Benner/Sports and Indianapolis 500 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Auto Racing and Sports Business

Greatest Spectacle has highs, lows

June 1, 2009

Of this and that while wondering what happened to the month of May:

Rex Early, former Marion County Republican chairman, is the author of one of my all-time-favorite lines. Said Rex, "It's a mighty thin pancake that doesn't have two sides." Early even wrote a book using that as the title.

So it was that I felt like I was flipping a flapjack on the Tuesday following the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race.

All in all, I believed it was a pretty good race. The weather held; the economy didn't keep droves of spectators away; likable Helio Castroneves brought home not only a victory, but a compelling story; Danica Patrick provided a strong run to third; and it was a relatively safe race, although two drivers hurt is still two too many.

Surrounded by happy fans, supplied with good food and beverage, and fortunate to have an outstanding vantage point, I went away once again convinced I'd experienced the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

But I admit I didn't view the race with a critical eye.

My pal Robin Miller did.

Miller, the former Indianapolis Star columnist who now writes for speed.com, went on John Michael Vincent's WNDEAM 1260 radio show and amplified—loudly—what he'd written in a column about the 500.

Basically, he assailed Director of Race Operations Brian Barnhart for his inept handling of the race, especially the start—all two of them—along with the race itself (which Miller termed boring), and finally the issue of Castroneves' celebration that included, before the traditional Victory Circle ceremonies, the driver's now trademark scaling of the fence. Miller claimed that Barnhart and IMS President Joie Chitwood demanded that Castroneves go to Victory Circle first and tried to prevent him from parking his race car on the track.

As for the start—again, both of them—Miller, who has sources everywhere, claimed Barnhart had declared at the closed-doors drivers' meeting on Saturday that Castroneves be allowed to lead the first lap and that the entire field spread out rather than bunch up in the 11 rows of three for the flying start.

In any case, both starts were horrible and the restart still got botched when Mario Moraes tangled with Marco Andretti.

Miller, whom I respect as one of motorsports' most knowledgeable commentators, had many more highly critical opinions of Barnhart, the race in particular, and the Indy Racing League in general.

Shortly after Miller concluded his radio remarks, IMS publicist Ron Green called in. It was time to flip the flapjack. Green claimed Miller's comments were grossly exaggerated, bolstered by Miller's "agenda" to continue as open-wheel racing's most vocal critic. Green claimed the start is driven by safety concerns and, after the finish, no one wanted to prevent Castroneves from climbing the fence to celebrate. But they wanted him to do it after the traditions of Victory Circle (getting the swig of milk and the wreath of flowers).

It made for great radio. The truth probably lies somewhere in the pancake batter between. Like Miller, I was disappointed in the start. How could you not be? Mulligans and do-overs are the stuff of NASCAR. The Indy 500's signature moment didn't come off.

At the end, the crowd—and ABC's cameras—definitely wanted to see Castroneves become Spiderman. Yet there ought to be respect for the Speedway's traditions.

Is Barnhart the source for all that ails the IRL? Don't know him and can't say. But I do know that what drives Miller's strong opinions are his passion for open-wheel racing and his intense desire to see it recapture its glory. He made it clear he believes Barnhart is part of the problem and not the solution.

I can't speak for 300,000 spectators, but my feeling was that most left the Speedway happy and didn't feel like they got shortchanged. Still, Indy shouldn't be just a good race. It needs to be the best race.

Now, on a totally positive note, if you're a race fan, this year's Centennial Celebration race program is a must-have. The back half of the book captures the Speedway's beginning and evolution with fascinating stories and photos. A packet inside included replicas of old race tickets and credentials and even a copy of the contract between the Wabash Clay Co. and owner Carl Fisher to purchase bricks.

While supplies last, the program is on sale at the Hall of Fame Museum gift shop. Congratulations to editors Dawn DeBellis, Ryan Long and Mandy Welsh and the writers (especially Mark Dill and Donald Davidson) and photographers for assembling such an outstanding keepsake.

I hope it's something my grandchildren will want to look at during the Speedway's Sesquicentennial Celebration.
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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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