Like nearly any other native Hoosier, my love affair with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway began in my childhood. I didn’t grow up in the shadows of the speedway, in fact I grew up much closer to another huge one-day sporting event. That would be the Kentucky Derby, as I was raised just across the river from Churchill Downs.
Ironically, it was a Louisville native that sparked my interest for 16th and Georgetown. That would be Danny Sullivan’s spin-and-win in 1985. It was the last year before the race was made available live nationally on TV. Word of Sullivan’s win spread like wildfire through the area. Suddenly, the Sunday night before Memorial Day was appointment viewing in a 100-mile radius.
And I was hooked.
Since that time, it’s been rare that I’ve missed a race. I was fortunate enough from 1996-2010 to have some tie to the race. Whether it was covering the event all month long, being at the station during a race broadcast, or attending eight consecutive races including those 3 A.M. wakeup calls, that passion sparked by one win over 25 years ago has blossomed into a full-blown love affair.
I’ve had the privilege of covering Super Bowls, Final Fours, and other state and national championships. Nothing gives me the goose bumps I get on race day. The feeling of driving under the track on the day of the race gives me goose bumps as I type those words. It’s been great being back around the speedway so much this month.
So with that explanation as my frame of reference, allow me to speak on behalf of my favorite Indy 500: 2002.
This was the crossroads of the IRL v. CART battle. Chip Ganassi’s cars made the jump to run in the 500 in 2000, winning with Juan Pablo Montoya. Roger Penske followed suit in 2001, with cars running in the 500 for the first time since Little Al won in 1994. The combination of Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran went 1-2 in Penske’s triumphant return. Michael Andretti had returned in 2001 as well.
In 2002, all of Team Green’s cars were a part of the race, as was Tony Kanaan for the first time. Paul Tracy was a part of the field for the first time in seven years. Penske’s cars had made the move full time to the IRL that year, and Ganassi and Andretti’s teams would follow the next year. The landscape was about to change in open wheel racing, but this was the final battle. And it went well past 500 miles.
The drama that would unfold between Castroneves and Tracy wouldn’t have been an issue if Tomas Shecketer, as a rookie driving for Eddie Cheever, hadn’t crashed into the turn four wall. His lead was over eight seconds with under 30 laps in the race.
That sounds like the more recent past with JR Hildebrand’s final lap crash two years ago. And much like that race, fuel strategy played a major role.
Castroneves, Tracy, Felipe Giaffone, and Alex Barron all had a shot to win in the final laps. Castroneves was the last to have the lead, but it the math didn’t add up in terms of the defending race champ making it to the finish. He’d have to go the final 42 laps on a tank of fuel.
A crash behind the leaders involving Buddy Lazier and Laurent Redon led to perhaps the most famous yellow in the history of the race. When did it come out? Had Tracy gotten past Castroneves before the yellow light flashed around the track? Castroneves claimed he began to slow not because his fuel was running out, but because he saw yellow on the dashboard.
While Tracy crossed the finish line first, it was Castroneves who was declared the winner. This led to two separate protests by Team Green, both of which were denied. Castoneves now will pursue a record-tying fourth 500 win on Sunday, Tracy didn’t return to the track until 2009, and has since retired. Because of the split, and his distaste for what happened in 2002, he ran the 500 one time in a span of 14 years.
The combination of two series destined to merge a few years down the road, with the major stats competing on the IRL stage full time by the next year, and the quality of the race itself make this my favorite race that I’ve covered at Indy.
The 2005 (Danicamania) and 2006 (Hornish passes Andretti in final 200 hundred yards) races are just tucked behind this one as my favorites. I scratched 2004 and 2007 simply because rain played too big of a part, although I’ve been telling 2004 stories all week due to the combination of 500 and Pacers game that same day (and let’s please avoid tornadoes this time).
I expect the same amount of drama this year as some of the great races of the last decade. There just won’t be the political back drop whomever wins this time as there was in 2002.