By Tony DiZinno
It was great to be back both to Indianapolis and with TrackSide Online for another year in 2023, having contributed off-and-on for several years as my schedule and work allows.
In a May that featured so much in the way of hype, anticipation and buzz, I found myself coming back to data and minute differences either way that swung so much of the month both on and off track.
In a sentence? I boil this month down to a series of finite margins that seemed to make all the difference and tell the stories.
Going into qualifying, I pondered how in years past, the third or even fourth decimal point was the single deciding factor between who got locked into qualifying and who didn’t.
That point was reiterated over a weekend of qualifying that saw a record 84 runs on Saturday, followed by an additional 24 on Sunday – 18 between the Fast 12 and Firestone Fast Six and six covering the Last Chance Qualifying – that produced elation and heartbreak in equal measures.
Joy swept through RC Enerson and Abel Motorsports’ crew as they made it in the first day against the odds, yet waited nearly six hours to do so. Relief washed over Katherine Legge’s face as she avoided the drama of Sunday as the lone Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing car secure.
Come Sunday, Jack Harvey appeared equal parts relieved and distraught as his last chance run, perhaps aided by a cooling track temp in addition to his changes made in the cockpit, to sneak in at the end. Yet that left Graham Rahal on the sidelines unexpectedly through no fault of his own; the less than two hundredths of a mph over four laps and 10 miles left him sidelined, consoled by his family.
As the run for pole came next, it was Alex Palou edging Rinus VeeKay by just four thousandths of a second, and six thousands of a mph, over that same distance. At over 234mph. For the fastest pole in Indianapolis 500 history.
The fact those two would be so close on Sunday, May 21 was one thing… the fact they’d be even closer on Sunday, May 28 as it turned out, would be quite another.
The month of margins rolled on into Monday, when Legge appeared to misjudge her speed and apex – again only slightly – when encountering a train of cars in the two-hour post-qualifying practice session. Legge hit Stefan Wilson and produced the first accident of the month. The unfortunate collision led to Wilson requiring surgery to repair a fractured 12th throracic vertebrae.
Wilson’s annual dream of working together with Don Cusick to continue their Indianapolis 500 racing together was briefly paused. But he made a surprise reappearance at the track on race day to check in with his crew, sign autographs and keep the faith of optimism for a return. All those who signed a “Get Well Stef” banner outside the DRR garage ensured there are lot of people rooting for him.
Enter Tuesday, and it seemed logical that Dreyer & Reinbold Racing would enlist team veterans JR Hildebrand or Sage Karam as Wilson’s injury replacement. Instead, they went with Rahal, in a move that seemed to defy logic as a Honda driver filling in a Chevrolet. The fact the margins of all collective stakeholders – among Honda, Chevrolet, Dennis Reinbold, Bobby Rahal and the collective partners that had been set to miss the race on Graham’s No. 15 Honda moving over to either this car or other RLL cars – struck a deal in mere hours Monday night is remarkable. That doesn’t happen if Rahal wasn’t the only driver who was already qualified and didn’t need a refresher, or wasn’t far removed from Wilson height-wise, or didn’t provide the team a great shot as a replacement. Kudos must be given to all here, and particularly for how RLL Racing handled a nightmare scenario both Sunday and Monday.
Friday was free of margin-type story lines on track, except for the tight margin of time between Zak Brown and Chip Ganassi off it.
Ganassi has long held what is known as the “Chip on the Bricks” media availability on Friday morning of Carb Day, just before practice.
Mere minutes before, Brown made an appearance in the DEX Imaging Media Center to talk McLaren’s story and odds for winning the 107th running of this race and celebrating its 60-year history in style with a nod to the brand’s triple crown success across Indianapolis, Monaco and Le Mans.
It was a quote offered in response to the Indianapolis Star’s Nathan Brown asking what might happen if McLaren’s Brown had eyes on potentially stealing another of Ganassi’s stars, in last year’s 500 winner Marcus Ericsson, the belle of the ball in the 2023 IndyCar free agent frenzy.
