Takuma Sato crossed the yard of bricks after 200 laps in August, taking the twin checkered flags for the second time in his career, and then there was silence.
The race was attended by a record zero fans, a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic, producing the strangest post-race in recent memory.
But it counted.
Sato has two rings, two victories and two memories where he woke up on a Monday morning and said, ‘we did it.’
There will be no such obscurity associated with the 2021 event. Fans are back to the tune of 135,000, the maximum number permitted under COVID-19 protocols. That’s the largest sporting event of the pandemic era, by the way.
The Central Indiana TV blackout has been lifted as well.
The noise will not end once the engines shut off this summer. It won’t begin with them either. You’ll hear the Gordon Horseshoe Pipers and Drummers parading throughout the facility on Sunday morning. You’ll hear the cannon go off at 6 a.m., signifying the closest return to normalcy yet.
You’ll hear the murmurs become a steady hum of pre-race chatter. You’ll be enchanted by Back Home Again in Indiana, and unlike last year, we’re all back home again together.
“Drivers to your cars, DRIVERS, to your cars.”
You better believe you’re going to hear that, too.
And after 500 grueling, hard fought miles, you’ll hear emotion only reserved for a moment reserved for top-five in someone’s entire life, if not their No. 1.
It’s the Indianapolis 500, after all.
You’ll hear it as that brave pilot is driven around the track, neck draped in that familiar winner’s wreath. The sound will begin in Turn 1, reverberating across all corners of this cathedral of speed. The sound will come to a rest at that familiar yard of bricks. They’ll kiss that iconic start-finish line, and while seeing is believing, hearing is feeling.
This is the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and it’s finally back … for real.
SCOTT DIXON IS THE FAVORITE … OF COURSE
The NTT IndyCar Series continues to be Scott Dixon’s world and we’re just permitted to live in it.
The six-time IndyCar champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner has pretty much won everything leading up to the Greatest Spectacle this weekend … for what little that’s worth come Sunday.
He is once again leading the championship standings, was fastest in several practice sessions leading up to time trials and scored pole at Indianapolis for the fourth time in his Hall of Fame career.
His sole win in the event came in 2008 came from pole and saw him lead 115 of 200 laps. He was just a one-time champion back then (2003) and his legend has only grown since then with five more championships. At Indianapolis, he’s finished top-10 eight different times since and has a pair of seconds.
He was second in 2012 to Dario Franchiti and again in August after leading 111 laps but got passed by Sato early in the final stint and couldn’t complete the winning pass before the race ending caution with only four laps remaining.
“I think it’s the first goal that we set for the team all year first, then you focus on the championship,” Dixon said. “Yeah, that’s never changed. I think the first time you step onto this place, come with one of the best teams, that’s the obvious sort of goal for us to try and achieve that.
“Yeah, I think we’ve finished second four or five times here. I can tell you that’s the worst spot to finish. Last year was frustrating. Again, this place owes me nothing. We got to keep knocking on that door and hopefully one day again, one day soon, that opens up.”
Dixon doesn’t need another Borg Warner Trophy, but that’s the thing about the greatest legends of their times … there’s a lot of surplus accomplishments and they simply can’t be stopped.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH PENSKE?
Overstatement: Qualifying didn’t go well for Team Penske.
Rookie Scott McLaughlin was the best performer in time trials, go figure, and will start 17th on Sunday afternoon. Josef Newgarden rolls off 21st and Simon Pagenaud was 26th. Will Power and Simona de Silvestro, who is driving a Penske prepared Chevrolet for Paretta Autosport barely made the show via the Last Chance Shootout.
Everyone is in the race, and fully expects to race better than they qualified, and have already moved on from the previous week.
“Actually, we had a dinner last night and talked about race plans, just for my crew,” Power said. “I have been really happy. It’s funny. I’ve been more positive, and happy than I am when I qualify on the front row. It actually was a win for us in getting it right. It just kind of put things into perspective. It turned into a positive, believe it or not.”
The qualifying set-up is nothing like race day configuration with teams adding back downforce to cut through traffic on Sunday.
Penske will execute on pit road. Pagendaud, Newgarden, Power and McLaughlin all posted top-five lap times during Fast Friday. Procuring track position will come down to strategy and luck.
“Expectations, obviously we need some good strategy go our way,” Power said. “I think we have a really good car in traffic, I do. I’ve said that from the beginning. Qualifying didn’t go as we expected, but I was really happy to get in the race. It’s been positive. It really has. We executed on Sunday and the team is in good spirits. I think it’s really hard to judge how this race is going to play out; but we need to make up a lot of positions the whole time.”
Newgarden showed an ability to cut through traffic during that final session, too.
“I think we have the ability to move forward, and I think we can definitely make it happen on race day,” Newgarden said. “I think our cars are all capable of moving forward. This place is a matter of executing at the highest level throughout the day. We have to make strong stops and make the right decisions and if we can drive the car aggressively, I think we will be moving forward all day long and be in the mix. I think any one of us can.”
