2022 Greatest 33 & Post-race Update


Back again and it’s over a week dealing with the post-Indy 500 withdrawal that befalls us annually. Perhaps the feeling is also abetted by the renewal of my tickets for 2023, which reminds me that the next Indy 500 is 350-some-odd days away.

To ease my pain, I return to the numbing coolness of bland columns and rows of race statistics, including the annual update to my Greatest 33 and some other noted bits from this year’s race.


The Greatest 33 As a refresher, IMS put out this list in 2011 and fans could vote on their Greatest 33 to race in the Indy 500. To help me choose my candidates, I used a select batch of statistics to make my choices then and since have maintained this list every year, updating following the 500. The selected stats are weighted based on my relative value in an overall score by driver. My categories are; Races Started (10 pts. each), Pole Positions (20 pts. each), Laps Lead (1 pt. each), Races Won (250 pts. each), and Top 5 finishes (40 pts. each). I have been considering for some years adding a category for Total Miles Completed and updating the entire list as well, more on that another time. At any rate, here it is in all it’s unabashed boringness:

The “Field”

In addition to all the active drivers gaining another 10 points for another race started, Scott Dixon moved up three positions via another pole and increased his laps lead total by 95 this year to surpass Ralph DePalma (612) and Al Unser (644) to become the all-time leader of laps lead of the Indy 500 (to date) with 665. I’m fairly certain he’d preferred a win with no pole and only one lap lead this year to this year’s result, but alas, it wasn’t to be once again for the Iceman whose disappointment in not winning this race in a month he dominated may also have set a new high. The utter pain on his face after the race was easily seen and we all could empathize. As it stands, Dixon remains the highest scoring single-winner on my Greatest 33.


The “Lead Pack”

Who’s Next? – Active drivers from this year’s race that are the closest to moving into the Greatest 33 would be Power (664), Pagenaud (629), Rossi (557), Marco (534), or Ed Carpenter (516). The current driver ‘on the bubble’ is Jim Clark with 738 points and a win by the aforementioned drivers (minimally adds 301 points if leading only 1 lap) would put them well ahead of Clark on points, moving into a place amid Montoya, Sato, Sneva, and Parnelli Jones somewhere in the 8th or 9th rows.

If you recall, my list is essentially a top 30 plus the 3 best to never win it, in an homage to the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation Last Row Party. Michael Andretti, Ted Horn, and Rex Mays currently occupy Row 11, placing Clark on the ’30th place bubble’.

“One Lap Down”

Winner, Winner – The checkers fell to the newest first-time, and second native Swedish winner in Indy 500 history – Marcus Ericsson. My Greatest 33 list contains all multiple winners of the Indy 500 and being a one-time winner with relatively few races or laps lead means Marcus jumped from 127th to 81st now totaling 343 points (and one notch ahead of Graham Hill), but is still trailing the mid-pack of all Indy 500 winners in my list. Certainly a win is a huge bump up the list, but one-time winners in the Top 33 are few and distinguished.

Top 5 finishes for Ericsson, O’Ward, Kanaan, Rosenqvist, and Rossi all boosted their standings. Kanaan especially gained as he was able to distinguish himself sufficiently from Bill Vukovich and Rodger Ward placing squarely in 15th.

Photo by Indycar/Joe Skibinski (c) 2022

Not Bad For A Pay Driver – Marcus becomes the second native of Sweden to win the 500 (Kenny Brack in 1999 being the first). As noted above, his place among 1-time winners is fairly low trailing all others but Graham Hill, Floyd Davis (a co-driver credited with a win), and Gaston Chevrolet (the lowest ranked winner with 324 points).

“Mid-Pack”

Miscellany – “Ground Control to Major Correction, come in Correction!” Somehow, in the hoary, early days of this spreadsheet, I lost Joe Dawson. For the life of me I can’t comprehend why, but somewhere in 2013, the 1912 winner disappeared from my list. Mr. Dawson was not in my Greatest 33, however to be missing him entirely was certainly an error. He returns to the grid in 79th with his 362 points, placing him between Ralph Hepburn and Wally Dallenbach, and two spaces ahead of this year’s winner Ericsson.

Miscellany 2 – One thing I miss most about the new scoring pylon versus the old one is the average race speed shown at the top of the stack. The Indy 500 qualifying field was the fastest average in history so it stands to reason that the 2022 race would be among the fastest as well. It was the 7th fastest race of all time, but it also had 31 laps of yellow, the second most compared to the 13 fastest races run (all under 3 hours running time). Only 1991 had more laps of yellow (35). 1991 stands as the 5th fastest all-time, and just a blink under 1 minute faster than 2022. Not coincidentally, the fastest race of all-time in 2013 had the fewest laps under yellow.


