By on August 24, 2020

indy 500. Shutterstock user Jonathan Weiss

Yesterday, I got up, made myself breakfast, ran to the grocery store, and hustled home because I had a date with my television.

Yes, the Indianapolis 500 was finally taking place, months late, and sans fans. The delay and the decision to not allow fans was, as you know, due to the coronavirus pandemic that isn’t just taking lives but also wreaking havoc with large social and sporting events. The list of cancellations and delays is longer than… well, let’s just say it’s long.

The 500 is appointment viewing for me every year, although I’ve missed a few in the past because of other social events or whatnot (hey, it usually takes place Memorial Day weekend). Last year, I dragged myself out of bed in Vegas (figuratively – I watched the race from a prone position in a nice, comfy bed at the Tropicana) for the 8 am West Coast start time. I, and everyone else, was treated to a pretty entertaining race.

This year’s race had an odd feel to it, and not just because 300,000 fans weren’t in attendance. Nor was it because I’m still not quite use to NBC taking over the broadcast after ABC had it for so many years (this year’s NBC broadcast was much better, by the way, and Paul Tracy refrained from remarking about Danica Patrick’s footwear, which he was unable to do earlier in the week). No, the race itself was strange.

It started with the exploding right-front of James Davison’s car on just the sixth lap. I’ve never seen anything like it, and neither had the commentators, most of whom have watched a lot more racing then I have, and some of whom are current or former drivers. That incident threw pit strategy into chaos.

Eventually, the race became the Rossi-Dixon show. Alexander Rossi and Scott Dixon were passing each other back and for the lead, and Dixon looked dominant, with Rossi seeming to be the only real challenger, although eventual winner Takuma Sato was hanging around. But Rossi tagged Sato in the pits after a bad release, and he got penalized for the contact, being sent to the back of the field. He got aggressive off the restart and was trying to get back in the mix when he lost it in turn 2 and got into the wall, thus ending his day.

From there, Dixon looked like he’d be taking the checkered flag. He had a fast car and his fuel strategy seemed to be working. He didn’t seem to mind Sato taking the lead late – it was clear he was waiting for the chance to go all-out to the end, with the idea of outlasting Sato on fuel mileage.

And for a while, that’s what happened. Once Dixon knew, via info from his pit-crew chief, that he had enough fuel to run flat-out until the end without needing a stop, he unleashed hell. But Sato fended him off. Still, with lapped traffic in the way and Sato running low on fuel, it looked like Dixon would continue to have chances. Drama!

But just a few laps from the end, Spencer Pigot slammed the pit wall attenuator hard. The crash shook him up and he was attended to by medics right there on the front straight. It was clear the restart wouldn’t happen before the final lap. Since IndyCar doesn’t have the same overtime rules as NASCAR, the race would finish under yellow, unless it was red-flagged.

Commentator Danica Patrick, a former IndyCar and NASCAR driver, seemed to be calling for the red flag, ostensibly to give us a five-lap shootout between Sato and Dixon. Maybe the door would be opened for Graham Rahal, who was sitting in third?

I thought the race should be red-flagged for safety – Pigot was being attended to right there on the track, the attenuator was badly damaged, and safety vehicles were parked all over the front straight. Yes, the likelihood of further trouble happening as the cars paraded around at interstate-highway speeds was unlikely. The safety crews and the pace-car driver, like the racers themselves, are professionals, after all. But it still seemed like a bit of a mess, even if the chances of a driver losing it at 65 mph or so seemed ludicrous. Better, I thought, to park the cars, clean the track, take a break, and sort it all out with five frantic laps to the finish.

Instead, we got an anti-climatic finish. Sato was guaranteed the win the moment race control decided not to red-flag the race. A writer for ESPN called it an example of 2020 striking again.

I didn’t have a favored driver going into the race. I don’t have a favorite driver that I root for, in general. But Dixon is likable, and with the performance he’d had all day, I was starting to root for him at the end. I was bummed that the crash denied him a shot at the win.

Then again, Sato is apparently well-liked in the garage area, too, and he’s had some heartbreak at the track (I saw his spin in turn one on the final lap of the 2012 race with my own eyes, thanks to a junket sponsored by an OEM heavily involved in Indy that I attended for a previous job). And this win makes him a two-time Indy winner. The club of multiple 500 winners is exclusive.

