Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hunter-Reay showed daring, skill of a champion

The difference between first and second place in Sunday’s 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 was 0.06, or in more practical terms, about $1.7 million in prize money.

But I can virtually guarantee you that all-American-boy winner Ryan Hunter-Reay and second-place finisher Helio Castroneves were not thinking about prize money or personal health when they staged their electrifying duel in the closing laps of the 500.  For sheer nerve, bravery and driving skill, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything rivaling Sunday’s shootout under sunny Indiana skies.

Such is the importance of Indy that both Hunter-Reay and Castroneves threw caution to the curb and took turns pulling off sensational high-speed, high-risk passes in the sharp corners of Turns 1 and 3.

They were the kinds of passes you typically expect to see right before two cars touch and are sent blasting into the wall.

Yet, somehow, both made their cars stick.

Hunter-Reay wins the trophy for the most brazen move by diving nearly into the Turn 3 grass to whistle under Castroneves just a few miles from the checkered flag. From my seat amid the roar of the fans, I didn’t give Hunter-Reay a prayer of making that one stick.

The fact that he did is more than enough to make the case: Hunter-Reay flat-out earned this one.

But oh, what might have been.  It was that kind of race.

First off, the race stayed green for nearly three-quarters of the distance…absolutely incredible.  If someone had asked me to bet a nickel on that before the green flag fell on Sunday, I would have held on tight to my 5 cents.

What ifs?  How much time do you have?

What if Marco Andretti had forced the issue just one-tenth of a second more with Castroneves on the last restart?

What if pole-sitter Ed Carpenter had not been taken to the wall in a foolish late-race crash?  Carpenter seemed to have a car that was arguably the most capable of taking on Hunter-Reay in the late going.

What if Juan Pablo Montoya, who was getting the best fuel mileage among the front-runners, had not received a speeding penalty in the pits, a mistake apparently made while he was struggling to remove a tear-off strip from his helmet?
It's a 500-mile race, but it can turn on a dime.

For sure, it pains to think that Castroneves came within an eye-blink of making Indy 500 history.

Had he beaten Hunter-Reay to the line, Castroneves would have matched A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as Indy’s only four-time winners. Had Castroneves won, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway PR machine would have been gearing up this very day to promote Helio’s effort to become the first five-time winner in 2015.

Bottom line: Helio is still young enough to get Indianapolis 500 wins Nos. 4 and 5.

And while I like a good story and deeply enjoy Indy’s rich history, I have to give it to Ryan Hunter-Reay.  He showed all the courage and skill one expects of an Indy 500 champion.

And that, my friends, trumps history, ambitions and everything else.

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