“Also-Rans”

Photo by Indycar/Karl Zemlin (c) 2022

Wither TK? – Fan-favored Antoine Rizkallah Kanaan Filho, currently in 15th with 1192 points is a relatively scant 108 points away from moving up two places, passing fellow Brazilian Emo Fittipaldi, and former teammate/best bud Dario Franchitti who sit at 13th and 14th places with 1295 and 1299 respectively.

That move would align him right behind the great Mario Andretti (1396) for 13th overall. Another race and a Top 5 would seal a minimum of 50 points, not to mention what a win or leading 50 more laps would do. Although he’s on his second “Last Lap” of the Indycar scene, he did little the entire month to dissuade a smart owner from putting the popular driver in a highly-competitive second/third seat for Indy should the funding be there. Every driver stops racing at some point, and there’s much to be said for going out on a high, but I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve not seen the last of TK at Indy.


The drivers in the Greatest 33 change very little, although this generation of legendary Indycar drivers continue to march steadily up the list.

Dixon’s disappointing day should also be assuaged in the fact that he now owns a very impressive record at IMS – The Most Laps Lead of all-time. For now, it will always come with the caveat that he also hold only one win. If Dixon manages to grab that second win and maybe one more pole (tying Rick Mears for Most Pole Positions) before he’s done, the records will mean even more in combination with multiple wins, and cementing his place among the greatest of the Greatest 33 to race at Indy.


2022 Rows 1-3
Rows 4-7
Rows 8-11
The Full Field

A Reflection on Liveries

In my preparation for my trip to the 500, I always spend just a little time pouring over the intricacies of the starting field. How many previous winners? How many rookies? What are the countries of origin? Any bits of trivia I find interesting.

Some examples; Row 10 this year is the only row which features only one of the engine manufacturers (Chevy); Lundgaard is the first Danish driver to make the field; Row 5 is the only all-USA native field; etc.

In doing so however, I also look at colors and liveries in the spotters guide. Between qualifying weekend TV coverage and reviewing the guide, I noticed there are virtually no liveries that I would consider unattractive this year. All are notable and few replicate others so closely that they’re difficult to identify immediately.

The livery game in Indycar has stepped up in the last few years and I want to say that it is about as good as it ever has been and perhaps 2022 is the best of the 20s so far, but as is typical with everything else in sports, comparing eras separated by years and decades means that technology factors into the discussion.

I do think that as wild as the vehicle design was through the 1970s, the liveries of that decade were a reflection of that era in freedom of creativity. When one considers that nearly everything (if not everything) was hand-painted at that time, the work to produce a memorable and visually-capturing livery was truly an art.

Perhaps only rivalled by the 1973 field, one of my absolute favorite fields, subjectively judged by liveries, is 1970. Below is the hyperlinked year of the field for your perusal, of images from the Indycar.com site.


1970 – The dawn of a new decade and new era in racing meant creativity was in full flow. The #2 Johnny Lightning Special driven by Al Unser was the actual race-winner, but is also one of the most recognizable liveries of all-time now over 50 years on, but first appearing in 1970.

In 1970, Foyt’s Coyote Red team cars had become easily recognizable as did the Granatelli Team STP day-glo red, and the McLaren’s Papaya orange, but other non-works liveries that standout include: the #25 Cablevision car of Lloyd Ruby;

the #97 Wynn’s Spit Fire Special driven by Bruce Walkup;

The #22 and #23 Sprite soft drink liveries driven by Wally Dallenbach and Mel Kenyon;

And the #89 Nelson Iron Works Special driven by Jerry Grant.

The #89 I particularly enjoy as it evokes a feeling of walking into a groovy ’70s lounge with dark paneling, brown vinyl-covered cushy club chairs, shag carpeting, and swag lighting everywhere, including the restrooms.

Wait! I’ve been there. It’s called the High Life Lounge in Des Moines, Iowa. When I made the trek to see Indycars in Iowa in the summer of 2018, we made sure to hit this classic spot and so should you (if you’re over 21 years of age, that is).

I believe art generally reflects the times and even so when applied to the mechanical racecar. The variety of chassis as well as the creative liveries in the field of the 1970 Indy 500 really gives one a sense of the times.

I knew (/hoped?) this day would come, eventually…

Images captured from screenshots of video footage (c) IMS 1996, 2022

In 1997, I went from being optimistic that the speeds to challenge Luyendyk’s 1996 qualifying record would return in 8-10 years, to just hoping I’d be alive to see it. I was 30 years old then. Naïveté isn’t bounded by age, but rather experience apparently.

