May is the month of auto races and weddings, and the Indianapolis 500 actually is like a wedding in its own way. The race is old-fashioned and tradition-steeped, a spectacle that stands for something deep and romantic. And just as many have muttered it won't last while listening to wedding vows, the Indy 500 can provoke as many doubts and anxieties as feelings of hope and bliss. For the IndyCar racing league, the Indy 500 is too often the highpoint of an endless trudge through financial worries, uncomfortable compromises and gathering gloom.
Even so, hope springs eternal on sunny May afternoons, and the 98th running of the Indy 500 was as enthralling a race as fans could hope for. Perhaps it was because this year's race took a cue from an old wedding adage and equipped itself with a set of good luck charms.
Juan Pablo Montoya did not respect the Brickyard as a rookie, back in 2000, or so the wisdom of the time went. His style was reckless, the experts said, his attention to the details, corners and personality of the Brickyard oval not up to snuff.
That was in the dark days of the CART-IRL civil war, when one racing organization held all the best drivers, the other held the most important racing course in the United States, and the two leagues battled to the brink of mutual extinction. Montoya and Jimmy Vasser, teammates for Chip Ganassi Racing, were the first CART drivers to cross over and compete in the Indy 500 in years. Through qualifiers and practices, experts assumed that Montoya's risky style, better suited to CART's lower-speed road races, would knock him out early.
It didn't. Montoya led 167 laps in the 2000 race, often by gaps exceeding two seconds. He sprinted to easy leads at the end of each caution. After the final pit stops, he breezed past Vasser, who chose not to pit in sequence. It was a dominating performance for the 1999 CART champion, though it only served to underline the awful schism that was rapidly eroding fan enthusiasm for open-wheel racing in America. Montoya bolted to Europe's Formula One circuit, then came back to America with NASCAR.
Montoya's return to IndyCar -- technically not a "return," due to the politics of 14 years ago -- was one of the biggest stories of the circuit's offseason. Not only did Montoya arrive from NASCAR with name recognition and success, but with a defiant assertion, which he made over and over again, that IndyCar is the more exciting racing league. "I don't want to disrespect NASCAR, because they do have a really good show, and people like it," Montoya said this week. "Racing NASCAR is a lot of fun and everything, but it's so different. The pace of the race is so different.
"The intensity of what you get in a green-white-checkered, you get in an IndyCar race from beginning to end. You've got to drive it like a green-white-checkered every freaking lap. You've got to use it all."
Montoya's style was as bold and risky as ever. He raced deep into pit sequences, typically stopping after all the other drivers took their turns. He drew a penalty for speeding as he entered pit row. He led for 16 non-sequential laps, grudgingly giving up the leads to pit and hovering among the leaders for most of the race after starting on the fourth row. He finished fifth overall.
Montoya will return to NASCAR for a few races this summer, including the Brickyard 400, as Team Penske maximizes its assets across multiple platforms. But the IndyCar series is his primary responsibility, and Montoya already has a fourth-place finish in Long Beach to go with Sunday's showing. He is committed to his new league's odd mix of street races, ovals and double-headers, and his top-five finishes in two distinct types of races show just how wide-open the possibilities are.
Fourteen years ago, a brash rookie from a rival league illustrated how far the Indy 500 had fallen with his commanding win, then left the continent in search of new challenges. He was back on Sunday to show how far the Indy 500 has come. Race organizers hope that fans and viewers heard that message, loud and clear.
Sage Karam missed his senior prom to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. He almost missed the race, too, when he bumped the wall on Turn 4 during Friday's Carb Day practice.
"I'm learning something new, and today was more of a race-trim situation, running with more cars," Karam said of the near disaster, which began when he got too close to James Hinchcliffe in the turn, getting caught in a sudden air-flow wing crisis as he tried to compensate. Karam regained control after the slide, and his car escaped major damage that may have taken him out of the running. "I'm learning every day, and thankfully I learned this today and not Sunday."
Karam was the star of the race run-up. His crew gave him a private prom on Carb Day, flying in his sweetheart from Pennsylvania, decorating the garage and even making cupcakes. Karam worked the crowd during pit practices, as his crew finished second to Scott Dixon's. IndyCar put much of its promotional muscle behind Karam, which is only logical. The circuit could use a charismatic, 19-year-old, American driver.
It helps that Karam is a hell of a racer. He won multiple cart championships and the USF2000 title in 2010, before graduating to the IndyLights series and tearing that circuit apart with three wins and six other podium finishes. He competed in two of the most important endurance races in America earlier in 2014, with a particularly strong showing at Sebring's 12 Hours of Racing, which he briefly led after a third-to-first pass.
