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Indy; When It Sizzles!

HAMMOND, IN: The hottest, most humid weather in Indy “500” history was the key factor in producing what many experts are calling the greatest Speedway classic of the modern era. And, for what it’s worth, I agree.

It seems that most veteran Indianapolis historians have always pointed to the 1960 Race as the benchmark for the “greatest 500 ever run”. That day, Speedway legends Rodger Ward and Jim Rathmann contributed to a record 29 lead changes as they passed and re-passed repeatedly during the final 100 miles, with Rathmann taking the victory after Ward slowed near the end with worn tires. I’m sure that Rodger and Jim were watching Sunday, and would have to agree that 2012 produced the Race for the ages.

When track conditions are at their worst, the truly great racers tend to shine. Whether it’s a wet road race, or a hot, slick oval, true talent becomes obvious when conditions are less than ideal. This fact of motorsports was never more apparent than last Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Many of us felt that, given the pre-race weather forecast of extreme heat, two time Indy “500” Champion Dario Franchitti would overcome a lackluster qualifying performance and prove to be the guy to beat on Race Day. Some drivers have a special flair for flat oval tracks and, even though Dario’s pre-Indy Car career was a long way from Milwaukee, Nazareth and Indy, he somehow developed the”gift”. But, even the most ardent Franchitti fans had to be stunned as Dario overcame being punted into last place by the ham-handed E.J. Viso during an early pit stop, blasting past most of the field to contend for the lead in less than 100 miles. I saw it with my own eyes, but could hardly believe it.

Along with Franchitti’s virtuoso performance, the hot, slick conditions provided an opportunity for several other true racers to show their stuff. It’s often easy to overlook the talent of great drivers if their equipment isn’t up to par. But, when conditions are crappy, sometimes the real ability of a racer can become apparent. Of course, this can work both ways.

On Sunday, several racers reminded everyone that they can be potential Indy Car stars and challenge the top teams for wins, especially when the going gets tough. The slick track, coupled with the surprisingly competitive new Dallara DW12 chassis provided the necessary canvas for several underdogs to paint themselves a masterpiece.

Are we talking about Takuma Sato here? Oh, hell yes, we are!

The little Formula One veteran from Japan, who actually finished on the podium at the U.S.G.P. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2004, has been a surprise waiting to happen in Indy Car racing for a long time. With slippery conditions and the excellent Rahal-Letterman team behind him, Takuma made moves all day that took your breath away. And, as Franchitti and Sato received the white flag Sunday and screamed into Turn One with everything on the line, it was hard not to recall a similar day 30 years ago, when Gordon Johncock and Rick Mears found themselves in the same position. On that occasion Mears, challenging for the lead and win on the inside heading into Turn One on the last lap, knew that Johncock would rather crash trying for victory than lift, and backed off, accepting second place.

But, Takuma Sato and Rick Mears are two different people.

With no offence intended, the Kamikaze mindset is often hard to defeat. Unfortunately for Sato, he was dealt the toughest oval track driver on the planet to have to try a banzai-move on. Dario Franchitti held his line, and Sato found the fence. But, for those racers and race fans who admire guts and talent, Takuma Sato also found legions of new fans last Sunday.

His day at the Speedway will come.

The extreme conditions on Race Day also allowed several other drivers to remind us of their talent and potential. Early on, last year’s Pole winner Alex Tagliani shot into the top five and ran strongly until problems in the pits forced him from the lead pack. Same for Oriol Servia, who fell off the lead lap early after pit problems. But, when the money was on the line in the final stint, there he was in contention for victory, finally recording a fine fourth place finish. Also, a great oval race was finally run by Justin Wilson, who really seemed to get the hang of Speedway racing last Sunday, running with the leaders when it counted most. Tagliani, Servia and Wilson are three prime examples of racers who arrived at the Speedway later in their careers than they should have, due to the IRL/CART “wars”. Who knows what these three could have accomplished at Indy if they had been able to try the Speedway years earlier.

And then, there’s “TK”.

The people’s choice, Tony Kanaan, almost pulled it off. In contention early, TK faded somewhat during the middle stages of the Race but, on a late restart, there he was; not just in contention, but in the lead! And, if Sato and Franchitti had taken each other out at the end, Tony would have stolen the milk! What a ride he took.

We also shouldn’t overlook the performance of Rubens Barrichello, who mastered the famous oval in the toughest conditions to record a solid run to Rookie of the Year. Rubens should be fun to watch in the coming years.

On the flip side of the coin, there were a few drivers who failed to deliver on this hottest Race Day ever. Mike Conway ran over his pit crew and then, unbelievably, was allowed to re-enter the Race by his A.J. Foyt team with a badly damaged front wing. A lap later, Conway predictably lost it in Turn One, taking himself and contender Will Power out. Also, early leader Marco Andretti overcooked it late in the event trying to make up lost time, and tore up yet another of this Dad’s cars. Finally, Ed Carpenter went from hero to zero in the final stages of the event as he charged impressively into the top five, only to “do a Hildebrand” and spin himself from contention.

I guess the bottom line is this: from where we were sitting for our 56th consecutive “500” high in the Penthouse overlooking Turn One, this was as good as it gets. Being able to witness a classic like this is what keeps us coming back. Having been lucky enough to see the amazing Ward/Rathmann dual so long ago, I always wondered if it would ever be matched, or topped, for sheer excitement.

Guess what? It happened last Sunday.

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