Flashback to 1997 and the all-new naturally-aspirated 4.0l v-8 engine and chassis formula of the IRL. The reduced engine costs and increased/deafening roar of the IRL indicated a new era where the perception was set that speed was no longer king. The 218 mph pole speed and 206 mph slowest qualifying speed in 1997 recalled speeds of a decade prior. Certainly a regression had happened which did nothing to assuage the concerns of the ticket-buying public, yours truly included.

Still, I had solid faith in the engineers and a very modest faith in the powers-that-be that solutions to ramping speeds back up would be forthcoming in a matter of years. By the time 10 years had passed though, we were hovering around the speeds of 16 years prior. Patience was wearing thin, even for this grizzled fan who had nearly seen it all by this point, but there was some progress on unification of open-wheel racing where better performance and a much better perception of the overall product was emphasized.

Flashforward another 15 years to yesterday, May 22, 2022.

A tumultuous set of weather parameters had rolled through the previous days, testing the limits of flexibility and skill of the teams and drivers during practice in preparation for qualifying. On Sunday however, a relative cool and calm settled over the speedway allowing the Fast 12 to really dial it in and let it go in their runs for the pole.

What resulted yesterday, in my view, was long-overdue, yet nothing short of magical to finally experience.

An ageless wonder, the kiwi-sensation, who even only at 41 years old, seems to have been around longer than nearly everyone at the speedway, save for Roger Penske, Tony Kanaan, and a few yellow-shirts. Scott “The Iceman” Dixon broke the speed record held by Scott Brayton from 1996 that had stood for over 26 years – a four-lap average of 234.046mph for the pole-winning speed. I felt as if the racing gods were again smiling down as they had 51 weeks prior when the fourth 4-time winner was crowned.

screen clip of video footage (c) IMS 2022

Of course the outright 4-lap qualifying record of 236.986mph (non-pole-winning speed held by Arie Luyendyk) still lay beyond us, but it truly seems so much closer than ever before. My appetite to see that record broken is truly whet. The potential for speed setbacks in the transition to new motors in 2024 looms, but I have to believe we’re not far away from 237.

I only hope to be there when it happens.

Life’s Too Short

“When you get up in the morning and you see that crazy sun, keep me in your heart for a while. There’s a train leaving nightly called, ‘when all is said and done’, keep me in your heart for a while.”

Warren Zevon

I was feeling a growing urge to post yesterday, while progressing through my day job, perhaps to counter some of the virulent takes about the Music City GP and remind people that it’s beyond time to remember that it is our duty to keep some semblance of fairmindedness with regard to most anything, and especially for a brand new event of our favorite sport, even as inauspicious as its debut may have seemed on the track. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

As my work day wound down, I scanned Twitter in anticipation of thinking of final thoughts for this post, and my countenance dropped.

The news of yesterday’s passing of longtime voice of the 500 (and so much more), Bob Jenkins was certainly unwelcome news, but in the moments following my reading of the news, it hit me harder than I might have anticipated.

Bob Jenkins, as has, and will be noted often in the coming days, was so well-regarded by so many associated with Indycar and the 500. His voice and visage were significant and instantly recognizable elements for racing fans in the U.S. who traversed the 1980s, ’90s, and beyond. More personally, what hit me was the realization that his passing also represents a significant connection to memories of my appreciation for this sport and of the hallowed grounds of Indy.

I can’t help but feel some dread in thinking about the growing frequency and volume of the people we’re losing who represent what many call the ‘Golden Age of Racing’ (I roughly place that as early-1960s to late-1980s), not only for Indycar, but for all the major racing series during that time. “Growing old sucks”, as my father used to say, “but it beats the alternative”. Alas.

There are many things to be said by people who knew him personally, and we’ll be reading them over the next several days. I never met the man, but his voice and face will forever remain some of the most key visceral memories of a time in my life and in a sport that I cherish. It means so much to me that he, as a fan first and later media-everpresent of the sport, got to witness the fourth 4-time winner at Indy this year. There are precious few races that are as significant as the one we just completed and it is fitting that he was able to appreciate that from the pagoda before he left us.

To me, it was always evident in his broadcasting style that he had to work to curtail the fanboy giddiness he must have had at being able to cover the sport he loved, such was his appreciation for Indycar and racing. It was perhaps the most endearing feature of his delivery as those of us here can certainly appreciate the depths of his enthusiasm and enjoyment.

In thinking about the race this past weekend and in thinking about Bob’s life around Indycar, I can’t imagine him saying much ill of the Music City Grand Prix and that’s not a ‘fanboy’ thing so much as it is a good thing.

Events come and go and certainly the on-track action may have been far from satisfying to some. Certainly it wasn’t easy for those in the stands who endured an extra 60 minutes of ‘not-racing’ in the midsummer Tennessee heat to maintain their initial enthusiasm, yet I felt the race overall was interesting, intriguing, and not short of drama, whether intentional or not.

