|Popular Indy 500 Winner Tony Kanaan|
For the second year in a row, the Indianapolis 500 was clearly a better race than the Charlotte 600 – and it wasn’t even close. The 500 featured repeated “wow” moments, the type of excitement on the race track NASCAR’s Brain France openly lusts after. Not a single “big one,” the multi-car accident France’s series seems to have mistaken for wow, marred the 500.
Indy featured a record 14 leaders, a record 68 lead changes (doubling last year’s previous mark) and the racing was close throughout. There were only five cautions for 21 laps and it took just 2:40 to run the race at a record 187 mph. In contrast, Charlotte saw 12 leaders and 24 lead changes and took 4 hours and 35 minutes to run, plus two red flags pushing the elapsed time to more than five hours. There were 11 cautions for 61 laps.
It’s been five years since open wheel racing stepped back from the brink of destruction and signed a truce ending its civil war. It was the second 500 featuring the new spec Indy race car and while I’m still not a fan of the car, it sure puts on a good race. The 500 followed on the heels of the IndyCar street race in Brazil, considered by many to have been one of the best road races in history and perhaps the best street race ever.
IndyCar was openly hoping for an American driver to win the race, but it got someone even better, Tony Kanaan. While more than half the fans had long since fled Charlotte Motor Speedway when Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag approaching midnight, many of the 200,000 or so fans at Indianapolis stayed long after the finish, alternately chanting “TK! TK! TK!” and “Tony! Tony! Tony!” Kanaan’s victory had elements of Dale Earnhardt’s victory in the Daytona 500, with crew members and driver’s from other teams lining up to congratulate him. Even though the race ended under caution for the second straight year, nary a sole was calling for a green-white-checker, not even the second and third place finishers.
AJ Allmendinger, a NASCAR exile, led 14 laps on the way to a seventh place finish. He is the first driver to move from stock cars to Indy cars in many years, although it wasn’t entirely his idea. But he may not be the last. Kurt Bursch tested at Indy in one of Michael Andretti’s cars and defending NASCAR championship Brad Keselowski was obviously impressed with the 500 from his perch on Roger Penske’s War Wagon. Both have said they’d be interested in running a future 500.
The big question now; can IndyCar keep it going? Of course not everything is hunky dory. Only 33 cars attempted to qualify for the 500 – for the 33 starting positions. One of those teams has already announced it will be shutting its doors.
Up next is the Detroit Grand Prix. Last year the race on Belle Isle staged by Penske turned into an embarrassment, with the race being stopped after the track was ripped up by the cars and several drivers openly questioned if the race should continue. Penske can be expected to have corrected that problem. The series also is trying something different, breaking up the race into two shorter sprint events, one on Saturday and one on Sunday.
Longer term, Derrick Walker, who is taking over as head of operations and competition at IndyCar, says one of his goals is to re-introduce more opportunities for technological innovation. That’s music to the ears of many Indy fans, who believe innovation is what the sport has been missing.
For the sake of IndyCar – and NASCAR – let’s hope it happens.