INDIANAPOLIS — Simon Pagenaud thought Graham Rahal would be the biggest threat to stopping him from a third straight victory in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on Saturday.
“I think he’s going to be very strong,” the Frenchman said before the race. “He’s always very strong in race pace. It’s going to be a high pace, for sure.”
Pagenaud was the pole sitter. Rahal had qualified in third position Friday. But a couple of hours later, Rahal’s Honda was disqualified for being two pounds below the minimum weight. He had to start 24th on the 2.439-mile high-speed road course. Game over.
“Three in a row, incredible,” Pagenaud said.
Rahal drove magnificently and his Rahal Letterman Lanigan team made a savvy early pit stop under caution to frog-jump the field later and put him into the lead for two laps. The race’s second caution closed the gap to Pagenaud’s Penske Chevrolet, which led 57 of the 82 laps. Rahal finished fourth and undoubtedly walked away wondering what might have been.
“These are days that build character,” Rahal said. “Our backs were up against the wall for sure. To come out and have a result like that is pretty awesome. Twenty-fourth to fourth is better than I expected. With the cold I’ve got, I’m going to sleep well tonight. This one took it all out of me.
“The Steak ‘n Shake boys (crew) do a great job for me. Great strategy again, topping off (fuel) on that early yellow, going a little long on that stint and getting into the top eight after one stint was good. After that, we just kind of chunked away.”
Without Rahal to contend with, the race became a rout. Penske teammate Helio Castroneves finished second, 4.47 seconds behind, and on-the-comeback-trail James Hinchcliffe was a season-best third.
It was Pagenaud’s second victory in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the seventh of his Verizon IndyCar career.
“When we were in the lead, we were cruising, doing what we could to save the tires,” Pagenaud said. “What a day. It’s incredible to win three in a row like this and here in Indy for me, it’s very special. I lived here for nine years, so this place is very special in my heart.”
Castroneves settled for second with a smile on his face.
“Definitely Simon was too fast,” Castroneves said. “I saw when he was behind me (from pit stop sequences) that he was just playing with me.”
Hinchcliffe’s Schmidt Peterson team got him out in front of Pagenaud during a mid-race caution, but Pagenaud swallowed the Canadian up on the restart.
“At that point it was still early in the race and the way the pit cycle worked out, we weren’t at the front of the field,” Hinchcliffe said. “It would have been a different story if we had restarted up front. I got a little bit snookered on that restart and kind of got slowed up by both Charlie (Kimball) and Simon. I kind of felt bad, because all of the hard work by the guys in the pits was negated right away, but we were able to get Charlie back later in that stint.
“Simon, though, was kind of in a class of his own. I don’t know if we would have had enough for him. Either way, it would have been tough, because there’s no doubt he’s very strong.”
Conor Daly takes season-best sixth at hometown track
Conor Daly grew up in the Indianapolis suburb of Noblesville and is the son of former Formula One, IndyCar and sports car driver Derek Daly. His mother Beth won a Novice Jet Ski Women’s World title in 1990 and his stepfather is Doug Boles, the president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Daly enjoyed his best race of the season Saturday in the GP of Indianapolis, finishing sixth in Dale Coyne Racing’s Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda. He led 14 laps. It also equaled Daly’s best IndyCar finish from Detroit last season.
“It was awesome to lead laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” he said. “It’s a good way to kick off May here.”
Daly’s team used pit strategy to pit him second to Castroneves for a lap 45 restart.
“They put us in the right place at the right time and, thankfully, I was able to get around Helio Castroneves on the restart and go from there,” Daly said. “It was a crazy race, even after our last stop coming out in traffic was just so painful. We tried our best to work around it. When Graham (Rahal) got around me, I had more (push-to-pass) overtakes left. I was really helpless and our rear tires were going away and Charlie Kimball got a great run on us (to pass for fifth).”
Indy’s renaissance and remembering the late U.S. 500
The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 has sold its estimated 260,000 reserved seats, plus several more thousand in suites. Another 30,000 will likely buy general admission tickets, bringing the total attendance on May 29 to about 300,000. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s last announced sellout was for the 1996 race. Sellouts were normal nearly all of the years since Tony Hulman brought the track back to life in 1946 following four years of inactivity because of World War II. Families renewed their tickets in the week after the race, and they were so prized that they passed them onto the next generation.
It became known as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” but in 1996 CART decided to race on the same day, May 26, against the Indy 500. You need to follow this next part closely: CART called its series IndyCar, which it held under license from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a clause that included a certain number of CART teams entering the Indy 500 each year to keep the trademarked name. In 1996, there was a new kid on the block with the Indy Racing League, founded by IMS president Tony George. The Indy 500 was part of the IRL schedule.
CART had the established and upcoming stars—Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Bobby Rahal, Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy, Gil de Ferran, Alex Zanardi, Robby Gordon—plus the big dollar teams such as Penske, Ganassi, Newman/Haas, Galles and Walker, fueled by mega-dollar sponsors Marlboro, Texaco, Shell, Kmart, Budweiser and Miller. CART, whose team owners were franchise holders who ran the organization, decided to run the alternative U.S. 500 at Michigan International Raceway. It was a head-to-head confrontation that CART believed would decimate the 500—perhaps even eventually put it out of business—and leave itself in full control of the sport.
There had been bad blood between the IMS, owner of the Indy 500, and CART since the late 1970s. CART took control of all the races except for Indy, which was sanctioned by USAC. Tony George, Tony Hulman’s grandson, had become IMS President in 1990 and he demanded—and should have received—that he become a bigger player in the decision-making process which included showing more respect to the Indy 500.
The U.S. 500 was the ultimate in disrespect and drove the two organizations far apart. Any chance for a reunification of the sport in the short term was long gone. It was going to be a heavyweight fight decided by knockout, which finally happened in 2007 when CART and its successor, Champ Car, folded.
IndyCar promoted the 1996 U.S. 500 as the “Stars and Cars,” and the MIS crowd was a sell-out 110,879. It offered the winner a $1 million purse and was seen live on ESPN. CART had hoped to have a 33-car field and, like Indy, start in 11 rows of three. There were 27 cars lined up for the start, which was aborted by a multi-car crash on the final pace lap that eliminated Mexican Adrian Fernandez.
Jimmy Vasser won the race and immediately after he climbed from the car said, “Who needs milk?” It was a reference to the Indianapolis tradition, dating to 1936 race winner Louis Meyer asking for and drinking a glass of milk. More disrespect, on national television no less, and a confirmation of CART’s arrogance that it did not need the Indy 500 to be a viable race series. But in the next few years, it became obvious that without Indy, CART could not survive.
Meanwhile, at Indianapolis, 33 cars started without incident. You can tag this field no-name, with drivers like Joe Gosek, Brad Murphy, Racin Gardner and Paul Durant. There were 17 rookies, including future IRL and NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, who started on pole and led twice for 44 laps, plus a group of veterans who had raced in CART and Formula One. Buddy Lazier won.
The crowd was enormous—not capacity, but close. Even those who supported the IRL, now known as IndyCar, had doubts the Indy 500 would have a big crowd. “I wasn’t sure,” said then Las Vegas Motor Speedway owner Richie Clyne as he walked down the front stretch 30 minutes before the start. “But they’re here.”
CART never ran a head-to-head race against the Indy 500 again and the top teams and drivers began to return in 2000. The protracted battle between CART and Champ Car cost both series sponsors, spectators and television viewers in the following years, but a sellout this year at Indy has the feeling of a renaissance for IndyCar racing. The Indy 500 has proven it can stand the test of time.