Pagenaud led 116 laps and won from the pole in 2019 and believes he has that kind of car in traffic.
“I felt like I could pass cars,” Pagenaud said of Carb Day. “It’s not going to be easy, but after (final practice) I feel really good about it. If we were starting out front, it would be like 2019 all over again. That’s how good our car was.”
Penske has won a record 18 Indianapolis 500s so don’t count them out on Sunday.
The recipe is in place for one of the more exciting Indianapolis 500s in recent memory.
“This racing is unreal,” Colton Herta said after climbing out of his car near the end of Carb Day.
While it’s hard to know how much of a fight the drivers put up while getting passed in final practice, there was a great deal of action in the two-hour session. Much of that can be attributed to the cooler temperatures and cloud cover, but it’s not going to be much warmer on Sunday either. It was 55 degrees on Friday and Sunday’s high is 70.
“Everyone was like Superman with the weather conditions,” Dixon said. “Super stuck for everyone, easy to pass back in the pack, which was definitely interesting, which may show how the race is going to be come Sunday.
“Hopefully it warms up a little bit to create some separation.”
Optional bargeboards have been added to the aerodynamic package for the Month of May and that’s created more downforce for the cars as well. That means teams have so much more than front wings to generate downforce during the race.
For a driver like Power, starting 32nd, he believes that will make it easier to work through the field.
“It’s a bit more downforce this year, I’m hoping that you can, if you got a bit better car, get through a few cars,” Power said. “Starts and restarts will matter, and good pit stops.”
All told, these cars will generate more downforce and that will keep the cars closer together. How much is dependent on the weather.
“If it’s like this, it’s going to be mentally draining because there’s a lot of action going on,” Dixon said. “You can kind of pass near the front, repass on the back straight, so expect a lot of action.
“I’m looking forward to it if that’s the way it plays out, but I think when the pack is a lot tighter, there is also the opportunity for some missteps and maybe some bigger crashes, things like that. Hopefully everybody remains safe.”
WHAT ABOUT MARCO?
Marco Andretti was on top of the IndyCar world entering Carb Day for the 104th Indianapolis 500. The third-generation racer dramatically captured the pole and had what appeared to be his best chance to win the 500 since his narrow defeat to Sam Hornish Jr. as a rookie in 2006.
He was unable to lead the first lap, and slowly sank through the top-10, and ultimately finished a distant 13th.
For a variety of reasons, this year feels different, and much more optimistic.
Andretti believes he has a car capable of winning, something he was never really convinced of last year, even after capturing the pole.
“Every time I’ve said that, I’ve led the race,” Andretti said. “Eight or nine times, I don’t know the stat. … I’ve had a car to win this race a lot of times. I’ve said that before the race. We just have to see if the stars align, do our job, slowly get there, hopefully stay out of messes. But the field is pretty stacked, very talented, hopefully very smart.
“Hopefully I can keep that streak going. Every time I’ve said I have the car to do it we’ve led. Coming from a little further back than I’m used to.”
Andretti feels fortunate to have even made the show as they discovered a crack in their car’s floor after Saturday time trials, where their No. 98 team posted just the 25th best speed.
“I’m actually lucky we made the race,” Andretti said. “I’m happy actually. Way happier after Carb Day this year than last even starting on pole.”
Andretti posted the fifth best time in Carb Day practice and was really pleased with his car in traffic, important given where he is starting on Sunday. He also dodged another bullet when his team discovered a failing electrical box, which would have immediately eliminated him from contention early in the race.
“I wish we had better track position,” Andretti said. “Beggars can’t be choosers. I’ve dodged a couple bullets already. One was getting in the race with a bad floor, the other was at bad box we would have found on race day. Really happy. We have to methodically do it and try to get there in a smart way when it counts.”
WELCOME BACK FANS
There will be no crickets in the aftermath of the Indianapolis 500 this year.
The world has started to reopen in the aftermath of the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic and several sporting events have played hosts to tens of thousands of spectators but nothing like the Greatest Spectacle on Sunday.
The boxing bout between Canelo Alvarez and Billy Joe Saunders drew 73,126 fans at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. A cricket match in Melbourne, Australia drew over 78,000. Each of the 135,000 seats made available on Sunday were sold and there isn’t an event in the world that will match that anytime soon.
It’s not quite normal, says four-time champion Sebastien Bourdais, but it’s a step closer in that direction.
“It’s like the Indy 500 but not quite, though, because I think 130,000 for the 500 is still going to feel pretty empty,” Bourdais said. ” But after everything we’ve been through over the last year or so it’s definitely a step in the right direction and I’m definitely looking forward to getting back to normal.”
Simon Pagenaud says the drivers feed off that energy in the build-up to the race.
“Last year was definitely weird with no energy before the race, which is something we’re very sensitive to,” Pagenaud said. “The fans have been starving for competition so I’m very excited to be able to give them a great show here.”
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