Tuesday, May 28, 2013

500 miles for the ages, and a sweet win

Mark Glover’s AutoGlo car reviews also can be seen on the Business page of The Sacramento Bee’s website – via the “GALLERY: Reviews of new cars” link at www.sacbee.com/business

Sacramento, California – Still jet-lagged after a quick-in/quick-out weekend in Indianapolis … but boy, was it worth it!

I’ve maintained for a long time that the 1960 Indianapolis 500 was the greatest of all-time, thanks to a spine-tingling duel between Rodger Ward and eventual winner Jim Rathmann.  They battled wheel to wheel in those ponderous front-engine roadsters, swapping the lead more than a dozen times over the last half of the race.

That was the greatest … until last Sunday.

The 97th running of the Indy 500 topped them all, and I have a pretty fair perspective, having traveled to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the world-famous race since 1961.  Simply put, you can’t ignore 68 lead changes, relentless dicing among cars during prolonged green-flag periods and a new race record of nearly 190 miles per hour.

And the cherry on top: immensely popular Tony Kanaan holding on for the win, a result that created shrieks of joy the Indy faithful.

Prior to last Sunday’s race, there was considerable talk that the Indy 500 “needed” a win by an American driver to help the 500 regain its once-undisputed status as the king of all motor racing events.  Hogwash.

Just before the last restart on Sunday, the public address announcer at IMS asked how many in the crowd wanted to see leader Ryan Hunter-Reay, an American, win the race.  There was a subdued cheer.  And then the PA man asked how many in the crowd were pulling for the second-place driver from Brazil, Kanaan.

I thought the grandstands were going to collapse under the weight of the roar from tens of thousands of throats.

And whatever else you might say about the IndyCar series having too many road courses or a too-timid attitude on other high-speed ovals, these current-generation cars work at their very best at the crown-jewel event of the series, the Indianapolis 500.  On the mostly flat, 2.5-mile Indy oval, the lead car punches a very big hole in the air, creating a draft hallway for the trailing car or cars.

It’s virtually impossible to hold the lead for more than two laps.  Eddie Cheever, the 1998 Indy 500 winner and one of the ABC-TV commentators in the booth during the 500 telecast, said it best: You can’t run away and hide in these cars.  Does it make for more passing and perpetually exciting racing?  You bet.

And how could you not feel good for Kanaan?  He was the poster boy for bad karma at Indy until his magnificent start-to-finish drive on Sunday.  He started 12th and was running at the front within a few laps.  He mixed it up at the front all day, slicing and dicing amid a buzzing group of risk-taking leaders.  Loved it.

Naturally, there were some who wailed when Kanaan clinched the race due to late wall contact by three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti.  Some critics called for a green-white-checkered flag arrangement, a la NASCAR, the better to “guarantee” an exciting finish for the fans.

Don’t count me among that group.  And here’s why:

Through 97 races and 102 years, the standard at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been how drivers cope with the circumstances of going 500 miles, and no more.  You want to be counted in the pantheon of driving greats – Wilbur Shaw, A.J. Foyt, Bill Vukovich, Al Unser and Rick Mears among them – then you should be held to that standard, and that standard alone.  You have 500 miles to make your mark, no matter what.

Indy is all about tradition, and it seems to me that if you know going in that everyone is operating under the same rules to reach racing’s zenith – just like all those drivers of years past – there’s no reason to complain when the 500th mile is crossed.

Crashes happen.  Rain falls.  Soul-crushing bad luck occurs.  Every driver deals with it.  No second chances at Indy when the 200th lap is done?  I’m good with it.

Sure, NASCAR does create super-close finishes by running one, two or three “extra” periods at the end of a race.  But I can recall numerous times when those extra periods bring forth a very lucky or undeserving winner, maybe one who managed to crawl through a 10-car wreck at the finish.  Drama?  Yes.  Racing in its purist form?  No.

Going back to 1960, Rathmann won that Indy 500 when Ward had to back off with just a few laps remaining, the result of a badly worn tire that was likely to blow.  Back then, a 150 mph blowout and blast into the walls of IMS were likely to end your ability to walk.  Or end your life.

Rathmann won going away at the end, going exactly 500 miles.  It was a sweet win and his only Indy 500 triumph.  Last Sunday, it was sweet for Tony Kanaan.  And 500 miles for the ages.

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