(c) 2021, Chris Owens/Indycar

To the new fans and Nashvillians who attended their first race last Sunday – you could be forgiven for not entirely knowing what to make of an Indycar race. You definitely saw the better and lesser of what Indycar is. Certainly changes will be made to help reduce the on-track mayhem, but from a fan of 4 decades of this sport, it seems precious little else needs fixing, so I say your enthusiasm was and will be well-placed for this event.

The Music City Grand Prix looks to be a winner in many ways and I hope it becomes a mainstay on the schedule for many years. The city’s enthusiasm and response to this event has scarcely been equaled. I look forward to being able to join you all next year and celebrate in a city I’ve grown to know and love.

And that brings me to my final thought: As an ever-aging, and longer-time fan of Indycar, I want to express my ongoing concern of the fair-mindedness of (most everyone these days, but also) people who frequent social media. I’m proposing (as much for myself as anyone who read this) a few strategies to amplify enjoyment and reduce the ‘Legions of the Miserable’ by combatting the drive that seems to be solely to reduce other’s enjoyment of something.

  • Let’s aim to reduce the ‘hawt-taeks’ and virulent punditry that is all too prevalent these days. I know I have to work at it, and I consider myself pretty even-handed in thought. Holding off on posting may seem antithetical to the very use of social media, however, that ‘cooling-off’ time allows for one to consider positives and negatives more even-handedly (plus one gets the benefit of avoiding looking like a total spaz in thought and action).
  • Likewise, let’s aim to practice finding more things we like than things we don’t. So many of us have a very specific presence just for Indycar, why clutter up the space with negativity or corn-flake-pissing.
  • Be aware that you are in a public space. My father used to say that “your personal rights end at the tip of your nose” and I agree with that sentiment. Believe what you want, but realize that anything beyond your nose is shared space, and is not ‘yours’ (a practice scarcely seen in social media). Nothing like a worldwide airborne pandemic to underscore that point in so many ways.

Yesterday, another fan of Indycar, with whom a social media beef in this era could easily result as he is a fan of Liverpool FC, and I, betrothed to Everton, might on that basis alone scarcely treat each other with dignity. However, against all popular trends, we easily agree that to be polarized to the point of 100% all-or-nothingness is not only futile, but destructive and unnecessary.

I will 100% agree that to be all-or-nothing on anything and everything related to opinion, is a guarantee of being 100% miserable, wrong, and disliked 100% of the time.

I never expect to be agreed with, nor agree with anyone all of the time. Trying to seek that approval is an utter waste of time. So too is creating polarization (often used to drive traffic on social media).

Treat each other with respect. Be a fan. Support what you like.

Critical thought is always important, but the very nature of it requires an even-handed, open-minded, and equitable nature and approach. Analyze fairly, vote with your energy and your wallet, and forget the rest. Enjoy what you like to the fullest, realizing nothing ever has been nor will be perfect. Be like Bob Jenkins and cling gleefully to what brings you joy.

Of course we’re saddened that the train to the another realm has taken Bob Jenkins. What we haven’t lost is all he meant to IMS, Indycar, and racing in general, so let’s go back out there (everywhere) with a better appreciation of his endearing example and make a daily habit of bringing out the positives in others and the things we love.

I know each 500 raceday, in my seat at IMS in May, I take a moment to recall those who aren’t with us anymore, and now I’ll have one more to think about.

Keep things in your heart that matter most and say farewell to things that don’t.

When all is said and done, life’s too damned short to be any other way.

Catching Up with the Greatest 33 – 2021 Edition

Now with the glory of the 2021 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race firmly in the rear-view mirror, I’ve carved time to revisit my Greatest 33 and review the largest shake-up in the standings since the inception of this 10-years-old bit of bench-racing started back in 2011.

To briefly review, IMS took great pains to create a special interactive website for the 2011 100th Anniversary race, for which fans could log in and vote for their “Greatest 33” to race at Indy from the 100 or so nominees provided. The site survived for a few years, but has since been taken down. I had participated in the original, but in need of some rudimentary starting point, my desire was to devise a method to the madness, trying to maintain some framework of relative fairness. I devised a set of objective criteria based on a few statistics that I deemed important for a driver to be in the conversation of the Greatest 33. At least I’d have some basis to sift and sort through the many drivers who’ve participated in this great race. With some consternation and trial-and-error, I settled on the weighted scoring method you see here. As you may have correctly guessed, ‘just for fun’ I saved and updated a spreadsheet every year following the results of each subsequent Indy 500. In the words of John Bender from The Breakfast Club, “…so, it’s sorta social, demented and sad, but social.” Prior posts of mine on this subject can be found by searching this blog’s tags for “Greatest 33”.

