahead of him.

A driver who showed he does still have what it takes to win was Helio’s fellow Brazilian, Tony Kanaan.  While the rest of the KV Racing Technology – Lotus team predictably found the Brickyard’s SAFER barrier early on, TK excited the fans once again with another masterful drive that saw him move from his 22nd starting position to 15th after 20 laps and into the top 10 by the 24th lap.  The hard-luck crowd favorite proved that he is capable of winning the race in any car from any position on the starting grid.  All he needs is a bit of luck to get him over the hurdle and he will be a very popular Indianapolis champion.

There were many other stories throughout the day that are worthy of mention, but covering each of them with the credit they deserve would take many, many pages, so I’ll just briefly list them here.

  • Sophomore driver Bertand Baguette ran a fantastic race for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing this year.  If a late-race yellow had come out, there was good chance Baguette could have claimed the victory.  After a good run a year ago with Graham Rahal at the wheel, the RLLR team has proven that it can prepare a very good race car at Indianapolis, even in a one-off situation.
  • A stellar month for Sam Schmidt Motorsports teammates Alex Tagliani and Townsend Bell ended with a fizzle as both drivers were taken out in crashes.  Alex showed well early in the race but lost the setup after the first pit stop.  Bell ran very well for the first 150 laps, but a tangle with Ryan Briscoe ended his day on a sour note in the turn 1 wall.  Still, the entire team should hold its head high for its efforts this month, and there is no reason to suspect that Sam Schmidt will not continue to grow this team into a first-class operation.
  • The double-file restarts made for some of the most exciting moments of the entire race.  How nobody ever hit the end of the pit wall coming back to the green flag I will never know.  At some points, drivers were four and five cars wide down the front straight, but almost everyone seemed to figure out how to get through turns 1 and 2 cleanly.  Never in my life did I think I would see Indy cars go three-wide through the entire south end of the track at speed and come out of turn 2 unscathed.
  • Oriol Servia continues to impress everyone that watches him run.  I know the team was ultimately disappointed with a sixth-place finish, but Oriol ran strong all day long.  Although he didn’t have the speed to chase down the Target cars, he ran strongly in the top five for the entire second half of the race until late pit stops and fuel strategy shuffling dropped him down.  This driver and team combination is excellent, and they should win at least one race this year.
  • The five rookies in this year’s race showed very well for themselves.  Obviously, JR Hildebrand will get most of the attention, but all five drove well while they were in the race.  James Hinchcliffe made the same error that many veteran drivers have made when he got slightly out of the groove while letting a faster car go by and ended up in the fence.  Jay Howard, finally making the race in his third visit to the Speedway, was running a fine race and holding steady around 15th position when he lost a wheel after his pit stop and found the inside south chute wall.  Charlie Kimball will likely be remembered more for his part in Hildebrand’s last-turn accident, but he drove a very respectable race all day long and managed to crack into the top 10 on a couple of occasions.  And Pippa Mann, who suffered from cramping for nearly the entire second half of the race, accomplished her goal of completing the race with the car in one piece and gaining invaluable experience in her first-ever IZOD IndyCar Series event, soldiering on to a 20th place finish.

This race will certainly be remembered as one of the most interesting, intriguing, and unpredictable races in the 100-year history of the Indianapolis 500.  Given the hype surrounding the event, it was difficult to imagine that it could ever fulfill its expectations, but I think most would agree that it far surpassed them.  A surprise winner, a fast and safe race, and constantly evolving storylines throughout the day truly make this an epic race for the history books.

Look for Part III of Paul’s race day thoughts and Month of May wrap-up coming soon to More Front Wing.

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