America 2016: Day Four (29 May)

Back home again in Indiana,
And it seems that I can see
The gleaming candle light, still shining bright,
Through the Sycamores for me.
The new-mowed hay sends all its fragrance
From the fields I used to roam.
When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash
Then I long for my Indiana home.

– Jim Nabors

Race Day at the 100th Indianapolis 500. Man, does that have a nice ring to it? Instead of waking up in the early hours of Monday morning to watch on TV back home in Sydney, I woke up at 4:30am in my downtown Indianapolis hotel to scoff down some breakfast before boarding a coach to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I haven’t seen the city as alive and busy as it was this morning.

To be honest, I didn’t sleep too much Saturday night, for excitement. Based on twitter and conversations on the bus and at the track, I wasn’t the only one. There was a hell of a lot of anticipation inside IMS this morning! I don’t know how drivers manage to get any sleep the night before a race as big as this.

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The Speedway was almost empty when we arrived around 8am.

Being at the track for Carb Day and Legends Day was great, but nothing compares to race day. We arrived just after eight o’clock – taking advantage of a police escort that allowed us to skip the mammoth traffic jams that clogged the roads between downtown Indianapolis and the track – about two hours after the track opened, and still had hours to kill before the green flag.

That was fine with me, because it allowed plenty of time to take in all the pageantry that Indianapolis is famous for. In the four hours between our arrival and green flag, we saw marching bands, a cavalcade of military personnel, a parade of Indianapolis 500-winning cars, an F18 flyover, the green flag arriving by helicopter, driver introductions, Josh Kaufman singing “Back Home Again in Indiana”, Darius Rucker’s spine-tingling rendition of the national anthem, during which a bald eagle swooped in low over turn one.

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You see so many amazing things at the speedway. We were witness to a ninety-four-year-old man who arrived in a wheelchair and was carried in said chair up the steps to his seat by his family. He has seen eighty-nine 500’s at the Speedway, and showed up for the hundredth. Whilst he left midway through the race, the effort to get there was nothing short of incredible.

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Dan Wheldon’s 2011 Indy 500 winning car.

You know what else is incredible? The total attendance made the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the fifty-seventh largest city in the United States. It was a mass of humanity all day, but thanks to a series of smart road closures and plenty of food and drink outlets, there were none of the mammoth queues that you often see at Australian sporting events. In fact, we could learn a thing or two from an event such as this.

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Turn One bleachers filling up.
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Looking through Turn One back towards the start/finish line.

Shortly after midday, Mari Hulman George gave the order to start engines – “lady and gentlemen, start your engines!” – and there was a roar like no other as the cars that had been sitting on the front straight since just after ten o’clock came spectacularly to life. I experienced goose bump-provoking moment after goose bump-provoking moment. There’s nothing like being in the stands to experience every single moment of ceremony and celebration.

And then, they drop the green flag on a perfect start: eleven rows of three cars, and there are thirty-three cars coming at you in turn one, somehow making it through a tight first turn, across the short chute and into two, led by pole sitter James Hinchcliffe. The start, with 400,000 on their feet and cheering, was an experience that is hard to accurately describe with words. To understand what I mean, you have to come to Indianapolis and experience it for yourself. Believe me, it’s well worth the trip.

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The one hundredth running of this epic race had everything: an insane amount of passes for the lead, a couple of spectacular accidents (from which drivers walked away with no serious injury) a bizarre three-car incident in the pit lane, which put an end to the hopes of front runners Townsend Bell and Ryan Hunter-Reay, and a frantic last thirty laps.

ABOVE: How I saw the start of the 100th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

Let’s talk about those last thirty, shall we? Madness personified. We didn’t see the expected late-race caution that many of us anticipated, and that turned the last stanza into a fuel mileage event as drivers tried to stretch their last tank to the end. Many tried, and most failed, with lots of front runners needing to pit inside the last five laps, cruelling their hopes for victory.

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All except for American Alexander Rossi, who somehow stretched his last tank of fuel thirty-six laps – an almost inhuman effort – enough to ensure he crossed the famous yard of bricks first in only his second ever oval race. But, that’s only half the story for Rossi, whose car coughed as he took the white flag, and somehow managed to run on fumes for the final circuit, barely above walking pace as he came out of turn four for the final time, coaxing his #98 Honda across the line as a furious pack of gassed-up drivers, led by Carlos Munoz and Josef Newgarden, chased him down.

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Rossi, driving in Formula One this time last year, spending his Memorial Day weekend in Monaco rather than Indianapolis, led a chunk of the race near the halfway mark, and became only the third rookie to win the Indianapolis 500 in the last fifty years.

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Formation laps.

It’s fair to say that Rossi wasn’t the guy most of us expected to win today. I personally thought Josef Newgarden or Tony Kanaan would win today, but Rossi’s drive ensured an American would win America’s biggest, and in dramatic fashion, as befitting the Indianapolis 500’s one hundredth running. All said and done, it was a popular victory – and, given the chaotic circumstances, one worthy of this race. The job he did to save fuel got him to victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and provided a finish for the ages. What an extraordinary weekend!

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Alexander Rossi, winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500

There’s nothing quite like this race. If you ever have the opportunity to go, don’t pass it up. You won’t be disappointed.

Sad that the race weekend is over, but happy about what’s to come: we’re off to Chicago in the morning to celebrate Memorial Day with friends.

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Some Americana to cap off a day I’ll never forget.

 


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