Random Thoughts on the Indianapolis 500

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The 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 is finally in the books. It took an extra three months and a lot of uncertainty along the way, but it is finally in the books. Although there were no fans present, it did not live up to the pre-race hype as worst 500 in history. As a matter of fact, I really enjoyed the race.

All indications were that we were headed to a beat-down by Scott Dixon, but while NBC was away for a commercial break, I happened to see Dixon being passed by Takuma Sato in the little side-by-side window with more than twenty laps to go. Although Zach Veach was the actual leader at the time, I had no idea I was watching what would ultimately be the winning pass.

I felt certain that Scott Dixon would reel him back in after just a couple of laps. After all, Dixon had been the class of the field all day. Even though he led 111 laps, it seemed like he had practically led them all to that point – except when he and Alexander Rossi were playing Follow the Leader. But Sato stayed in front and was pulling away from Dixon, even when encountering traffic. I’ll admit, that I was a little stunned to see Sato maintain the gap from Dixon.

Sato was the sexy pick from a lot of people this weekend. It wasn’t that much of a stretch, since he was starting on the Front Row, but I had many chosen before Sato. That shows how much I know. I did take some satisfaction that my pick (Graham Rahal) finished a strong third. Normally, my pick is the first to stuff their car into the fence.

But I really thought this was Dixon’s race to lose. Last year, Simon Pagenaud dominated like that and he was drinking milk at the end of the day. In the first stint, it was Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay that looked like the cars to beat. Then it was Dixon and Alexander Rossi. I still think that was going to be the fight for most of the day, but Rossi was taken out of contention by a very questionable call on Lap 131 (more on that later). Then, when he was driving out of desperation, Rossi went wide in Turn Two and slapped the wall. Until yesterday, Rossi had never finished worse than seventh in the Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, car No. 27 finished twenty-seventh and Rossi was obviously livid in his interview as he exited the Infield Care Center.

But Sato never went away. Although he ran near the front for most of the day, he never officially led until Lap 158. But surprisingly, Sato led the second most laps behind Dixon (twenty-seven). He officially took the lead when Zach Veach pitted on Lap 185. Then Spencer Pigot lost it coming out of Turn Four. At first, he spun and hit the outside wall. He then darted across the track, headed for the pit entrance. He hit the attenuator and the end of the pit wall dead-on with the side of his car. The force of the impact lifted Pigot’s car airborne and the car went back onto the main straightaway. Some speculated that there would be a red flag, but it did not come (more on that later, also). The race finished under caution and Takuma Sato is now a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, becoming the twentieth driver to win the race multiple times.

TV Coverage: From what I saw on social media, I am in the vast minority – but I thought NBC did a very good job. Were there a couple of gaffes? Of course, but I defy anyone to find a live five-hour sporting event that doesn’t have some flubs somewhere along the way.

There was an entertaining segment with Mario Andretti being interviewed by Danica Patrick and Mike Tirico. Later in the pre-race show, Marty Snider had a very candid previously recorded interview with Alexander Rossi. You may or may not like Rossi, but you can’t say he gives canned answers to questions. He tells you exactly what’s on his mind. I find that type of candor very refreshing in this age of the automaton.

On the negative side, I would like for someone to explain to me what Rutledge Wood brings to the broadcast. We were subjected to him last year, but I could just fast-forward through his parts while watching the replay after we returned from the race. This year, we had to endure him live. If given the choice, I think I would prefer a LiMu Emu commercial to a Rutledge Wood segment. They need to leave him home next May.

I can’t understand why fans were griping so much about NBC’s coverage. They complained about too many commercials, bad camera angles, awful announcing and just about anything else you could think of. About halfway through the race, I found this gem of a post on Facebook. I have removed the name of the one that posted it, and altered the profile picture to protect the innocent. The content of the post is original.

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First of all, do fans expect a commercial-free broadcast? If so, that’ll cost money – and we know how thrilled some fans are about NBC Sports Gold. And do people seriously want ABC back? How short are the memories of some of these fans? Do they not recall the sleep-inducing effects of Scott Goodyear and Eddie Cheever? Can they not remember races that were joined as the field was taking the green flag, or broadcasts that ended with the winning driver still in the car? How about missing a fourth of a race because an LPGA event went long? Do you remember those times? I do, and I don’t want to go back to them.

NBC gives IndyCar the exposure it needs, but they aren’t in it to serve IndyCar fans. They are in it to make money. The low ratings that IndyCar still brings mean they cannot charge top-dollar for ad time. So they have to sell more ads at a lower rate.

