Random Thoughts on The Indianapolis 500

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Now that I’ve had a day or so to reflect on Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, it’s sinking in on what a good race Simon Pagenaud drove. From the moment Matt Damon and Christian Bale both waved the green flags, Pagenaud got a good jump on the rest of the front row and hardly ever looked back after the first corner.

If you had asked me just after the race how many laps Pagenaud led, I would have guessed about 160 – because it really seemed like he led for most of the race. I was surprised to learn that he “only” led 116 laps, because he really dominated the day. I’m sure I’m wrong, but I’m not sure I can remember a dominating performance like this since Juan Montoya won in 2000.

I will admit that in the closing laps, I was pulling for Alexander Rossi to pull off the victory. I had sold my brother’s tickets to a family I knew in Nashville that had never been to the race before. In trying to keep up their interest in the early stages, I had told them that usually when a driver dominates the way Pagenaud had to that point – they usually don’t win. I had to look like I knew what I was talking about, so I needed Rossi to win. Instead they learned the truth, that I had no idea what I was talking about.

Seriously though, I thought it would make the better story if Rossi were to win. He had dominated at Long Beach, but struggled mightily in the IndyCar Grand Prix. I also feel like some people put an asterisk by Rossi’s name because he won the 100th Running in 2016 as a rookie in a somewhat flukish fashion. Although Rossi has gone on to win more races since then, I felt like a second Indianapolis 500 victory in four years would help validate the first one. Based on the crowd reaction whenever Rossi took the lead from Pagenaud, I was not alone.

Plus, I’m not big on spreading the wealth around. I like having a few multiple winners, rather than several single winners. AJ Foyt, Bobby Unser, Al Unser and Johnny Rutherford won the majority of the races from 1967 through 1980. Rick Mears won four races from 1979 through 1991. It’s the multiple champions that you remember and like him or not – I think Alexander Rossi will eventually be a two or three-time winner of this race.

Although Pagenaud and Rossi obviously had outstanding days, the same cannot be said for all of their teammates. Pagenaud’s Team Penske teammate, Josef Newgarden, led twenty-one laps in one stint, but I never really felt like he was going to win. He eventually finished fourth, which seemed about right for the car he had. He was probably smart enough to know that and settled for a good points day. Will Power may have had a car good enough to win, but he ran over his air hose and was given a drive-through penalty on Lap Seventy-Nine. He did well to finish fifth.

Helio Castroneves had a day to forget for the second year in a row. On his first pit stop, he ran into the back of James Davison on pit lane, damaging his front wing. The crew struggled to get the original wing off of the car. I know this because we were sitting directly across from Helio’s pit. When they finally got the nose changed, Castroneves had lost a lot of time. It got worse because he was immediately back on pit lane serving a drive-through penalty. He never recovered from the setback and finished eighteenth.

Conor Daly was in the Top-Ten, finishing tenth. Quite honestly, I’m not sure how that happened because he was consistently running fifth or sixth for most of the latter stages of the race, and sometimes as high as fourth. Still, I think the popular driver silenced some of his critics with a strong month. Perhaps this can help him in his quest for a fulltime ride next year.

Ryan Hunter-Reay finished eighth, two spots ahead of Daly. But had I not seen that in print after the race, I never would have known it. Hunter-Reay was invisible to me throughout the day. Maybe I was simply overlooking him, but he never seemed to be a factor.

Zach Veach was caught up in the Bourdais-Rahal incident on Lap 178, but I think he was having a forgettable afternoon regardless.

But nothing can compare to the nightmarish day that Marco Andretti had. By the time the first yellow came out on Lap Six, Marco had already dropped from his starting position of tenth to twenty-second. He pitted during the caution with severe oversteer. He must have pitted more than ten times. His pit was just in front of Helio’s, so we had a clear view of it. It seemed that every time I looked up the orange day-glo tribute car for his grandfather was in the pits. Marco was the last car running and finished twenty-sixth – five laps down.