At times I had hopes for other drivers. Part of me was rooting for pole-sitter Marco Andretti to do what his dad never did, and what his legendary grandfather did only once, and win Indy. But he faded almost immediately.

I’d also like to see Graham Rahal follow in his famous father’s footsteps, but I have a mild bias here – I’ve met Bobby Rahal a couple of times and he seems like a pretty cool dude. Of course, Rahal the elder still had reason to walk away happy, as Sato drives for him and partner David Letterman (yes, that David Letterman).

Speaking of mild biases, covering Helio Castroneves last year for this site caused me to have a slight rooting interest for him, too. Yes, journalists are supposed to be objective when covering races, but since I wasn’t covering the race for a news story, and since I was watching from my couch at home with my metaphorical fan hat on, I allowed myself to root for certain drivers in a way I wouldn’t have had I been covering the 500 from a news angle. Castroneves finished eleventh.

While on the topic of aging Brazilian fan-favorites, I also had hopes for Tony Kanaan. I’d like to see him and/or Castroneves snag at least one more title before both retire. Kanaan came in nineteenth.

There really wasn’t a driver I was rooting against – I just didn’t want to see a 200+ mph parade led by the same driver from wire-to-wire. Unless there are extenuating circumstances (a rookie who comes out of nowhere, a veteran finally getting that first Indy win, an aging veteran getting one last trophy, a female driver getting the first win for a woman, an underdog doing the unbelievable, etc.) that kind of dominance can be boring.

Dixon’s dominance of the race was different – as fast as he was, the race was still in doubt, even after Rossi dropped out. There was still drama, right up until there wasn’t. And he finished second, because Indy can be cruel that way.

Whether 2020 or Indy itself is responsible for pulling the rug out from under what looked to be an exciting finish, I still walked away mostly satisfied that the race I’d spent an entire afternoon watching was worth my time.

In 2020, or any year really, that is all you can ask for.

[Image: Jonathan Weiss/]

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12 Comments on “Scrambled Thoughts About an Odd Yet Fun Indy 500...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Because Dish Network is in a contract dispute with NBC, I was unable to watch the race. I don’t watch sports, and therefore don’t subscribe to any sports channels.

    We tried other livestream venues with little to no luck. I don’t know how many other people experienced this frustration, but it felt like PPV has overtaken the era when you could simply watch such events on live TV, even with commercial breaks.

    So we walked away and worked on a house project. My passing interest in the 500 is nearly zero at this point, sadly.

    I’m curious to know how the Speedway – or any sports venue – can break even without paying fans there. TV revenue can’t be sufficient.

  • avatar

    I was at the 2017 race when Tako won his first 500. Don’t forget he tried to pass Dario in 2012 and crashed. If he completes that pass he would have 3 wins now, putting him on par with Helio – downright amazing if you think about it.

    As a big Rossi fan I was pissed at the penalty. Tako (ironically) had just pulled out his pit box, and he didn’t get over far enough because someone was on his outside (who? why?). The way I understand it there are 3 “lanes” in the pits: your box, the merge lane and the far right. The merge lane is always a free-for-all with some coming in and others going out. The Rossi / Tako bump here was pretty much a non-issue, no damage, no positions lost, so why the penalty?

    I too really wanted to see Graham win. We all know Dixon is the GOAT and seems on pace to win yet another championship plus he has won Indy before. Rossi got the milk too, but that was miracle drive as he limped the car home nearly out of fuel, which really didn’t fit his style… still a win is a win. But if Graham had won that would have been great. Considering RLL is such a small team getting 1st and 3rd in the biggest race of the year speaks volumes. Also would have loved to see my hometown boy Hunter-Ray get another win and for a bit he was looking pretty good. For a newcomer Santino seems to always do well at the 500 too.

    Very weird to see that huge place empty. Not hearing the roar of the crowd made it seem soul-less.

    I think they had no choice but to end the race because the damage to the barrier was too much to fix in a reasonable amount of time. The race was already running late due to other yellow flags. It sucked because a drag race to the finish would have been epic. However it also might have become a crash-fest with everyone trying to get as many spots as possible in just 3 laps. So I have mixed feelings about it. This ending was likely safer but we all wanted to see those laps driven flat out.