Without further ado, here is the top portion of that updated spreadsheet in all of its astoundingly dispassionate and boring rows and columns.

Helio Joins Racing Royalty – With his momentous and thrilling 4th victory, Helio Castroneves graduates to the uppermost eschelon of this list, joining the three other 4-time winners atop my Greatest 33. As noted back in the 2018 recap, a significant change at the top occurs if HE-LI-O got his 4th. He vaults above the other 3-time winners, Wilbur Shaw and Bobby Unser to 4th place overall, behind Rick Mears, AJ Foyt, and Al Unser. Dare we even contemplate the possibility of the first 5-time winner? That’s too much to even consider this close to Helio’s 4th win. Even another 4-time winner is difficult to imagine in my lifetime. As unlikely as it would appear that Rutherford or Franchitti would come out of retirement to attempt to join the 4-timers club, it’s seems nearly as unlikely that we’ll see another 4-time winner from the currently active 2-time (Montoya, Sato), or 1-time winners (Dixon, Kanaan, Hunter-Reay, Rossi, Power, and Pagenaud).

Errors Corrected – Only the most eagle-eyed/unicorn follower of my blog might notice this, but not only did Helio move up in the first three rows, but so too did Mauri Rose, from Row 4. In working this original batch of statistics, I recall originally being some what thrown off by the fact that Mauri Rose was shown by the official Indianapolismotorspeedway.com statistical drivers pages as being a two-time winner, (plus historically also one time as a co-driver with Floyd Davis in 1941). Until now I ignored/forgotten about it but with the confirmation of established 500 history buff/authority, Mike Thomsen (@thomsen419), I took the time this year to correct that error in my sheet, giving both pairs of winning drivers (Rose/Davis, Boyer/Corum) the full points accorded winners, and transferring Rose up the standings into the outside of the 3rd Row. Overall it did nothing to change the drivers named in the 33, just shuffled the order to be more accurate with the base statistics.

What about 2020? – In looking back to the foggy, labored, and generally abysmal year that was 2020, I realized I hadn’t posted about the results of the previous Indy 500, a second win for Takuma Sato. Sato-san’s second, moved him from below the cut line into the Greatest 33. All drivers with more than one win are included in my Greatest 33 currently. As with the second Montoya win in 2015, Sato moved into the Greatest 33 and in doing so, they each displaced a driver previously on my list. Montoya bumped Bobby Rahal and Sato bumped Jimmy Murphy, both one-time winners.

Intangibles, Part One – Readers of the past will recall that there are a few differences between my staid statistical listing and the graphical listing shown here. These are the subjective movements in rank that I assign based on a few variable details not accounted for in my spreadsheet. Also, for those not familiar with my particular listing, this is basically a Top 30 plus a ‘Last Row Club’ (as a nod to the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation’s ‘Last Row Party’) comprised of the best 3 to never win. I intend to maintain this format unless sufficiently cajoled otherwise. If you want a very limited edition souvenir, follow the IPCF link above and get yourself one of the most fun-spirited Indy 500 shirts available.

Intangibles, Part Two – With the weight of a 4th pole position and statistically now ranked 10th, Scott Dixon is located in 12th place behind Gordy and Mario as I feel their legend status still holds just the slightest bit more weight than Dixon. In terms of points, the three are separated by 1%, effectively now ‘three wide’ across the 4th row, I fully expect Dixon will fully overhaul them before his days are over at Indy. By the narrowest of margins, Tony Kanaan charts just one point ahead of Bill Vukovich. Much as the reasoning above though, I’ll hold the two-time legend of Vuky ahead of Kanaan, until TK ‘clears’ Vuky and ‘makes the pass’ into 16th place. As in years past, Arie Luyendyk holds one place higher than scored due to his current one- and four-lap qualifying records which are always notable and celebrated in the annals of the 500. I also expect these records will fall in the not-too-distant future and I will return him to his place between Al Unser Jr., and Dan Wheldon.

Outside Chances – Who is close to breaking into the Top 30+3? Second wins for Hunter-Reay, Power, Pagenaud, or Rossi would see them jump to the strata populated largely with two-timers in Rows 7, 8 or 9 and bump Jim Clark out. Marco is approximately 2-3 non-winning races of overtaking Rex Mays and bookending the 11th row with his father. A win for the evergreen Ed Carpenter, coupled with his long career, 3 poles, nearly 150 laps lead, and 3 top 5 finishes would bring him into the low 800-point range, surpassing Bill Holland/Billy Arnold/Jim Rathmann/Jim Clark.