I was pleased with what NBC did for IndyCar in 2019, in their first full season as the exclusive broadcast partner. Had this been a normal year, I think 2020 would have continued the momentum they had in 2019. With this strange year, I just hope they will come back after 2021, when the current contract is up. Otherwise, you may be finding IndyCar races on Velocity or some other obscure channel. Then fans will really have something to gripe about.

Pre-Race Ceremonies: There were some hits and misses in the pre-race ceremonies. As far as I’m concerned, I hope yesterday was the last that we will see of the Singing Surgeons. I get it that they represent workers on the front-line, but I wasn’t overly impressed with them on the telecast that NBC did back in May on the original Race Day. I was less impressed with them yesterday. They need to stick with their day jobs.

I also found the music playing along with driver introductions to be more than annoying. I’m not a big fan of this relatively new tradition of driver introductions, anyway. But it seemed especially awkward watching the drivers wave to fans that were not there. I think that could have been scratched for this year.

One thing that was very normal yesterday was how quiet the place was during the playing of Taps. It was the same as it is every year when there are more than 300,000 people on the grounds – you could hear a pin drop. I’m always amazed how even the most obnoxious drunk will go silent at that moment and it is one of my favorite pre-race moments.

My top favorite pre-race moment did not disappoint yesterday. Jim Cornelison belted out another stirring rendition of (Back Home Again in) Indiana. The first three years he did it was with the accompaniment of the Purdue All-American Marching Band. With no band yesterday for safety reasons, he sang it a cappella and didn’t miss a note. I hope Cornelison keeps coming back year after year. Some would prefer to play a recorded Jim Nabors on into the future. As much as I loved Jim Nabors singing it, Cornelison does a slightly different version that is just as stirring. I felt goose-bumps as he belted out his version, as if I was sitting in my seats.

The Thunderbirds were very impressive and right on time for both flyovers. It’s a shame they can’t be available on Memorial Day weekend, but that special weekend calls for them to be at other events across the country.

I appreciated Roger Penske’s short speech to the fans, just before the command to start engines. However, in this year of an all-male field – I would have preferred the traditional Gentlemen, Start Your Engines, rather than the more contemporary Drivers.

The Three Andrettis: Kudos to whoever came up with the idea of having Mario Andretti drive the two-seater, with son Michael in the rear seat, while grandson Marco led the field from the pole position. It turned out to be the highlight of a forgettable day for Marco, as he finished an unremarkable thirteenth.

Chaotic Restarts: I don’t know if it’s because I was watching on television instead of being there, but it seemed like yesterday’s restarts were very chaotic. After James Davison had his spectacular front-brake explosion, the Lap 11 restart was more like what you would expect on Lap 191. Cars were darting everywhere and they were going four-wide on the backstretch. And drivers thought nothing about getting off in the grass that early on.

Hard Hits: Yesterday’s race had two of the hardest hits I’ve seen in a long time. On a Lap 92 restart, Conor Daly lost it coming out of Turn Four and hit the inside wall. Rookie Oliver Askew lost control when confronted with Daly’s tire smoke and slapped the retaining wall about as hard as I’ve seen anyone hit it and not sustain serious injury. Fortunately, Askew slapped the SAFER Barrier with the side of his car, instead of going in nose-first. Still, Askew was shaken up and had to collect himself before walking to the ambulance.

But the hit of the day belonged to the aforementioned Spencer Pigot near the end of the race. Every time they showed the replay of him slamming into the pit attenuator, it made me shudder. Pigot was awake and alert and was taken to Methodist Hospital for observation. Late last night, we learned he had been released. He is going to be very sore this week.

No Sandbags: Everyone kept wondering if the disparity in speed between Chevy and Honda was an illusion. Most, including myself, assumed that Chevy would be a major factor on Race Day, regardless of their apparent lack of speed in practice and qualifying. It was no illusion.

Josef Newgarden (fifth) and Pato O’Ward (sixth) were the only two Chevys in the Top-Ten. Simon Pagenaud was off-sequence and led for fourteen laps early on, but the Chevys were never really a factor. O’ Ward (who was named Rookie of the Year) and fellow rookie Rinus VeeKay ran near the front some, but Chevy has their work cut out for them.

