It’s a sad truth that in this day and age IndyCar is a deeply devalued commercial property. It struggles in NASCAR’s shadow at home in America and has vanished as a global rival for F1 as it once was 20 years ago. But unrecognised as they may be, the fact is IndyCar’s top drivers and teams are among the best in the world and the opposition provides a deeply talented, fiercely competitive field against which to measure themselves.
From a pure racing point of view this past year’s IndyCar season produced plenty of memorable moments.
Without doubt, the 98th Indianapolis 500 was IndyCar’s best race of the year. Ryan Hunter-Reay drove excellently to score his first Indy 500 win after a fierce battle in the closing laps with Hélio Castroneves.
Hunter-Reay started deep in the field down in 19th, but he made rapid ground in the race’s early laps. Ryan took the lead for the first time at half-distance and thereafter he was the man to beat as he led 56 of the last 100 laps and out-dueled Castroneves after an exciting wheel-to-wheel battle over the final half-dozen laps.
Hunter-Reay and Castroneves passed each other four times in the closing laps with Hunter-Reay making a superb outside pass going into the first turn on the second-last lap. Castroneves tucked into Hunter-Reay’s slipstream and tried to draft past as they shot down the front straight on the final lap towards the chequered flag. The Brazilian pulled almost even with Hunter-Reay as they passed beneath the flag but fell less than a car length short as Ryan won by 0.0600 of a second, the second closest finish in Indy 500 history.
“When Hélio got by me, I thought that might have been it,” Hunter-Reay remarked. “But we started running well out of two and four and it was going to be the long way around. I came back down and cut a little grass, but we made it happen. This race was ridiculously close and competitive. I’m just glad I picked the right time to go.”
One of the smartest wins of the year in IndyCar was Juan Pablo Montoya’s Pocono 500 victory, which also featured the best pass of the year. Montoya ran a strong race to score a 1-2 sweep for Penske with Castroneves chasing Montoya across the line. Only one yellow flag interrupted the 500 miles and on the only restart Montoya made a race-winning outside pass of team-mate Will Power. He clipped Power’s right rear tyre with his left front wing as he went by, knocking the end plate off, but the damage didn’t affect his speed.
“I had to do it,” Montoya said. “It was one of those moves where you do it or not. That was the winning move and I had to do it. Track position is everything and that was the only shot I had of passing Will. I had to take it. We did it and it was fun.”
And maybe the most masterful IndyCar win of the year was Scott Dixon’s superb come-from-behind victory at Mid-Ohio. After spinning on a wet track in qualifying Dixon started the race dead last. But after safely negotiating a multi-car, mid-field crash on the opening lap, and with the help of a little good luck and sharp pit strategy, Dixon gave everyone a lesson in how to save fuel and drive fast at the same time.
The race-winning moment came for Dixon with a mid-race yellow when Hunter-Reay spun. Under the yellow everyone save Dixon came into the pits for fuel and tires and from the restart he was in control, pulling away from the field and maintaining a comfortable cushion through his final pitstop all the way to the chequered flag. Dixon ran out of fuel just after crossing the line, pulling off at the first turn.
That was a truly superb performance as Dixon scored his fifth win at Mid-Ohio and broke Ganassi’s 2014 strike-out, laying the foundation for two more wins for the team before the end of the season.
In closing I must correct an error I made in a blog last month about Roger Penske’s driving career. I said that Penske had dropped out of Lehigh University, an old rumour which is completely untrue. In fact, RP graduated from Lehigh in 1959 with a degree in business and is a highly-respected alumnus of the Pennsylvania college. Today he is chairman of Lehigh’s business school and the university’s Athletics Hall of Fame is named after him. Not exactly a drop-out.