Brown replied, “First of all, I don’t think people steal things. I think people lose things.”
It’s not that the rest of the quote didn’t matter as Brown proceeded to talk up Ericsson’s prospects and poked at the fact Ganassi doesn’t – yet – have commercial partners tied up to lock down the “Sneaky Swede” past 2023. It was more the jaw-dropping moment that rarely occurs in these type sessions as the collective media gathered and asked whether they’d just heard what they thought they heard.
We know Brown has added Felix Rosenqvist and NTT Data from Ganassi’s team. We know he’s gone after Scott Dixon. We anticipate, strongly, he’ll bring Alex Palou over to the IndyCar side in 2024 as Palou currently has an official McLaren role as a Formula 1 reserve driver. And now to hear Ericsson’s name thrown in the mix, even if it’s unlikely he’d move here? That was gamesmanship at another level, particularly as Ganassi appeared this month as though he’d rather discuss root canals than any of his driver contracts.
The month of margins in anticipation to Sunday brought us to race day, where the margins at the front end were wondering whether this race would be a sellout (it was strongly suggested the 300,000-plus in attendance comprised the best ’500 since 2016) or the margins of track position would allow for drivers third or further back to gain on the leaders, thanks to INDYCAR’s aerodynamic enhancements for 2023.
And then… the race happened. And so many more tight margins emerged.
After a relatively calm opening stanza, the race complexion changed on Lap 92 when rookie Sting Ray Robb shifted from the group of drivers who will hit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway wall to the drivers who have. Nothing wrong with that. Where he erred was by rather erroneously blaming Graham Rahal, as Rahal had passed him earlier into Turn 1 but left Robb plenty of room to gather up momentum and carry through the corner unscathed. In a praise-worthy follow-up, the Dale Coyne with Rick Ware Racing freshman later said he acted too hot in the heat of the moment and would do better next time.
This meant that for the first time this race, we’d have yellow flag pit stops. And that, as always, is a doozy.
Remember how VeeKay and Palou were separated by only a few thousandths in qualifying? This time, they weren’t separated at all when VeeKay lit the rear tires leaving his pit box and crashed into Palou. Palou must want to exorcise some demons on the IMS pit lane; it’s now cost him in consecutive ‘500s. But despite light damage, Palou got away relatively unharmed and began a comeback drive that eventually got him up to fourth. The margins here hurt the Spaniard who seems destined to win this race at some point; it just wasn’t Sunday.
Only one other caution followed in the next 85 laps, as Romain Grosjean hit the Turn 2 wall shortly after getting hit by Colton Herta in the pit lane. That produced two different strategies, and led to a barrage of margin-laden stories.
On Lap 185, Josef Newgarden, who’d been there or thereabouts after moving forward from 17th on the grid, passed Felix Rosenqvist to the outside of Turn 1 for third place. Rosenqvist proceeded to wash up out of the dirty air, and hit the Turn 1 wall. With a wounded car, a spin and second impact was inevitable. It was the third impact that was the worst.
As Kyle Kirkwood, who had also snuck into the picture, came upon the stranded Rosenqvist he had nowhere to go but into him. The contact was at an unusual angle, whereby the touching of wheels essentially catapulted Kirkwood’s left rear tire and wheel off its tether over the Turn 2 catch fencing. The loss of tire also saw Kirkwood flip and go for a nearly identical flip ride as Colton Herta had in 2022 Carb Day practice. He was OK despite the scary ride, eased by the same strategist as Herta had last year – dad Bryan.
Where the tire landed was, ultimately, a matter of finite margins. Several feet either direction could have been into the Turn 2 suites or adjacent grandstand. Neither good; both potentially catastrophic. Where it did land, fortuitously if there ever is such a place for a flying tire to land, was on a white car in a parking lot. A car can be replaced; a human life cannot.
Bullet dodged there. Meanwhile, red flag number one was thrown.