TV Coverage: I am typing this Monday morning in our hotel room and have not seen much of the broadcast, except what we caught Sunday night after we got in – which wasn’t much. What I saw was good. I’ve seen a few comments about too many commercials and missing the cars being pushed off. As long as they show side-by-side, I don’t have an issue with that many commercials. NBC should be able to make money on the broadcast. They sure spent a lot promoting it.

They’re efforts apparently worked because they reversed the ratings skid that ABC had let happen under their watch. The overnight ratings were a 3.9, up 15% over the 3.4 overnights last year with ABC. It was the highest overnight ratings for the “500” broadcast in three years.

As little of the broadcast as I’ve seen, I did see the part where they went to a commercial before the cars went off. I will agree with that criticism. That is another part of the excitement as the day builds to that green flag. Hopefully they will hear about it and include that in their coverage next year.

ECR Woes: Ed Carpenter Racing had a day that can only be described as disappointing. Having two spots on the front row and another in fourth, many were picking the race winner to come from this team. Ed Carpenter started second and finished sixth. Spencer Pigot started third and finished fourteenth, while Ed Jones started fourth and wound up thirteenth. I’m not sure there were any blunders or mistakes; but in this case, I don’t think the box scores lied or told a different story.

I saw Ed Carpenter in the garage area after the race and to say he looked dejected would be putting it mildly.

Vastly Overlooked: Some of the feel good stories from qualifying had disappointing days. Kyle Kaiser crashed on Lap Seventy-Three, ending the David vs Goliath talk of the previous week after Kaiser ousted Fernando Alonso from the starting lineup. He finished thirty-first. Sage Karam started in the back and languished back there all day, finishing nineteenth and one lap down.

Ben Handley had a forgettable day as well, after shocking everyone by comfortably making the field, he came back to earth. He struggled mightily throughout his time on track and finally retired with mechanical issues on Lap Fifty-Four, finishing thirty-second.

But one story that has not gotten any play whatsoever is that James Hinchcliffe started in the middle of the last row and finished eleventh. After missing last year and flirting with missing this year’s race, Hinch kept his nose clean and steadily moved up throughout the day.

Big Day for Pippa: Major credit has to go out to Pippa Mann and her Clauson Marshall Racing team. I was included in the many people that gave this team no shot to make the race, when this team was announced. It sounded like a recipe for disaster to have a USAC team come in with no IndyCar experience whatsoever and put their fate in a driver that failed to make the race last year.

The team turned heads when they were locked into the filed on Saturday, while one of the most powerful racing teams in the world was sent packing. They did more than turn heads on Sunday, they won respect. Pippa Mann drove to her career-best Indianapolis 500 finish of sixteenth and was on the lead lap at the end – only 12.9 seconds behind the winner. In the process, she finished almost two seconds ahead of five-time series champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner, Scott Dixon – who was also on the lead lap.

Juncos Racing may have been the feel-good story of qualifying, but Pippa Mann and Clauson Marshall Racing earned that title for the race. Great job and congratulations go to that entire team, along with Pippa Mann who did an excellent job of driving the car.

The Streak Continues:  No, I’m not talking about Roger Penske winning his eighteenth Indianapolis 500 or his winning two in a row. I’m talking about my streak of picking drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 and seeing them crash during the race. Once again my pick for this year, Sébastien Bourdais, crashed on Lap 178. Had I not picked him, I feel certain he would have finished in the Top-Five. My apologies to Bourdais and the entire Dale Coyne team.

Two Extremes:  Since Colton Herta won at COTA as an eighteen year-old in only his third IndyCar race, he has had one of the worst four-race stretches I can remember a race winner having. After that win in late March, Herta has had finishes of last, last, next to last and last. The only thing that could make that stat any crazier would be for him to sweep this weekend’s double-header at Belle Isle. But finishing dead-last in the Indianapolis 500, a double-points paying race, is like adding yet another last-place finish to his season. His luck has to turn around…doesn’t it?

Tradition Rules: Traditions that had gone away or had been threatened to go away were all present on Sunday. For the second year in a row, the Memorial Day homage that had been so popular when recited by the late Jim Philippi returned to the pre-race ceremonies. On Sunday, it was recited word for word by Bob Jenkins (although the volume on the PA was kind of low for it).