Karam's aggressive, fearless style served him well on Sunday. He climbed from the 31st position to ninth place as the afternoon progressed, mixing veteran moves with passes that only a teenager would dare attempt, including outside-on-the-turn moves that helped him escape the back of the field. Just finishing the Indy 500 at Karam's age is a major accomplishment. Marco Andretti was three days younger than Karam when he finished the race in 2008, but having a team named after your grandfather speeds your development a bit. Finishing the race, finishing in the top ten and finishing as the advancement leader is one heck of a hat trick, wedged between the prom and graduation.
Karam may be American racing's most promising youngster, and he is an IndyCar homegrown product. A racing league that sometimes struggles to get marketers' attention can be forgiven for turning Carb Day into prom night. After Sunday's race, there will be little need for pomp and circumstance. Karam has graduated into the big time.
A 1,100-mile journey through non-stop, rush-hour traffic would not be most people's idea of a nice Sunday drive -- racing in the Indianapolis 500 in the afternoon and then NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 in North Carolina later that night. Kurt Busch nearly missed his opportunity to try it.
Busch's bid to become the third person in history to do same-day "double duty" came unstuck while exiting Turn 2 during a practice lap early in the week. Busch slammed into a barrier and spun out, his car briefly catching fire as he skidded toward the infield. "I was starting to feel comfortable," Busch said after being cleared to return to racing. "That's when I made the mistake of just letting my guard down or settling into that long run-type mentality, whereas with an Indy car, you have to be on edge." The crash illustrated just how grueling a feat racing twice in two different vehicles in one day can be. Imagine catching both ends of a doubleheader, except that the baseballs travel over 200 miles per hour and could arrive on fire. Busch, racing in a backup Andretti Motorsports car for the Indy, could not afford to feel comfortable for a moment.
Busch raced an impressive Indy 500, if a quiet one. He gradually overcame early draft and slide issues to work his way from the fourth row to sixth place, with most of his moves coming late. He leapt from his car and was escorted to a helicopter, which took him to the airport, where a private plane took him to Charlotte. He arrived at the Coca-Cola 600 precisely one hour and 33 minutes after he pitted in Indy. Unfortunately, engine failure ended his double-duty bid after 406.5 miles at Charlotte and 906.5 on the day.
Busch is one of NASCAR's most colorful and controversial drivers, the circuit's designated villain who often makes "most hated athletes" lists due to his constant feuds and rants. His moustache-twirling reputation made him the perfect NASCAR driver to cross the IndyCar divide for double duty, giving America's open-wheeled enthusiasts an ideal interloper to root against.
Yet there was no sense of fan animosity toward Busch, and the double-duty effort did not upstage this year's Indy 500, as it might have under other circumstances. Television announcers rarely mentioned Busch's bid, folding it into the race's many other storylines. A disappointed Busch sounded humbled by an effort that proved too great for his equipment, if not for him. "It was great to feel the stock car right after driving the Indycar," he said before the end of the Coca-Cola 600. "It was a day I'll never forget."
Busch brought a little box office on Sunday, but he also built a bridge between racing's biggest league and it's most historic event, on the one day where American racing takes center stage in the sports consciousness. The NASCAR bad boy did not conquer and was not conquered; the Indy 500 absorbed him, just as it once absorbed the best racers from all nations and circuits, and made him part of the spectacle.
Something … Green?
Poetic license rarely intervenes in real-life events, so no blue-painted chassis crossed the finish line first at the Brickyard. Skies were a dazzling blue above Speedway, Ind., however, and the race beneath those blue skies was one of the greatest Indianapolis 500's in history. Former IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves traded the lead multiple times in the final laps, with Hunter-Reay prevailing by passing Castroneves late in the second-to-last lap, for the second-closest finish in history. The final eight laps of racing, after the race was red-flagged briefly due to a spinout, was an intense, concentrated battle, worthy of the races of yesteryear. "I hope the fans loved it, because I was on the edge of my seat," Hunter-Reay said after the win.
If not something blue, perhaps something green brought good luck. The race began with 150 uninterrupted laps of glorious green-flag racing: lots of aggressive moves, lead changes and hard-fought position battles, but no contact or cautions. It was majestic racing, featuring a fascinating collection of characters: the teenager Karam, the prodigal son Montoya, the visitor Busch, the three-time champ Castroneves, the forever-in-the-mix Andretti and the winner Hunter-Reay, a consistent IndyCar leader who is not a household name, because IndyCar racing only reaches most households once per year. Perhaps, after Sunday, that will start to change.
A spectacle, like a wedding, lasts a day, but a marriage and racing loyalty last a lifetime. The 2014 Indianapolis 500 was a hitch without a hitch. It was grand enough to make fans out of spectators and believers out of skeptics. The Indy 500 is over for another year, but for once it does not feel like an ending, but the foundation for a lasting, rewarding commitment.