In a sense, this mirrors the last 10-year history of the race where inside of 20 laps to go, INDYCAR Race Control throws a red flag to preserve the chance of a green flag finish. Where this first red flag differed is that there was not a track-related reason to go red; i.e. barrier or fence repairs.
Nonetheless, the race restarted. And that’s when another tight margin emerged.
Pato O’Ward had been gifted a tire advantage by way of a fueling issue where his Arrow McLaren Chevrolet hadn’t been getting it all in. O’Ward, with fresher tires, blew past Marcus Ericsson shortly before the Rosenqvist/Kirkwood crash. What he did after the restart appeared a rare error from a driver whose oval record with the team has been sterling.
Ericsson was strategically defensive entering Turn 3 as O’Ward saw a gap and went for it. It wasn’t a big enough gap to work. O’Ward spun around, hit the wall and was out of the running. He claimed he got squeezed but realistically it wasn’t going to happen there. O’Ward, like Palou, does feel an eventual 500 winner but this was a move of youthful impetuosity that might have been better served to wait a lap or two, or if the gap was wider. It was nearly identical to how Dario Franchitti cagily baited Takuma Sato into his move at Turn 1 on the last lap of 2012.
Red flag number two.
And you’ve read this far and you’re thinking, well, you haven’t got to the moment that decided everything that was the biggest story featuring tight margins all month.
We have arrived at red flag number three, after the multi-car pileup on Lap 197 – a key lap to note – on the restart after the O’Ward crash that subsequently also took out Simon Pagenaud and Agustin Canapino.
That the red flag wasn’t called for immediately isn’t particularly relevant here. As cars would come down pit road to cross the start/finish line and complete Lap 198 anyway, logic would dictate that there wouldn’t be enough time to restart under green.
In theory, a restart takes at least two laps: an out lap and a warm-up lap, before resuming. This is not spelled out in black-and-white in the rulebook and therefore this was not a rules error in actuality. It did, however, feel one spiritually.
That’s where the margins come in. Red flag number three needed to determine multiple factors:
- Was there enough time to restart under green?
- What was the running order at the most recent scoring loop?
- Is it really worth boiling everything down that every one of the competitors has worked for all month to come down to a one-lap shootout in the biggest race of the year, done only after an abnormal restart sequence, for a third red flag?
The answers? Well, they depend on who you ask. But unquestionably, an answer to all three that could work is “it’s complicated.”
Ericsson, unsurprisingly, called the decision to restart unfair but did so in a diplomatic manner.
Santino Ferrucci and Tony Kanaan, however, backed INDYCAR’s decision. As did the winning trio of Josef Newgarden, Team Penske president Tim Cindric and Roger Penske.
What was the running order? That was a trickier bit to determine. Ericsson had the lead at the time of this red flag, but the question was whether Newgarden or Ferrucci was second. INDYCAR announced an audit under this red flag to determine the running order coming down to the restart. Somewhat perplexingly, it was more beneficial to be second because of the tow advantage and ability to take the lead from second, and even third as Ferrucci demonstrated. Newgarden was confirmed in second, Ferrucci third for the final restart.
And finally, there’s the last question, asked here philosophically.
Where IndyCar has succeeded and other motorsports series have perhaps struggled in recent years is in balancing the debate between entertainment and purity as a sporting product. IndyCar has, for the most part, leaned closer to purity.
Sunday stretched that point and perhaps shifted closer to entertainment, and potentially opens up a Pandora’s box for future races if a similar situation occurs. It’s now established a red flag can be thrown with two laps to go, and an attempt to restart is made with one green flag lap only after a single out lap.
Newgarden, no question, made the winning move and deserves the win on merit after Ericsson put up a valiant, but unsuccessful, defense effort despite a great restart still leading into Turn 1. He capped off the win with another close margin: just 0.0974 of a second, fourth-closest in race history.
That he even had the chance to do so based on finite margins that were stretched and pushed feels a bit difficult to swallow this Monday after the race.
How this race and its finish over the last 18 laps of three red flag periods age will be fascinating to watch.
And that will be determined over a much wider margin of time: the rest of it.