The Call: I say this with the disclaimer that I am a big fan of Alexander Rossi, even though most of you know that already. But I thought he was on the wrong end of a very questionable call involving eventual race winner Takuma Sato. The two pitted at the same time. If you watch the replay, Rossi was released a split-second before Sato, or to give the benefit of the doubt – the exact same time. Sato launched ahead quickly and Rossi bumped wheels with Sato. Race Control penalized Rossi for Unsafe Release and sent him to the back of the field on the restart. Instead of swapping the lead with Scott Dixon, Rossi was suddenly put into desperation mode as he had about seventy laps left to get back to the front.

While driving desperately, Rossi lost control in Turn Two and slapped the wall and his day was done. Sato went on to win the race.

This should have been a no-call situation. If anything, I thought it might be Sato who was guilty of an infraction or maybe just a warning. But the penalty fell on Rossi, effectively taking him out of contention at that point. Races should not be decided by questionable calls by race officials.

No Red Flag: Again, I am on the minority side of this controversy – but I totally agreed with the decision to not red-flag the race with five laps to go, when Pigot had his accident.

I never liked the latest trend of red-flagging a race just to get a dramatic finish. To me, it is very contrived and artificial. For decades, races continued to run until the laps were completed. Dario Franchitti took the checkered flag under the yellow in all three of his Indianapolis wins. I may be wrong, but the first time I can recall red-flagging the Indianapolis 500 due to a late yellow flag was in 2014. They have done it once or twice more since then, and it just seems phony to me. IndyCar fans laugh at NASCAR for their Green-White-Checker concept, but red-flagging an IndyCar race just to try for a dramatic finish seems every bit as contrived as the G-W-C. I have an idea Roger Penske feels the same way and has instructed Race Control to try and avoid this practice.

If there is damage to fencing or the SAFER Barrier and it compromises safety, I can see stopping the race for that reason. But a benchmark needs to be set, whether it is five laps, eight laps or ten laps from the finish to where they will just run it out under yellow. I would prefer do that instead of taking an hour to fix a SAFER Barrier, just for a three-lap shootout.

On a Personal Note: From time to time I’ve mentioned my all-time best friend, Bruce Yarbro. He and I first met when we were four. We were in high school together, were roommates for a couple of years in college, and pledged the same fraternity together. Throughout almost sixty years, we never lost touch with each other. Bruce is the person that convinced me to start this site. He even set it up for me, so if you don’t care for the white type on a black field – blame Bruce. So, in a sense – he founded Oilpressure.com.

In April of 2019 I mentioned here that Bruce’s wife, Lisa, had been diagnosed with an extremely rare form of liver cancer. With everything he went through in his search to prolong her life, he learned a lot about the healthcare system and helped me to navigate how to get Susan scheduled to go to the Mayo Clinic next month.

Lisa lost her battle on Saturday morning. As Bruce said, she is now healed. She is survived by Bruce, their two daughters and a son, and a ten month-old granddaughter. Please put Bruce and his family in your thoughts and prayers.

All in All: I get it that IndyCar fans were not happy about having to miss this year’s Indianapolis 500. Many streaks ended, along with my own modest one. Even though my first Indianapolis 500 was in 1965, the last 500 I missed was in 2002. Many streaks were much longer than mine, so I get it.

But some said they were so mad about being kept out by IMS that they would boycott and not watch it. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face…

The thing is, despite all of the unusual circumstances – it was a pretty good race. It won’t go down as an instant classic, but I’ve been to many 500s that didn’t match up to yesterday’s race. If bold moves are your thing, this race had them. If you like varying pit strategies, this race had them. If you like compelling storylines, this race had them. If you like watching brave rookies who don’t know any better make unbelievable moves, this race had them. If you are one of those that like spectacular crashes, this race had them.

Unfortunately, many fans will remember the 2020 Indianapolis 500 for being moved to August, shutting out fans and not giving them manufactured drama via a red flag at the end. There was a lot more to yesterday’s race. Hopefully, history will be kinder to it than some of the fans have been.

George Phillips

17 Responses to “Random Thoughts on the Indianapolis 500”

  1. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    The Rossi penalty was pure BS. I have no idea why they came up with that. Boo to race control.

  2. In 2014 people complained because they red flagged the race with a few laps to go. In 2020 people complain because they didn’t red flag the race with a few laps to go. I give up.

    Rossi penalty was BS, when he was released the lane was clear.

  3. Keep the gimmicks in NASCAR! Indy is 500 miles only and needs to stay that way! The attenuator (not sure of the spelling on that) was very damaged, I was loving the race but it needed to end. I didn’t want to sit through an hour repair for a shootout only to end with a crash or something anyway. I already grow tired of that in NASCAR especially on the plate tracks.

