Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 26, 2019

Racing For More Than Just First Place

Two words were top of mind as the final laps of this year’s Indianapolis 500 wound down Sunday afternoon at venerable Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the long tactical chase among open-wheeled race cars capable of speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour transforming, as it so often does, into a mad dash of speed and adrenaline over its final miles.

Whether Indy remains the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” as organizers have long since styled it, is perhaps open to debate. In this country NASCAR dwarfs IndyCar in popularity, and on a global scale Formula One is far and away the most recognizable open-wheeled racing series. While the crowd at the Brickyard was huge as always, certainly far greater than NASCAR commands for any single race, it failed to fill all the seats surrounding the two and one-half mile oval. But if the spectacle is not quite as grand as in the glory days of this sport, the race can still cause the pulse to quicken, and even as it does so can remind fans that our games often provide lessons that are equally applicable to life.

The first of those words, echoing in one’s head as the 500 became a two-car sprint to the finish, was perseverance. That might seem strange, given that the drivers in those two cars were Simon Pagenaud of France, who was the IndyCar Series champion just three years ago and who had won both the IndyCar Grand Prix over the Speedway’s road course earlier in the month and the pole for the 500, and Alexander Rossi, an American who had already taken the traditional milk bath in victory lane at the Speedway, having claimed the 2016 Indy 500 as his first IndyCar Series win.

But open-wheeled racing is no different than our other sports. No matter what our heroes have accomplished in the past there are those who are always willing to second-guess or question the lack of more recent results. Such was the case with both drivers who traded the lead five times over the race’s final dozen laps, with another four passing attempts blocked by the car then in the lead.

For the 27-year-old Rossi, that has meant questions about whether he was a legitimate Indy 500 winner. Driving for Andretti Autosport in his rookie IndyCar Series campaign, Rossi missed most preseason testing and his best finish by far was a distant 10th place at the Brickyard’s Grand Prix event two weeks before the 500. In his only start on an oval Rossi had run a credible race at Phoenix but showed his inexperience by brushing the wall late and ending up 14th.

Rather than ending with a mad dash the 2016 Indy 500 turned into a tactical race, all about fuel. With the last caution flag coming during lap 166, all the cars in the field were running on fumes as the checkered flag neared. One by one the leaders dove into pit row for a precious splash of super high-octane fuel. With nothing to lose, Rossi’s pit told him to stay out and drive as conservatively as possible. He finally took the lead on lap 197 and literally coasted across the Brickyard’s finish line, even as far more experienced drivers were rapidly closing in. Rossi became the first 500 winner who had to be towed to victory lane. It was a result guaranteed to provide ammunition to skeptics.

For Pagenaud, the questions have been of the “what have you done for me lately” variety. The same year Rossi became the improbable rookie winner of the 500, Pagenaud took home seven poles and five wins in 2016’s sixteen-race IndyCar series, giving a championship to Team Penske. As impressive as that season was, the now 35-year-old native of Poitiers, a city two hundred miles southwest of Paris, had been unable to approach that level of performance since. In 2017 he won at Phoenix early in the season and Sonoma late, but hadn’t tasted victory since. When Pagenaud arrived in Indianapolis for the Grand Prix and 500, the Sonoma win was his sole triumph in thirty-four IndyCar Series events. It was a drought that invited rampant speculation about his future with Penske.

Then he won the road race on May 11th and followed that by giving Roger Penske his record 18th Indy 500 pole last Sunday. Meanwhile Rossi wasn’t doing badly either, qualifying on the outside of row three, higher than all but one former 500 winner, just two events after winning the Grand Prix of Long Beach for his first IndyCar Series victory of 2019 and sixth overall.

Both drivers had plenty to prove as they pulled away from the pack after the final restart of the race, coming several laps after a major pileup robbed this year’s Indy 500 of the distinction of having the most entrants to ever actually finish the race. Rossi was overheard on the radio telling his spotters that he knew there were lots of angry drivers still running, “but I’m angrier.” He took the green on that final restart only to be quickly passed by Pagenaud. Back and forth they went, trading places time and again over the final miles.

In the end, as noted above, there were two words suggested by this year’s 500. If perseverance was one, as two determined race car drivers fought not just for victory, but to restore and enhance their reputations, then the other was horsepower. For Simon Pagenaud parlayed his pole position into a dominant role at this year’s race, leading for more than half of its two hundred laps. Rossi was in contention for much of the going and especially late, but when Pagenaud passed him on turn three in lap 197, the American could do little more than watch the better car pull away.

In a post-race interview Rossi acknowledged the runner-up finish would sting for some time, but he was also the first to use the term that ultimately made the difference in this 500’s order of finish. Some fans will argue that’s the only result that matters. But in sports, as in life, the race for respect is always important. In that one, it was a very good day for both Pagenaud and Rossi.

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