Memorial Day is a veritable feast for the motorsports glutton. The day begins with Formula 1 cars on Monaco’s narrow streets, opens up to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing in Indianapolis, and ends with a 600-mile metal grinder in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Imagine putting a swarm of huge Northern Minnesota mosquitoes into a jar and shaking it up real good. That’s not unlike the sound of Formula 1 engines bouncing off the buildings in Monaco. While racing modern F1 cars there has been questionable for a long time, tradition outweighs that notion the minute the starting lights go off. Seven-time champ Michael Schumacher should have been on pole, but a penalty from the previous race dropped him five grid spots at the start. Defending F1 champion Sebastian Vettel had a snit with the Red Bull team and did not compete in Q3, so he started in 10th. Neither driver was given a ghost of a chance to win on the “ultra slim fast” street circuit. Red Bull’s Mark Webber took off like a JATO rocket at the start leaving a melee of million dollar bumper cars at the first turn. Scratch four cars.
When the race restarted after the safety car period, it became a strategic tire battle as the fuel-heavy cars shredded their super soft tires and made an already narrow racing line even skinnier as the “clag” built up off line. It’s the F1 equivalent of “the cushion” at Eldora. You could plainly see bits of rubber rolling off the tires in the incredible super slo-mo video shots.
The snake dance continued and pit stop rotations put Vettel into P1 just after half distance. Race radio chatter started warning of rain just minutes away. If Vettel could hold off until the switch to intermediate rain tires, he could snatch a victory from a sure defeat. The showers sputtered intermittently and foiled that strategy while his teammate regained the lead, which the Aussie never relinquished. Webber became the sixth different winner in the first six races of the Formula 1 season. It gave hope to two other Australians racing later in the day.
Across the pond in America’s heartland, some 300,000 fans created another swarm at Indy’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Pre-race ceremonies always celebrate the nation’s veterans and fallen heroes. This year the ceremony included Bryan Herta’s heartrending slow speed tour in Dan Wheldon’s 2011 race-winning car on track as a solo bugler soulfully played Taps. Many drivers wore those iconic white sunglasses honoring Wheldon’s memory. Fans also wore white sunglasses on lap 26 and 98, the numbers of Wheldon’s two Indy 500 winning cars.
Nobody was sure how the race would play out when the 11 rows of three headed into the first turn. The cars quickly fell into single file, making it obvious that the slingshot (invented by Junior Johnson) would decide the outcome of the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500.
Australian pole sitter Ryan Briscoe had a “ding dong” battle with Andretti Autosport’s James Hinchcliffe in the early going. Slingshots became the standard tactic for the rest of the race, eventually setting a new record for the Indy 500. The only other question mark was whether the Chevy-powered cars would run away and hide.
Strong early runs from the Ganassi’s Hondas showed they had pace. However, a lap 14 pit lane shunt with E.J. Viso sent series champion Dario Franchitti to the back of the field. Franchitti returned to the track and took off in pursuit of Marco Andretti who was putting whuppin’ on the field. Could this be THE year for the “A” team?
There wasn’t a lot of drama on track until Lap 80. Mike Conway had a bad pit stop, hitting a crewman. While they were attending to the crewman, nobody paid any attention to a damaged front wing. Conway returned to the track and had an immediate handling problem. It forced him up the track and into the path of Penske’s Will Power. The crash launched Conway backwards into the fence and Power down the track, shedding body parts and wheels, one hitting Helio Castroneves’ right front tire. The crash continues Power’s seemingly snake bit fortunes at the Brickyard.
There were many lead changes, but no real drama in the middle of the race. However, the lead swapping continued at a record pace—all due to the large hole the DW 12 punches in the air.
It looked like fuel strategy would mean the difference between winning and losing with 50 laps to go. Drivers were asked to go to leaner fuel settings to get to the end of the race with one final stop. That blew up with 20 laps to go when Ed Carpenter hit the wall. Everybody gassed up and started swinging for the fences. Marco Andretti was the next to crash. He went low to pass, caught the dreaded line of paint, spun and hit the wall, ending what could have finally broken the “Andretti Jinx.”
Now, Ganassi’s Target cars were at the front. Scott Dixon had maintained a top 10 or better pace throughout the race while the determined Scot coolly and methodically worked his way back to the front. Did he borrow Jimmie Johnson’s lucky horseshoe? Sentimental favorite Tony Kanaan took the lead after the Andretti crash, but it was short lived.
It looked like the Ganassi boys were heading for a sure 1-2 finish when Rahal/Letterman’s Takuma Sato zeroed in on the red bulls eyes. He was just waiting to strike. He made his dive bomb run into Turn One under Franchitti on lap 199. Franchitti defended, giving Sato a very narrow gap. They touched, much like Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. in 1989. Sato crashed and Franchitti didn’t, taking the Indy 500 checkers for the third time.
Franchitti donned those white shades in victory circle and pointed skyward before draping the iconic wreath over his shoulder. He and wife Ashley Judd invited Susie Wheldon to ride in the victory parade lap as a final tribute to her fallen husband and Indy’s newest legend. No doubt Dan was smiling from high above.
Coca Cola 600
The Coca Cola 600 is the last Memorial Day race. It is the longest race in the world. It starts in the heat of the day and finishes under the cool but brilliant Musco lights. It was heartening to see the Richard Petty Motorsports Fords on the front row, including, yup, another Australian driver (Marcos Ambrose). Both RPM drivers could not maintain the blistering pace and slid back in the running order.
Unfortunately, this one didn’t peg the excitement meter as much as the day’s other two races. It was great to see Greg Biffle’s Valvoline NextGen Ford lead almost half the race, but he eventually faded. Early favorite Jimmie Johnson showed promise, but he too fizzled into insignificance. Did he loan his “lucky horseshoe to Franchitti? “Five Time’s” Pit Crew Challenge Champions fizzled too, botching his final stop and sealing the 48’s chances of a sweep after his All-Star win. Hendrick’s “Big Poppa” Jeff Gordon showed flickers of brilliance that cooled as night fell.
The race just seemed to drone on, albeit at a rapid pace. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was pretty scrappy at times, led briefly, but didn’t have anything for the fourth Hendrick entry: Kasey Kahne. After a season of frustration, he took the No. 5 to victory and vindication for himself and crew chief Kenny Francis. It was also Kahne’s third Coke 600 win. One for Ford, Dodge and Chevy.
And Danica? She did exactly what she said she would do: Finish the race…with a car mostly dent free if you don’t look at the right side. Perhaps the salvation for this race is that it finished in record time and an average speed or a tick more than 155 mph. It beat Bobby Labonte’s 1995 record by more than 4 mph. Flag to flag race time was less than three and a half hours.
And for the first time in a very long time, people could go to bed at a reasonable hour. Good night RCG readers, good night.