    Not popular to say but Sato is the most disrespected 2 time champion of this race! And will likely continue to be. He is an absolute animal on this track and deserves respect. Certainly deserving of the same respcet that Dan Wheldon gets as a master of Indy. He could easily be a 3-4 time winner here. He’s rough around the edges of course but a great driver. He’s more likely to join the 4 time club than Helio at this point.

    Unpopular also to say, Paul Tracey and the windscreen, nauseating hearing about it saving every driver in every crash’s life. We get it Paul, you endorse the windscreen. As do I, but it’s here, it’s staying, why do we have to do this every week? I even saw people saying that James Davidson would have been killed and we would have lost 3 drivers today without it. I highly doubt it has saved any lives this season, even at Iowa, but it will.

    It was a great race, glad they got it in and hope it is a bit more normal next year!

  4. I’m OK with the concept of red-flagging the race to permit a finish under the green, but the controversy this year once again illustrates why IndyCar needs to state clearly the conditions under which the race will be red-flagged and the conditions under which it will finish under yellow. The need for this has been obvious since the 2014 500 was red-flagged, which without advance notice overturned a century of precedent. Changing the rules is fine, but you’ve got to give people notice! And the need for such a policy is even greater now that Penske owns the track and the series. Can you imagine what people would be saying now if that had been a Penske driver leading the race instead of Sato? If the policy is clear, there’s no cause for complaint, but making up rules on the fly is just asking for controversy.

  5. RLL does a smack-down of the big 3? If that isn’t a feel good moment I don’t know what is.

  6. Oh, also: Bring back ABC? Oh hell no. That can’t have been anything more than a casual viewer.

  7. My highlight of this Indy 500 is going to be David Letterman thanking Takuma Sato in the winner’s circle

  8. billytheskink Says:

    Thank you for your coverage this month, George. We all appreciate it I’m sure.

    On NBC, it did seem that many/most of the race’s big moments occurred during commercial but that may have just been bad luck. Fortunately, most of the ad breaks are shown with race coverage side-by-side, so these moments were not totally missed. NBC also seemed to have to fish through their replays for most of the incidents, rarely catching them live. Again, one can probably chalk this up to some bad luck. They weren’t perfect, but I thought they were competent. NBC does a far better job of making the race seem important than ABC did in its last 15-20 years.

    On commercials, there is an old adage of “good, fast, cheap… pick two” which for television may be repurposed as “good, cheap, ad-free… pick two.” Selling ads is NBC’s business and taking in TV revenue is a good chunk of Indycar’s business so this is where we are.

    On Chevrolet, this race reminded me of the 2015 race where Honda was in the position that Chevy was in this year. In 2015, Rahal and Marco drove perfect races to 5th and 6th as their motors simply didn’t allow them to challenge at the front. Similarly, this year, Newgarden and O’Ward were flawless and they both finished as high as they possibly could with their engines.

    On the Rossi call, I understand what race control was trying to do as that kind of contact on a busy pit lane can result in a lot of injured crew members. Even so, the penalized incident happened so fast that I struggle to fault anybody for it. I probably would not have made the call, given that conclusion.

    On the red flag issue, NBC and daylight may not have had time for the attenuator to be repaired/replace and the conclusion of the race under green. Even so, taking a likely hour or more to fix the attenuator for 3 laps max (2 laps more likely) of green flag racing seems a bit much. Should Indycar have a hard-and-fast rule on when a red flag can and cannot be thrown to allow a green flag finish? That would be good, but every red flag incident is different and requires different amounts of time to resolve. TV windows with limited flexibility put further pressure on red flag rules.

  9. Rick Johnson Says:

    George, I think you nailed it about the pre-race festivities and TV coverage. I, too, am not a fan of the Rutledge Wood features. As much as I loved Jim Nabors, we don’t need recordings of his renditions of BHAII. Jim Cornelison is an excellent successor, and I hope he comes back for years. For me, “Taps” is the most emotional part of the pre-race festivities, and I hope Ron Duncan returns for many years. His rendition (without the Purdue All-American Band) brings tears to my eyes.

    I don’t understand the complaints about NBC. They are not perfect, but they are awfully good. I guess we live in an age – especially with social media – in which people have freedom to complain and whine about things, and they sure do. I almost never read comments on social media, but I made the mistake of doing so a couple of days ago and saw that someone was complaining about Leigh Diffey because he didn’t speak with an “American accent.” Give me a break! We live in a time when many people are suffering – having lost loved ones or jobs because of COVID-19, or are otherwise dealing with health issues (as you, George, know all too well) or other issues…so the constant criticisms and griping about one trivial thing or another gets very old.