For the past two years, Tony George had eschewed the tradition of including the word “Gentlemen” in his command to start engines, by giving the NASCARish and gender-neutral “Drivers, Start Your Engines”. We were given hope that this would change two weeks ago when he gave the command “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines” at the IndyCar Grand Prix. Sure enough, tradition returned Sunday when George stepped to the microphone and confidently said “Lady and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines”.

I was also glad that IMS President Doug Boles did away with the small controversy of releasing balloons just before the start, by siding with tradition. With the lack of wind on Sunday, it was the best balloon release I’ve seen in years. The colorful balloons went straight up into the Indiana sky. In my limited viewing of the TV coverage, I saw they even had a camera inside the balloon tent capturing their release from ground-level, giving viewers a unique perspective.

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Drink the Milk: In my grumpy old man state, it has become an annual event for me to complain about the winning drivers dumping milk all over their heads or slinging it across the crowd, as Will Power did last year. Until Helio Castroneves started doing it in 2001, no driver would have ever thought about dousing themselves with milk.

After Helio did it two years in a row, Gil de Ferran refrained and sipped his milk to savor the moment. I can’t remember what Buddy Rice did in his makeshift Victory Lane under the Pagoda during the approaching tornado. But few drivers have resisted the urge to douse themselves since.

Pagenaud’s may have been the worst. I’m not sure he actually drank any. Instead, he just poured the entire bottle all over his face. I’m not sure this is what the Dairy Association had in mind.

If a driver wants to really be different, they should just drink it and share it with those closest to them.

Keep Him:  For the third year in a row, Jim Cornelison belted out a stirring version of (Back Home Again in) Indiana. After two lifeless versions after Jim Nabors retired following the 2014 race, Cornelison has proven to be a worthy successor to Nabors. He doesn’t try to imitate the Nabors version, because his own version is strong enough to stand alone. He seems to enjoy coming here, so I hope that Doug Boles will see to it that he becomes the new fixture and tradition for that iconic song.

Improvements: In years past, I complained about traffic flow through the tunnels or how long it took to open the gate on the outside of Turn One. Kudos to Speedway Management for making improvements to both. They now open up all of the tunnels for pedestrians under the main straightaway just north of the Pagoda an hour before the race, not allowing any vehicle traffic. What used to be a bottleneck getting to our seats in Stand A, now takes no time at all.

Last year, it took thirty minutes or more for officials to open the gate as angry fans were getting restless. This year, they started the process to open it almost as soon as the last car went into the pits when the race was over.

All in All: Although the race was lacking in excitement in the first half, it made up for it in the second half – especially the last twenty laps or so. The thunderstorms we were promised never materialized and another great Month of May culminated in an exciting finish.

For me personally, this has been one of my favorite Mays because of the time I spent at IMS for each day of practice. If you have been thinking about doing it, do it. I look back on that week as a very special time. It was so uncrowded and laid back, it was one of the most enjoyable times I’ve spent at IMS in the past fifty-four years.

Now begins the post-race depression that comes every year at this time. It’s worse than the day after Christmas. There has been such a buildup that now that it’s over, we wonder what we will do with ourselves. It helps that there are not one, but two races this weekend – although they will be at my least favorite track.

We are comforted that we still have races to go to. We are already booked for another trip to Road America next month, and Susan will be joining me for the first time at Pocono in August, as well as our usual trip to Gateway the next weekend. Whether or not we can work in any other races remains to be seen, but we will try and see if the budget (and vacation time) allows it.

Thanks to Susan for getting all of the good camera shots over the month, including all of these today listed below (and the balloons). She will have a post later this week and possibly even a mystery guest blogger. Check back for those throughout the week. Then I will be back Friday for the obligatory Belle Isle Preview.

And a huge Thank You to those of you that have followed our travels throughout the Month of May. It’s been a blast. Then again, it always is.

