Indianapolis 500: Once in a Lifetime

indycar-2013-indy-500-kanaan-victoryThere were so many storylines heading into the Indianapolis 500. There was Dario and Helio’s drive for a fourth Indy 500 victory. The Andretti Autosport cars were dominating practice with Marco Andretti and rookie Carlos Munoz looking particularly strong. And the single-car effort of owner/driver Ed Carpenter beat all of big teams to score the pole.

But as the 500 tends to do, the pre-race storylines get thrown to the wind. It was a race that ran green for a long stretch but saw the field stay fairly bunched and tons of passing as a result. It was only fitting that the race was won on a daring three-wide pass as Tony Kanaan won his first Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

The race started off with a bang. We only made it four laps before JR Hildebrand spun into the wall. I wonder if anyone asked JR whether it’s worse to crash out very early while running in the top ten or when leading with one turn to go. The original start and the subsequent restart benefitted Kanaan most of all. His prowess on restarts allowed him to quickly climb up from his 12th place start.

If it wasn’t for that early caution, this race may never have gone Kanaan’s way. At one point, the race went 134 laps without a caution. That green-flag span covered from the restart on lap 61 to the late caution for Graham Rahal’s spin out of Turn 2. During that run, there were 48 lead changes. You’d think that such a long green-flag run would string the field out but there was plenty of passing.

indycar-2013-indy-500-kanaan-munoz-rhrOverall, the race saw 14 different drivers lead at the line and 68 official lead changes which were both record for the race. However, it was the last pass that was the most important. On the restart after the Rahal caution, Ryan Hunter-Reay was passed three-wide with Carlo Munoz on the outside and Kanaan on the inside. Positioning and nerve allowed Kanaan through and into the lead. It wasn’t a moment too soon as Dario Franchitti hit the wall out of Turn 1 bringing out the caution that ended the race.

Kanaan’s first Indy 500 win was in his 12th attempt to win the race and tied him for the most starts before his first 500 win (with Sam Hanks who won in 1957). Kanaan set a couple of outright personal records too. His win was the fastest in 500 history at 187.433 MPH and the most different times a winner led during the race at 15. He also became the first driver to win the race while driving a car numbered 11.

Rookie Carlos Munoz finished 2nd after getting the upper-hand on RHR with that pass on the outside at the restart. Hunter-Reay held on to third. Marco Andretti was a popular pick before the race and led 15 times (a record for a non-winner) but only managed 4th. Justin Wilson was the best Honda driver on the day in 5th.

Helio Castroneves had the best drive for four race with a 6th place finish. If not for a loose seat belt that forced him to go off sequence with his pitstops, AJ Allmendinger would have been a contender for the win. Instead, he crossed the line 7th. Simon Pagenaud was the next Honda runner in 8th. Charlie Kimball scored his second-straight top ten in the 500 with a 9th. And polesitter Ed Carpenter just didn’t have the pace today and finished the day in 10th.

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indycar-2013-indy-500-sato-franchitti-hondaOne story that’s going to start picking up momentum is the utter domination of Honda at Indy. Sure, Takuma Sato has been carrying the Honda banner on the road courses but the Japanese powered teams were thoroughly outclassed during the whole month of May.

We’re too busy talking about Kanaan and that exciting race to worry about what this weekend meant for the engine battle between Honda and Chevy but I’d imagine that this will be a story soon. When Chip Ganassi isn’t contending for wins, he’s likely to be vocal about the disparity between the two engines. It’s not like this is a new story, either. Derrick Walker’s first task as Competition Director may be equalizing engine performance.

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One of the more interesting race day stories was that Ana Beatriz received a marriage proposal from her boyfriend of five months. She told the press that she told him that she would give him an answer after the race. As of writing, there isn’t any word as to her answer.

I’ll give Ana’s boyfriend some credit. Proposing before the race beats the clichéd post-race proposal.

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The Speedway was pretty packed on race day but that was more the exception than the rule for the month of May in Indy. Over the two weeks that the Speedway was open for running ahead of the 500, it was fairly empty. Speed Channel’s Robin Miller suggests that the month of May that was compressed to two weeks needs to be shortened further to about one week.

indycar-2013-indy-500-speedwayCurrently, the schedule is a week of running before Pole Day and Bump Day. After eight straight days of running, the IndyCars take four days off before Carb Day, Parade Day and Race Day. Miller’s proposal is three days of practice (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday), the whole field qualifying on Wednesday in primetime, Carb Day and Pole Shootout on Friday and the race on Sunday.

While I don’t think that Miller’s proposed schedule is perfect, I can’t disagree that the schedule needs tweaking. That week of downtime between qualifying the race is an absolute killer, especially when there’s nothing to build anticipation for the race. Putting qualifying closer to the race is a good call. I’m not sure the right way to put together the Indy schedule but Miller’s schedule is better than what we have now.

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Now that we’ve gotten through the race at the Speedway, I think we can talk about all the talk of holding a race on the road course. I’d rather not give this story the time of day but I get the distinct feeling that someone thinks this is a good idea.

The problem is that the Indy road course made for some fairly dull Formula One races. While the DW12 has run some very exciting races, who knows if they can salvage anything from that track.

Recent NASCAR and MotoGP events at the Speedway also make me hesitant to think that the locals will take to a second IndyCar race at IMS. While there is certainly a demand for the 500, adding a second race in May is just going to get overshadowed by the 500. Heck, they could barely get people out for NASCAR’s “super weekend” at IMS. I don’t like IndyCar’s chances of success with increasing the number of races at the track, even if it’s the flagship IndyCar Series.

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By the way, next week is the first of three doubleheader weekends that IndyCar will be running this season. No, this isn’t my tease for the next race or my explanation of coverage. That’s in the next section.

This week, IndyCar finalized the running procedure for qualifying for double-header weekends. For the first race (the Saturday race), qualifying will be the standard three-round knockout qualifying that is used for all typical road and street course races.

For the second race, the field will be a two-group format. One group will be a formed from the odd-numbered positions from the combined practice standings while the other will be the even-numbered positions. The two groups will each get a 12-minute qualifying session. The results will be combined to set the grid for the second race.

After IndyCar’s last experiment with doubleheaders in the 2011 Firestone Twin 275s at Texas Motor Speedway, this format is a welcome change. It’s more fair to have a pair of qualifying sessions than to have a random selection or even a finish order inversion.

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indycar-2012-detroit-trackAs I just mentioned, the next race covers the whole of next weekend. It’s the first double-header race weekend of the season. The cars make the short hop from Indianapolis to Belle Isle in Detroit for the Chevrolet Indy Dual. The track has been rebuilt since last year’s event after it fell apart near the end of the race. They’ll also switch the track layout to replace a twisty section in the first half of the track to include a couple of short straights and some better passing opportunities.

I’d suggest that this race will be different from the 500 since the road-course guys weren’t really upfront but last year’s Detroit race featured the Hondas at the front like the 500. It’s entirely possible that the Hondas come to life. I think it’s far more likely that we see another Chevy victory. Since he’s been far too quiet lately, I’d watch out for that Will Power fellow. I have no real reason to make that guess apart from that he doesn’t go long periods of time without winning.

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