Other Bits – Interestingly, perhaps, Mark Donohue ranks 66th on my list and he won with Car #66. Gil deFerran is 67th and won with car #68. Perhaps somewhere down the line a driver that wins in car #67 will settle in that 9-point gap between Donohue and deFerran, making the lore of Indy 500 numerology that much deeper for me.

For me, I enjoy the time and thought required to update and review this every year. It always seems to force me to re-evaluate drivers of the past as well as consider the currently active drivers place in the pantheon of Indy 500’s Greatest. I’d love to hear from anyone else that did this back in 2011 (or beyond) and their experience in selecting their Greatest 33.

This 500 Will Be Special

It was a little after 6pm Sunday afternoon, soon after qualifying had ended for the 105th Indianapolis 500, at home sitting in my favorite chair, reflecting on how much I enjoyed what had transpired over the previous six hours of my Sunday. I am never on-site for 500 qualifying, so this was a qualifying Sunday I had genuinely enjoyed more than I had in a very long time. Then a strange realization hit me.

My enjoyment illuminated something I hadn’t felt for a very long time, perhaps even before 1995. Gone was the weight of the past. Gone was my annual angst over ’33’ and how it ‘should be’. Gone was ‘the split’. Gone was the millstone of ‘sacred racing traditions’ that had hung around my neck for far too long. A growing feeling that, through all that had transpired over the recent months, and all we as a collective group of humans had endured, a guarded new hope and optimism began to emerge. It was as if the weather fell upon that lovely track last Sunday was to remind us that everything is again as it should be, just in the new way.

The track temperature waxed and waned, and the wind appeared just enough to be recognized. The conditions were a flirtatious reminder that, despite our western-worldly inclinations as humans that it is our destiny to grasp ‘control’ of the many things in our purview, sometimes it’s down to the subtly fickle and unknown origin of a generic Indiana Sunday in mid-May that surpasses the engineers and crew and drivers, to settle it’s final favor upon the field, just as it had at times in decades before.

I’ve not said much about it in the last few years, but to me Indycar, and especially the 500, has felt notably starched and a bit too manufactured to be rendered joyful. Even the greatest build-up in all of sports was metered-for-TV-ad-space, essentially draining all excitement of what was literally my favorite 30 minutes of the year. It sadly has been quite a long time since I’ve been surprised with chills up my neck watching Indycar either on-screen or in-person.

Mostly I recall only the in-person chills I’ve been fortunate enough to experience that only the crescendo of a hundred thousand cheering on the main straight can give. Notably when Michael and Rick traded unbelievable Turn 1 passes in 1991, or the amazing finish of the most otherwordly race in 1992, or Danica’s pass for the lead on Lap 190 in 2005 or Sam Hornish making a front-straight pass for the win in 2006. As I try to recall the most recent time, I think it may have been the last time Jim Nabors sang the first seven syllables of that glorious song, prior to the start of the engines in 2014, knowing it would be his last.

The day’s drama of the 2021 edition of last row qualifications was certainly tense and bittersweet but also gave way to the building tension of Fast 9 qualifying. As Tony Kanaan, Rinus VeeKay, then Ed Carpenter cracked the 232 miles-per-hour barrier with their first laps Sunday, the crowd noise through my TV was more than I’d heard in years and that magical feeling of chills long missing from my Indycar pleasure went up my neck once again. I can only imagine how great that must have felt in-person. With little left to write of the story of 2021 qualifying, the stage was set for the last two drivers and they also did not disappoint with two of the closest pole runs in history.

In spending much of my late-Sunday evening pouring over the field for this Sunday’s race, I can’t help but feel that this 500 will genuinely be special. For what reason, I cannot yet say. Let’s just say that it’s a feeling.

I find facets of this race intriguing already though:

  • The fastest average speed field in history.
  • One of the closest fields in speed in history.
  • Nine former winners.
  • A progressive team featuring a majority female ownership and crew.
  • 15 nations of origin represented in the field of 33.
  • The presence of the ‘Second Golden Era’ legends alongside the stunning emergence of ‘Generation Next’.
  • A new ownership and revamped facility awaiting what will once again be the largest single-day spectator sporting event in the world.
  • Generations of fans who appreciate the past, relish the present, and excite at the promise of the future of Indycar.

Much of what constitutes the essence of this race reminds me greatly of the race 30 years ago. A celebrated front row and field full of the First Golden Era legends, the current stars, barrier-breakers, and youth. During that race we saw things never-before seen, racecars still deemed aesthetically ‘perfect’ by many to this day, a competition of machine and driver and crew on the grandest scale, culminating in the crowning of the newest royalty at Indy.

Maybe the alignment is too perfect to be true, but I have to wonder if we won’t again crown 4-time royalty this Sunday in a legendary race for the ages. Perhaps it’s all too much to hope.

