The 2019 Indy 500 Was a Reminder That Racing Can Be Fun

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
the 2019 indy 500 was a reminder that racing can be fun

I’m a casual racing fan, at best. That may sound weird coming from a car guy, but I’ve come to learn over the years that being into cars doesn’t obligate you to be into racing.

I’ve had stints of deeper fandom in the past. Teenage me talked my dad into taking me to Indianapolis for the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race way back in the ‘90s, and I used to risk ridicule (particularly the R-word, indicating a crimson-hued neck) from my suburban peers by wearing NASCAR t-shirts to high school.

But times and interests change. The NASCAR and IndyCar drivers I grew up watching got old and retired. NASCAR kept messing with the rules while Tony George damn near killed Indy car racing with the CART/IRL split. Furthermore, I’ve always gravitated towards baseball, football, basketball, and hockey even more so than racing, and there’s only so much time on any given Sunday. Sometimes other sports took precedence.

I realize the above “confession” may bother a certain subset of auto journalists on Twitter who brag about getting up at 3 a.m. to watch F1 races, and another subset of auto journalists on Twitter who derisively refer to stick-and-ball sports as “sportsball.” To which I say, I like what I like.

I bring this up because even as a casual fan, there are two races I make sure to watch each year: The Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. I dragged my ass out of bed before 8 a.m. after a night out in Sin City to watch this year’s running (figuratively – the hotel TV was easily viewed from a prone position) because I can’t let a Memorial Day weekend slip by without watching the greatest spectacle in racing.

Important races like Daytona and Indy are a little like the Super Bowl – you’re not guaranteed to see an entertaining event. Just like some Super Bowls end in blowouts (or an ugly yet close game like the 2019 version), some 500s end up being snoozefests in which a dominant car/driver leads a parade for three hours before taking the checker.

Or you get an interminable crash-fest like this year’s Daytona – a race that seemingly would never end.

That’s not what happened at the Brickyard last Sunday. Those who tuned into NBC’s first broadcast (I have mixed feelings on how that went, see below) were indeed treated to a race in which the winning driver was dominant, but they also got to see a master class in how NOT to conduct pit stops, a furious charge from Alexander Rossi that included a shaking-fist salute at over 200 miles per hour, angry Graham Rahal doing his best impression of a NASCAR driver after Sebastien Bourdais squeezed him out of the race and created the day’s only “big” crash, and a race in which caution flags were mostly kept shelved.

Perhaps more importantly to those who value drama and unpredictability, as dominant as pole-sitter and eventual winner Simon Pagenaud was, the race was still in doubt. Even as Pagenaud continued to lead lap after lap, several other drivers remained in the mix for the win. It wasn’t just Rossi, charging furiously after an equipment failure during refueling cost him time. Scott Dixon’s fuel-saver strategy kept him in the mix, and others like Josef Newgarden and Ed Carpenter were hanging around, waiting for the right chance to take the lead – and hold it until the end.

Indeed, my ladyfriend asked me to predict the winner at about the halfway mark, and I said it would be Dixon, even though he wasn’t in the top three at that point. I figured his ability to stretch fuel would earn him the win – Pagenaud was in attack mode all race and burning fuel faster than those behind him due to his position as the leader, while Rossi’s charge was probably putting him a position where he might need to pit at an inopportune moment.

Instead, a mostly flag-free race got red flagged after Bourdais and Rahal’s tangle with 20 laps to go created a mess. Pagenaud was the most obvious benefactor – he’d no longer have to worry about having enough fuel to finish. All he’d have to do is hold off Rossi. Which he did, but not before the two swapped the lead several times, with Pagenaud making a ballsy pass just before Turn 4 to take the lead for good.

It wasn’t a perfect race. The pit-road hijinks would be comical if it wasn’t for the danger involved for the drivers and crews. Helio Castroneves rear-ending another driver in pit lane? A crewman for Jordan King taking a tire to the back of the knee? It looked like amateur hour at times.

But a race need not be perfect to be entertaining. And this 500 was. Yes, by my informal and unscientific count, NBC seemed to be heavier on commercial breaks than predecessor ABC, and occasionally seemed heavy-handed in promoting the sponsors. That was annoying, no matter how necessary sponsorship is for paying the bills.

Announcer Leigh Diffey occasionally seemed to over-hype minor moments and talked over the first lap (the best announcers shut up and let the engines roar for the first couple of minutes), and the switching back and forth from the booth to Mike Tirico and former racers Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. down below was sometimes awkward. Not to mention that the broadcast was a little too focused on those who had a chance for the Borg Warner trophy – drivers with interesting stories who weren’t running up front were all but ignored. I can’t believe NBC couldn’t find 30 seconds out of a three-hour race to talk a bit about Pippa Mann or whoever.