George Phillips

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27 Responses to “Random Thoughts on The Indianapolis 500”

  1. madtad1 Says:

    Actually, George, Will hit his fueler with the car, not an air hose, but the actual crewman. This was a bad race to be “over the wall” as another crewman was hit when his team’s car (sorry, don’t remember who) spun coming into the box and sent two the front right tire changers leg, knocking him into the path of oncoming cars. On replay you can see the leg flax at an unnatural angle. That crewman went to hospital.

    • We saw that. Jordan King I think was the pit where this happened. The most bizarre thing I saw all day was Castroneves behavior in the pits before he caused the accident. He was weaving all over the place as if he was very angry at the car in front of him. Doing this right behind him. The accident came farther down the pits then we could see but I was not at all surprised there was an accident based on his behavior. My first thought was it was intentional based on his behavior and I half expected him to be disqualified. Did that make the TV broadcast?

    • billytheskink Says:

      Power both hit his fueler and ran over his front tire changer’s air hose (on entry, not exit). He was very fortunate that this occurred during a caution and he was simply sent to the back for the restart rather than asked to serve a drive-through penalty during green flag conditions, especially since Jordan King was required to serve a drive-through under green despite his crew-hitting pit incident also occurring under caution.

      • madtad1 Says:

        The difference was because King sent his crewman to hospital, that’s why he got the more severe penalty, I think.

  2. TheAmericanMutt Says:

    A complaint (and a pretty big one): we sit in turn three, the leader board back there hasnt worked in years, and the video monitors often dont feature a running order. Beyond the top five it was all but impossible to keep track of who was where, and thats with headphones playing 1070 on.

  3. One complaint about the broadcast: Mario and Penske received well deserved kudos for 50 year anniversaries but Robin Miller’s 50th anniversary reporting on the “500” was overlooked, so badly that his own network didn’t even include him in the broadcast!!!! No, we had to watch that moronic RUTLEGE WOOD, who brought absolutely nothing to the show! But no Robin Miller. Just ridiculous!

  4. I’m not one to complain about commercials, and usually I complain about people complaining about commercials, but they were excessive during the 500 broadcast. There was one 20 minute stretch that had over 15 minutes of commercials. Lots of audio problems throughout the race too, on both IMS and NBCs part. All in all, still a hundred times better than ABC.

    The biggest shame is that the home viewers didn’t get to see all of that AMAZING FLYOVER!! For those who weren’t able to attend, after the four planes flew over, the A10 and F15(?) turned back for another pass. The A10 flew super low behind the Pagoda cut west over the paddock, the F15 followed suit, then the A10 came diving back in and swooped behind the Pagoda, the F15 was in hot pursuit and then pulled STRAIGHT UP and headed for the heavens. I’m covered in goosebumps just typing about it, I’ve been to a lot of races and seen a lot of flyovers but this was by far the most amazing.

    Here’s a short video I put together of the opening ceremonies and the flyover, enjoy!

    • Alan Stewart Says:

      *F-16 … and yes, it was the best flyover I’ve seen across any racing genre!!!

    • Mark Wick Says:

      Brandon, your seats may have been the very seats my Dad and I had for my first 500 in 1963. I still have the pictures I took with my Brownie Starmite camera.

      • Cool! Unfortunately dad messed up ordering the tickets and did not get the ones we had last year so we weren’t under the roof. I told him I’m in charge of ordering tickets this year, gonna get us some good ones and hang on to them.

  5. Thanks, I knew it was either the F15 or F16 but couldn’t remember which. Either way, it was amazing!

  6. Alan Stewart Says:

    Regarding ECR, the four cars that seemed to have the ponies to win were Simon, Rossi, Carpenter and Sato (in that order). Ed was second for what seemed like forever. If there’s disappointment from that camp, I’d say it’s only in that they weren’t able to capitalize on the strong car Ed had.

    Marco’s woes go back at least to Carb Day. Midway through the practice session when a line of appx. 15-20 cars formed, Marco was at the rear of that line and couldn’t keep up. The 98 was lucky to pull its own shadow … very disappointing for such a spectacular looking ride.

    I’m surprised you didn’t opine more on the Bourdais/Rahal incident.

