The verdict is in: On Sunday, May 27, 2012, we witnessed perhaps the best – if not, the most memorable – running of the Indianapolis 500.
It took ninety-six times to get there. There were memorable ones along the way – some still discussed today. However, no one had ever considered the alignment of driver talent, the backdrop of memorial, the astounding heat and the amazing racing on the track as perhaps one for the Brickyard's history books.
It was the first Indy without Dan Wheldon. Susie was there in his place, along with their two children. They witnessed many tributes to the two-time Indy 500 champion, including two laps in parade formation. On Lap 98, the final tribute run, I shed some tears. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IZOD IndyCar Series did an extraordinary job with their tributes. The drivers responded accordingly to add the trademark white-framed sunglasses to their repertoire.
It was an Indy with the deepest field ever. Though three young guns sat on the front row of the grid – Ryan Briscoe, James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay – it was a previous champion that grabbed another carafe of milk and the Borg Wagner Trophy. For the third time, it was Dario Franchitti on the top rung of the podium. The veteran took his number 50 Honda-powered, Target-sponsored Chip Ganassi car from start to finish running an even race.
A strategy at the end caught the young guys, the KV Racing and Rahal Letterman racers off guard. By Lap 195, both Franchitti and his teammate Scott Dixon played a game of racing volley to keep everyone from passing them at the end. The strategy almost worked. Dixon took second behind Franchitti, but it would be the Scot that was humbled at the end. A tearful Franchitti said: "I just want to dedicate this to two of Indianapolis' finest, Dan Wheldon and Michael Wanser. Thanks to all of the Indianapolis fans for their tribute to Dan today. What a race. What a race. I think D-dub (Wheldon) would be proud of that one."
It was also a race of a lifetime for Rubens Barrichello. This year's "Rookie of the Year" is actually no rookie. He finished second on the same track twice as part of Scuderia Ferrari when the Formula One circus made the Brickyard their USA stop. Before the race, Barrichello had reservations about driving the traditional oval instead of the modified course he commanded several years ago. However, Barrichello led on Lap 125 – amongst the record of lap changes ever in Indy history.
It almost became the race of a lifetime for two racers on opposite sides of the IndyCar spectrum – Tony Kanaan and Takuma Sato. The IndyCar veteran from Brazil has never won the Borg Wagner Trophy or tasted the sweet milk at the end of the race. Coming out of the second-to-last caution of the race, Kanaan made the move of the race. The green flag was about to drop when Kanaan swooped into the front before anyone had a chance to react. If you followed his career, Kanaan always finds a way to change the complexion of the race by executing moves such as this.
After the Marco Andretti caution, the final one of the race, Kanaan took the lead for a split second until the two Chip Ganassi Target-sponsored cars whipped by him. No amount of race driver excuses would explain the reasoning for this lost opportunity for the fan favorite on the grid. Speculation had that Kanaan had a plan, but that was foiled by the surging Ganassi cars and Sato. Kanaan took third in this year's Indy 500.
Compared to Kanaan, Sato is a relative newcomer to IndyCar. Despite being one of several with Formula One experience on the Indy 500 grid this year, Sato almost stole victory from the hands of Franchitti. We always knew Sato was a gambler – even from the days he ran Formula One. He led a total of 31 laps and had the Chip Ganassi cars in his sights after Lap 194. Sato appeared to try to pass Franchitti deep inside. Sato caught the grass on the attempt at Turn One and spun. His afternoon of glory almost realized.
To recount every moment of this amazing Indy 500 is not the job for someone like me who is not well versed in motorsports journalism. As a casual race fan, following this race via social media and online helped to experience the amazing events that took place on the Sunday before Memorial Day in Speedway, Indiana. It brought back memories of the 1970s and 1980s when we were in front of the television trying to watch the entire 500-mile spectacle.
Years of the Unsers, A.J. Foyt, the Andrettis, and Rick Mears has since gave way to the era of Castroneves, Kanaan, Franchitti and…yes…Dancia Patrick. Now, it is the meeting place of a deep driver pool that engages casual fans like myself. It has brought Barrichello and Sato back to the Brickyard onto another track format. It provided a backdrop for Briscoe, Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe, Justin Wilson, Charlie Kimball, J.R. Hildebrand, Will Power and the rest of the youth movement inside the IZOD IndyCar Series to shine on one of motorsports biggest traditions.
In the end, there were four people left with an empty carafe of milk: Dario Franchitti, his wife Ashley Judd, their dear friend Susie Wheldon…and Dan. For almost three hours, the world celebrated the great race and its lost son.
The ultimate winner at the Brickyard for the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 was Dan Wheldon.
Photo above courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series