Here’s to the guys who didn’t drink the milk after the Indianapolis 500, for this day was very much about them, too. But we’ll get to that in a minute. Start with the winner, because we should.
There are two things for sure about Takuma Sato’s victory Sunday. No. 1, they must have been dancing in Tokyo as the checkered flag waved, or they would have been, anyway, if it wasn’t before dawn Monday morning. Pretty impressive to be the first of 4.6 billion Asians to win the Indianapolis 500.
And No. 2, the Andretti Curse obviously doesn’t count when one of them is the guy in charge. This makes five victories for Michael Andretti as an owner, so never mind the infamous Indy 500 record of the clan as drivers—now 1-for-72, by the way, with Marco’s eighth place Sunday.
But in a race that had 15 different leaders, what made this day memorable are some of the men who didn’t get to the finish line first.
Here’s to Fernando Alonso, the Formula One rock star, who captivated Indianapolis all month and was in position to make a run at winning, until his engine blew on the 180th lap. When he climbed out of his dead car, the Speedway gave him a standing ovation in every turn. His cameo here—if that’s what it was—turned out to be the best anyone could have hoped.
“I came here basically to prove myself, to challenge myself,” he said when it was over. “I know that I can be as quick as anyone in an F1 car. I didn’t know if I can be as quick as anyone in an IndyCar.”
He must have realized he could Sunday when he sped by the tower scoreboard, looked up, and saw his No. 29 at the top. What was he thinking as he rushed past at 220 miles an hour? He hoped someone from his team was getting a snapshot of it, “because I want that picture at home.”
Alonso’s parting words to Indianapolis: “I didn’t win, but I will drink a little bit of milk.”
All we can do is hope he comes back another year.
And here’s to Helio Castroneves. Two-tenths of a second. That’s how close he came to his fourth Indianapolis 500, a near-miss with history that will gnaw at him. Trying to frantically get past Sato in the last miles, it was like trying to slip by a missile. Instead of a fourth win, he settled for a third runner-up, but how the masses roared for one last pass.
“I try everything I could with three laps to go, two laps to go,” he said. “Man, he just took off, and that’s it.
“Finishing second again sucks. So close to get the fourth. I really am trying. I will not give up this dream. I know it’s going to happen.”
Here’s to Tony Kanaan. This was the 13th race he's led. The only other driver who can say that is A.J. Foyt, which is always a good neighborhood to share.
Here’s to Max Chilton. Led for 50 laps. How many of you had him on your pick-a-winner list?
Here’s to Ed Jones, a rookie who finished third, and sat gazing at the final results afterward, the picture of frustration. “I was just having a look ... saying, `Why didn’t I get up there?’ I should be up there.”
And finally, here’s to the luckiest man in the state of Indiana Sunday. Scott Dixon won’t get his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy, and went from the pole to finishing 32nd. But no one should have left the premises feeling more blessed.
It was on the 53rd lap that Jay Howard hit the wall coming out of the first turn. Dixon tried to slip under Howard but ran out of room and into Howard. His car went airborne, careened into the inside fence, and more or less disintegrated around him. They had to red-flag the race to clean up the mess.
“A pretty nasty accident,” Castroneves said, and he ought to know, since he drove under Dixon’s car flying above him. “I duck. I close my eyes.”
All that, and Dixon walked away with only an injured ankle. It was a testament to the safety features built into modern Indy cars. There has not been a race day driver fatality here in 44 years. With a less well-designed car, there could have been one Sunday.
Later, standing outside the track hospital, Dixon talked about the smash-up as matter-of-factly as if it were a fender-bender. Bottom line: He zigged when he should have zagged.
“I tried to make a decision, I was hoping he was going to stay high. I just had nowhere to go. At that point you’re just kind of riding along,” he said. “Everything kind of slows down. You could see it coming. At that speed you can’t move the car that fast. You expect big hits to come. The second one into the inside wall was pretty hefty. The car doesn’t look too pretty, that’s for sure.”
He had already watched the replay. It must have been surreal, watching the car fly through the air, thinking that was him.
“Oh no, I was there,” he said. “I definitely lived it.
“I’m walking out of here. A little bit of a limp, but I’m walking out of here.”
And after all that, how did he feel, really? Shaken? Stunned?
“Bummed. I wish I were still out there racing.”
Dixon may have been the fastest in qualifying, but he found trouble in lots of places this month. The short chute on the south end. The drive-thru lane at Taco Bell. He had a car fly apart and a gun put to his head.
“It’s been a wild ride. But I love coming to this place.”
He said he couldn’t wait to return next year, flashed thumbs up, hopped in a golf cart and was gone. Meanwhile, you could tell by the noise that the race had re-started. In the end, there was not only a winner to enchant an entire country—“This will be mega-big, I cannot imagine how big it's going to be,” Sato said of Japan—but also those who followed with good stories to tell.
Plus, the rain held off. All in all, a pretty good day for the Indianapolis 500 at the age of 101.