    • billytheskink Says:

      On the Bourdais/Rahal incident, it is worth noting that race control penalized Bourdais 30 seconds for “avoidable contact” (not a symbolic penalty either, it was clearly aimed at dropping Bourdais below the others involved in the incident in the finishing order, which it did).

      Fan reactions that I have read are mixed. I’m a Rahal fan, so I’m biased, but I will offer up that the wreck likely involved some poor spotter work for both drivers, and particularly for Bourdais.

    • At the time I wrote this, the only replay I had seen was at the track, and never really saw a clear view. I’m not a racer, but to me it was clear that Bourdais came down on Rahal. – GP

  7. Patrick Says:

    I wonder if the passing of his mother motivated Tony George to the start the race the way his family always did it in the past? The command to start engines originated at the 500 long before it was stolen by NASCAR and everybody else and eventually morphed into “Drivers”. It is my belief that the Speedway should always be the leader and not just copy others.

  8. Thanks for the journey through May, George! Some people like me, well, I am far to anxious and burdened in other areas of life to make the trip to Indy. You are a lucky man, sir! But that said, it’s really fun to watch you do this every May. I feel like I am right there with you many times and it has given me a different outlook on this great race.

  9. Ron Ford Says:

    Thanks for all your coverage this month George. I am not the Rossi fan that you are, but we can agree about the milk. Why don’t they just drink the damn buttermilk? That is disrespectful to those of us here in Wisconsin and just looks stupid. The winner at Road America would be ill advised to do that in the heart of America’s dairy land. The singing of the national anthem was well done and the singing of America the Beautiful by Chevel Sheperd was quite moving. Once again the singing of Back Home Again in Indiana was performed very well by Jim Cornelison and brought tears to the eyes of this former Hoosier.

    • Alan Stewart Says:

      Regarding buttermilk, the Star did a nice little piece about that and why Hinch and Ed weren’t going to get it even if that’s what they wanted. “Modern buttermilk is regular milk with a culture (and sometimes salt for flavor) added to it and, while you can drink it, it has a sour taste and is more often used in cooking.” The stuff Louis Meyer drank after winning is highly perishable.

  10. Mark Wick Says:

    George, I am glad you mentioned Pippa Mann. That was probably THE success story of the month.
    I agree that pouring milk all over one’s head is really stupid and I wish it would stop.
    I don’t have access to TV so I followed the race with race control and the radio coverage and the INDYCAR app with one in car camera on my phone and the other on my iPad. That provided the first time I have seen live in car camera views simultaneously from two cars involved in the same crash.
    I don’t remember ever seeing the winner’s dog in the winning celebration photos.

  11. It’s almost as if treating the Indy 500 as a major sporting event helps improve ratings

  12. George and Susan – Congrats on your excellent coverage of the Month of May. An A+ to both of you. Oops, I forgot I am retired and not awarding grades anymore.

  13. Talón de Brea Says:

    Thanks, George. I agree with Andrew – I appreciate being able to enjoy your enjoyment. You must be tired …

    I didn’t notice at the time that Robin Miller didn’t get even a cameo appearance … I’d like to hear what the thinking there was.

    For years I would watch very closely, trying to spot “turning points” in a race, but I watched more passively this year. By turning points, I mean the broadcast coming back from a long commercial break and not pointing out that the top four (to make up one example) is now just three cars. I realize broadcasters can’t keep up with everything in real time, but I wonder what you and your readers think about coverage of “turning points” — both in general in years past and as relates to this year’s “500.”

    As for the near-obligatory ritual pouring of the milk, it reminds me of an overdone end-zone celebration or the practice of newlyweds smashing cake into each other’s face at a wedding reception — really silly, but I don’t let it bother me, for the most part. (Plus it has become a sure-fire photo/video op and projects enthusiasm, for what that’s worth.) I wouldn’t do it, but then I would never be in the position to do so! And how is pouring milk instead of drinking it so different from champagne spraying?

    • Lots of races have champagne at the end. Only one race has milk, in my opinion it should be cherished because only one driver gets to drink it every year. It’s similar to doing burnouts on the Yard at Bricks, it’s fine at other tracks but this is hallowed ground and deserves respect.

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