    I, too, disagreed with the Rossi penalty call, and was sorry that he wasn’t in the mix at the end.

    Lastly, I was glad we didn’t have a first-time winner yesterday, so that he didn’t have to experience his victory without the fans to cheer for him on his victory lap, or hear mostly silence when he was on the victory podium. I hope all the rookies from this year return next year so they can experience walking from Gasoline Alley to the pit area with the usual throng of people, or their first parade lap when they see the grandstands full of spectators.

    Let’s all hope we’ll be back at the race next year.

    • Rick Johnson Says:

      I neglected to mention…I, too, wish the starting commend was “Gentlemen, start you engines, not “Drivers…”

  10. James T Suel Says:

    The race was good in my opinion. On the pit call I did not want either driver called on that one. But Sato was in the far right lane and Rossi came into him. This kind of crop is the result of to many goofy rules! Closing the pit just to get everyone bunched up and pit at the same time is pure nonsense. This is supposed to be racing ,not a dam game. If your lucky and a yellow come when you are at pit entry you should be able to take advantage of it. I don’t like speed limit in the pits either. They have hit more crew with these rules than they ever did , when it was pure racing! Sato was flat out running Dixon at the end. His crew were telling him Sato did not have the fuel to finish, if true then they cost Dixon the win. There was only a 1 lap difference in there last pit lap. Bad call on Hulls part. It seems now that regardless of what takes place social me will light up with complaints. I never thought they would red flag it with that few laps and the damage to the pit retainer.

  11. I enjoyed the race and kudos to Takuma on his second 500 win. We sit on our couch below a nicely framed print of his attempted pass on Dario at the 2012 race. Now, if he could have just pulled off that pass. I do agree with Andrew in his posting about Sato not receiving the respect he deserves. And I don’t care if it is not a popular opinion.

    Am so glad that I am not the only one who thinks Rutledge Wood is a waste of time. At least he didn’t smirk yesterday during his air time. I just find him superficial and unnecessary. We have our own IndyCar pundits, so we do not need him at all. (Thanks, I feel better now).

    Thanks George for your postings!

  12. Carburetor Says:

    I thought this was a very entertaining race–not the best, but very entertaining. It would have been very interesting to see what would have/could have happened over the last 5 laps. I’m not sure Dixon could have caught Sato, but I think Rahal might have caught Dixon. And how about Ferrucci? 29 passes on the day–the kid is really something.

    I value NBC’s professionalism and how they treat this broadcast. Would I like less commercials–of course, who wouldn’t? But it is much, much better than ABC. The one change I’d love to see though, is to bring back Jon Beekhuis–he is fabulous at analysis and strategy–I miss his insights.

    I’m already looking forward to May. Let’s hope this virus is under control and we can restore this event to the pageantry and prominence we so love. Thanks George for your post. Hoping all is going as well as can be in your household.

  13. Mark Wick Says:

    George, it was Roger Penske who asked Michael to be Mario’s passenger in the two seater. Also, Doug Boles issued an official proclamation as president of IMS, complete with all the “and, WHEREASs” on Saturday making it official that anyone who watched the race on TV, or listened to the radio broadcast, could continue to count their streak of attending races. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jFhL3M3PC0

  14. scott kenney Says:

    This was your best column ever!!! Perfect!

  15. Good recap George. I pretty much concur on everything.

    Every year I have the same three buddies over for my “ Annual Indy 500 viewing party.” It’s the one time a year I get to reclaim my basement and the big TV away from my kids! My 3 buddies are not race fans at all. My one friend has an ongoing joke of asking which row Hornish is starting in every year because that was the only driver he knew of at first because they both share the same hometown. They really look at it as a time that we can get together and eat catered chipotle and hang for a few hours. Every year I observe them becoming more “invested” in the race. They pick drivers to win, make comments about yellows that appear status quo ( James Davison) etc. they remembered the duel between Sato and Dario before Sato making the move that ended his chances, to his victory in 2017. I might just make them races fans yet for other races.

    We all got a little roar out of one of the wrecks and PT asked Danica about being in a wreck like that but quickly stated he had never been in one. I don’t think it was meant to be disrespectful on PT’s part but it just sounded funny to us.

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