Regardless, I know I’ll need to go and find out first-hand. I hope to see you there too and we can share the experience of it all unfolding before our eyes.

Speaking of Memorials

“…we also pay homage to those men who have given their lives unselfishly and without fear to make racing the most spectacular spectator sport.”

– Jim Phillippe, IMS Public Address – Indianapolis 500 Raceday.

For decades, the words and actions that lead to the start of the Indianapolis 500 were crafted carefully, scripted to meet a specific event timeline, and ritualized for many years. Rightly so, and as a whole, the prelude to the race represents one of the most important traditions of race-day to generations of fans. The words quoted above are taken from the address given by IMS Public Address announcer, Mr. Jim Phillippe, prior to the start of the 1989 Indianapolis 500.

These words were also spoken many times in the years prior and since. Following the invocation, as a call to remain standing, Mr. Phillippe’s words were a solemn reminder of the significance of Memorial Day, but specifically he also pays homage to those who died in the service of auto racing. At least that’s how I interpret those words which are phrased similarly but separately from the acknowledgment of the many who died in wars and conflicts for which the Memorial Day holiday was established.

During a recent Beyond The Bricks show, Jake Query and Mike Thomsen discuss candidly, but also with the greatest respect, a few of the group of drivers who perished at the Speedway. I found it very refreshing and helpful as I too have long wanted to have a more open discussion and learn more about these drivers and their personalities, who all too often are remembered primarily for the fact that they died driving a racecar at IMS.

I have always wondered what the survivors’ families and fans in general would think of a quiet, solemn, on-site memorial for those who died, somewhat away from the regular main thoroughfares of pedestrian traffic. Is it time to have a dedicated place to gather and reflect on those lives lost at the Speedway?

I know that for me, having that place would also be one I would regularly visit to pay respect and contemplate those drivers’ and history more deeply. Maybe it would be reflected in a part of the Museum. Maybe one already exists and I’m not aware of it. Perhaps the whole of the Speedway grounds represents that. Could those chills when entering the gates when emerging on the business side of the oval be not only in awe of the amazing facility and events past, but also with deepest respect for those who perished at the Speedway?

For many years, Donald Davidson would gently eschew discussion on the topic of fatalities, certainly as was his right as host of his show, but having now been alive for over 50 years, and followed Indycar for well over 40, I’ve seen too many drivers lose their lives while racing to not appreciate some sort of deeper conversation about them, and especially those of several decades ago who I never got to see race at IMS. People who are more heavily or directly involved with the Speedway on a regular basis are certainly more sensitive to, and in some cases more personally related to these people and their histories than the average fan. I can see the reluctance in having to repeatedly recall someone fond in the past-tense, yet those are the drivers whose histories seem significantly occluded by their final demise at the Speedway. I’ve always respected, but also found curious, that there appears to be a strong resistance by the Speedway to publicly approach the subject. Certainly it should never be taken lightly and be treated with delicate respect.

In any case, I appreciate the opportunity provided by Query and Thomsen and agree with their method of providing a way to more completely consider the drivers who all too often are not seen beyond their final moments. I welcome that deeper understanding and also the ability to have a beautiful, solemn, dedicated place to visit on the grounds of the Speedway to more directly pay respects and to acknowledge the more complete history of the Speedway.

Please tell me your thoughts on this subject in the comments below.

A May Unlike Any Other

The phrase, “unlike any other” is often used by promoters, public relations managers, and, yes, sometimes even journalists in the aggrandizement of something which seeks to establish a unique or perhaps elevated identity. The phrase has become a particularly wearisome trope when reading about most anything, but especially sporting events. Yes, the Superfantastico Sportsing Event Presented By MegaCorp(tm) of 2020 WAS in fact unlike any other, because time as we experience it is linear and EVERYTHING is a unique event along that timeline for which we’ve not yet been able to travel between.

But I digress.

In the cases of a select few famous sporting events whose histories span many generations and decades, the global pandemic of 2020 did manage to be a significant milepost that likely will stand out for many years to come. The Indianapolis 500 was one such event whose location on the calendar effectively marked significant and traditional times of the year for many people. In 2020, May in Indianapolis was eerily void of the near-daily raucous noise from 700 hp racing engines at 16th Street and Georgetown. Residents of Speedway, Indiana must have thought April was interminable as there was no automotive commotion to be found to mark the beginning of summer in central Indiana. For most fans, May took a very unassuming appearance compared with all prior iterations as the famous race was moved to August in hopes the fans could be present. For me however, it was anything but unassuming.