That said, Patrick’s and Earnhardt’s insights as former drivers were valuable, Tirico remains a solid broadcast host who can seemingly helm the coverage of any sport (the man went from the Preakness to Indy to game one of the Stanley Cup Final), and NBC didn’t screw up coverage of any of the race’s many traditions.

As a casual race fan who doesn’t tune in each week or obsess over the championship chase, all I hope for when setting aside a chunk of my holiday weekend is entertainment. And I got it.

This year’s 500 served as more than a reminder that racing is more than just cars “going around in circles.” It also showed that one need not understand pit strategy or other behind-the-scenes stuff – the kind of things that hardcore fans pay attention to, and use to point out to non-fans that racing is more than just the whole circle thing – to be entertained.

So yeah, to those of you who dismiss racing as not worth your time, give it another try. Stop your channel surfing when you see a race and give it a gander. You might find yourself enjoying it.

Just don’t tell car Twitter. You might get asked to watch F1 at 3 a.m.

[Image: Shutterstock/Jonathan Weiss]

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2 of 16 comments
  • 6250Claimer 6250Claimer on Jun 02, 2019

    I can relate. I'm also a football/baseball/basketball kind of guy, but got to attend Indy in 2008 on a corporate trip with Motorola, who was sponsoring Danica's team at the time. First class all the way - hotel, food, booze, private party with the Green Racing Team, meet & greet with Danica & the team, Cheap Trick playing live at the party, suite near the pagoda on the inside for the race, with seating on top also. Absolutely incredible experience and I'd sooner do another Indy 500 than go to another Super Bowl (I've been to 2 and they just don't compare). We also had garage and pit passes and the access they give fans is unreal. So cool to be hanging in the pits just before race time, or visiting garages and hob-nobbing with the crews as they prep for the race. Such a spectacular weekend all around. As for this year's contest - the race was great, but I agree that NBC's coverage was awful compared to ABC. Tirico is the wrong guy to be the point main. I actually liked Danica's commentary OK but it was lost in the overall crappy production. Hopefully it returns to ABC eventually.

  • Sportyaccordy Sportyaccordy on Jun 03, 2019

    Heads up! Anyone looking for consistently good racing should look into MotoGP and WSBK. MotoGP in particular has been scintillating, and the physical + exposed nature of motorcycle racing really draws you in. There are a boatload of really interesting storylines among the various riders and factories as well.

  • Denis Jeep have other cars?!?
  • Darren Mertz In 2000, after reading the glowing reviews from c/d in 1998, I decided that was the car for me (yep, it took me 2 years to make up my mind). I found a 1999 with 24k on the clock at a local Volvo dealership. I think the salesman was more impressed with it than I was. It was everything I had hoped for. Comfortable, stylish, roomy, refined, efficient, flexible, ... I can't think of more superlatives right now but there are likely more. I had that car until just last year at this time. A red light runner t-boned me and my partner who was in the passenger seat. The cops estimate the other driver hit us at about 50 mph - on a city street. My partner wasn't visibly injured (when the seat air bag went off it shoved him out of the way of the intruding car) but his hip was rather tweaked. My car, though, was gone. I cried like a baby when they towed it away. I ruminated for months trying to decide how to replace it. Luckily, we had my 1998 SAAB 9000 as a spare car to use. I decided early on that there would be no new car considered. I loathe touch screens. I'm also not a fan of climate control. Months went by. I decided to keep looking for another B5 Passat. As the author wrote, the B5.5 just looked 'over done'. October this past year I found my Cinderella slipper - an early 2001. Same silver color. Same black leather interior. Same 1.8T engine. Same 5 speed manual transmission. I was happier than a pig in sh!t. But a little sad also. I had replaced my baby. But life goes on. I drive it every day to work which takes me over some rather twisty freeway ramps. I love the light snarel as I charge up some steep hills on my way home. So, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Passat guy.
  • Paul Mezhir As awful as the styling was on these cars, they were beautifully assembled and extremely well finished for the day. The doors closed solidly, the ride was extremely quiet and the absence of squeaks and rattles was commendable. As for styling? Everything's beautiful in it's own way.....except for the VI's proportions were just odd: the passenger compartment and wheelbase seemed to be way too short, especially compared to the VI sedan. Even the short-lived Town Coupe had much better proportions. None of the fox-body Lincolns could compare to the beautiful proportions of the Mark was the epitome of long, low, sleek and elegant. The proportions were just about perfect from every angle.
  • ToolGuy Silhouetting yourself on a ridge like that is an excellent way to get yourself shot ( Skylining)."Don't you know there's a special military operation on?"
  • ToolGuy When Farley says “like the Millennium Falcon” he means "fully updatable" and "constantly improving" -- it's right there in the Car and Driver article (and makes perfect sense).