    Other then Newgarden the Penske crew was nowhere to be found which is nice since I get sick of them winning all the time.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    I’ve been a fan, and have to been to IRL races at Kansas Speedway ,but attendance has been poor for any racing not NASCAR there, I too have lost interest. My wife use to watch the 500 with me (she has some racing blood, she’s related distantly to the late Scott Brayton), but she too has faded.
    Everyone has an answer as to why it’s not more popular but I think it’s that generally the drivers have less personality than they use to and the gulf between the haves and have nots is painfully evident in IRL.
    I do DVR all the IRL races but usually only watch road course races. I will watch all production car races /Grand AM type races I DVR, because it’s more exciting.

  • avatar


    Your comments pretty much mirror my feelings about the race, including hoping someone like Andretti or Castroneves might make a showing, not that I expected them to.

    The ending of race did seem fair, just unfortunate.

    I started watching the race an hour and a half late (recorded) so that I could fast forward through commercials and boring parts, and I finished watching just about the same time as the race ended.

    I used to watch the race yearly with my best friend from high school, but when he died young a decade ago, my interest in the race dwindled.

  • avatar

    And the Masters in November. No Big-Ten football; no Michigan getting disemboweled and eviscerated by the damned Buckeyes yet again. (Though it may still happen in the spring.)

    Absolutely bizarre year. Back in my office last Thursday for the first time since March, five months to the day.

  • avatar

    If you want to see actual exploding front tires, google Sebastian Buemi Chinese Grand Prix in 2010.

  • avatar

    Because I’m a geek, I don’t watch many live sports, but I do enjoy watching documentaries about sports – including racing.

    Someone here recommended “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” on Netflix which eventually led me to several other documentaries on Formula 1 safety.

    So back to the Indianapolis 500 – here is a list of fatalities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway:

    If you click on the “Event” heading, the page will group the Indianapolis 500 fatalities together. Scroll through this section, observing the dates. Note that something interesting happens in the mid 70’s – the drip-drip-drip of dead drivers slows dramatically – to the point where the last Indy 500 fatality was almost a quarter of a century ago.

    Now back to regular production automobiles: The Truth About Safety is that vehicles can be made safer while still being light. (IndyCar weighs something like 1600 pounds [when stopped – let’s leave out downforce]. Delta-V in an IndyCar crash can be *significantly* higher than a typical motor vehicle crash; remember that crash energy varies with the *square* of the Delta-V.)

    • 0 avatar

      I see three main factors that give Indy cars a big safety advantage over production cars: 1) carbon fiber tub / driver cell, 2) despite the insane speeds everyone is going the same direction and 3) the track itself, IE: the walls are soft now. I think #2 may cause the Delta-V in many street crashes to be higher then expected. Its rare for an Indy car to hit a solid object head on.

      If you saw Dixon’s crash in ’17 at Indy you realize these cars are built in a way that totally protects the driver. Truly amazing technology and engineering.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Foley

      ToolGuy, you would enjoy the “Rapid Response” documentary available on Prime. It chronicles the improvements in safety in IndyCar from the roadster era to today, focusing on the careers of Drs. Steve Olvey and Terry Trammell. Many drivers (and owner Chip Ganassi) owe their lives to Olvey; others owe their ability to walk to Trammell (Danny Ongais and Rick Mears, for example).

  • avatar

    The bump on Takuma by Rossi wasn’t worth a penalty, unfortunate that it influenced the outcome of the race. But Takuma was fast all week and fast all day long. I have a lot of ‘favourites’ in Indycar and Takuma is one of them as well as Rossi. My impression of the two drivers is that Takuma is motivated by want and Rossi is motivated by anger, either way, they both drive the wheels off the car, which is why I watch racing.

  • avatar
    Funky D

    I saw a pretty pedestrian race in the first 100 laps. I kept fast-forwarding until Dixon was no longer leading. There were at least a few exciting moments interspersed in-between, however.

    The back-and-forth between Dixon and Sato toward the end kept me more on top of my seat toward the end. Watching angry Rossi carve up the back half of the field after an undeserved penally was also cool, though I wasn’t surprised to see Rossi wreck out. He got a raw deal.

    Pigot’s unfortunate wreck ruined the chances of a last-lap duel, although I think Sato had enough margin to hold him off.

    Speaking of Pigot, VERY happy he’s OK!

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