May

  • The First Responder 175 presented by GMR was Round 6 of a virtual racing series that featured Indycar and NBCSN providing a visually stunningly virtual race held online via iRacing and broadcast to TV viewers. As it was a virtual race, a number of Indycar regular drivers participated but also allowed drivers from other series and disciplines who could had made strides up the learning curve of online racing. Scott McLaughlin of Australian Supercars, Lando Norris of Formula 1, and Scott Speed of American Rally Cross took the top three qualifying positions for the digital race run at the simulated Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A total of 33 drivers qualified for the final event with a crash-filled closing two laps seeing the dominant Arrow McLaren cars of Lando Norris, Pato O’Ward, and Oliver Askew all lose places in virtual collisions with Simon Pagenaud, Marcus Ericcson, and Santino Ferrucci respectively.
  • The final actions of Ferrucci into Askew saw Scott McLaughlin finish first with Conor Daly avoiding the crashing, coming second. Pato O’Ward survived his brush with Ericsson to end up third. Until the final few laps, the race seemed to be treated fairly professionally by the drivers, however many viewers online found Ferrucci’s movement on the final straightaway to be an intentional wrecking of Askew who appeared to have the race all but won with a few hundred virtual feet to go before crossing the finish line.
  • What was something that the sport, the networks, sponsors, and fans could embrace as some semblance of replacement entertainment during the depth of the pandemic, was reduced to disgusting novelty and childish behavior. Santino’s disingenuous and pathetic attempt to explain away his actions as a racing miscalculation did little to assuage the many people who put in time and expense to give devoted race fans a morsel of something to enjoy. His immaturity was again a slap in the face to all who work hard to bring Indycar to the fore.
  • Most of the remainder of the Month of May was a daily scramble of schedule and event shuffling, and cobbling together a replacement event for the massive hole left by the postponement of the actual Indy 500 to August. Indycar did it’s best to keep fans engaged with many stories of Indy 500s past and highlighting existing teams work toward ‘May in August’, but the loss of daily speed reports, garage patrols, and general crescendo of racing excitement was palpable. The final recognition that nothing was going to be as it typically was became painfully apparent. A revised schedule on May 21 showed that Texas Motor Speedway would host the first actual race of the 2020 season on June 6th, with more racing to follow on July 4th weekend.


May of 2020 all seems hazy to me. Notably, I didn’t have the annual life-bringing rhythm of racing in May in Indiana to savor, and cruelly, quite the opposite rhythm actually.

By mid-May, my father laid ill in the hospital with the ongoing effects of congestive heart failure and the lack of any real procedure or medicine to stave off the inevitable remaining. The man whose annual devotion to the Indy 500, and whose introduction of me to this amazing event in-person in 1979, who last joined me in Indy in 2003, now would likely never see another Indy 500. The devotion I feel to this event is related to his desire to take me and likewise my desire to have had my son and daughter also see it in-person. My son shares my love of the race and continues to go with me annually, but the prospect of attempting to feel any sort of celebratory mood for the 500, had it been run in May 2020, would certainly have been lacking.

My father spent the last 9 days of his life in hospice, unable to have in-person contact with loved ones due to Covid-19 restrictions. We spoke every day by phone and saw each other through an exterior window to his room. In the early morning of June 19th, he died, aged 86. He was laid to rest on Monday, June 22, 2020, one day after Father’s Day.

The void left feels very much like a wound that, despite proper treatment, can do nothing but heal slowly, leaving only scar tissue behind. Being unable to see the Indy 500 in person in 2020, was certainly disappointing, but nothing will have risen to the level of sadness I had during those final few weeks of his life. Everything seemed amiss. The world seemed to show us daily an aggrieving lack of compassion and purpose and love. Joy seemed unattainable.

Certainly any enthusiasm for blogging about my favorite sport had evaporated in the middle quarter of 2020. In looking at my life after his passing, and in the days and weeks where actual Indycars would race on actual tracks again, I wondered if I would enjoy Indycar racing and the Indy 500 as much as I had before. Would the bitterness finally overtake the sweetness I had been blessed to experience for so long?

I suppose I’ll only know if and when I next set foot at the great speedway for the Indianapolis 500. As I grow ever-weary of waiting to experience it again, I can only hope to have my answer in May 2021.

Indycar Lore – 1988 Indy 500

Something recently rekindled my interest in listening to The Talk of Gasoline Alley radio show in May wherein Donald Davidson takes calls about the Indy 500 and fills in many blanks, detailing races and drivers past with astounding clarity and recall.

It is, therefore, pertinent to note that I am, in fact, not Donald Davidson.

He is a living treasure trove of Indycar and Indy 500 knowledge, but that doesn’t relieve the rest of the universe of Indycar fans of the ability and, dare I say, duty, to spend just a little time in sharing our own personal moments and experiences which add color to the specifics of the race.

The upcoming race of 2018 will be the 102nd running and 107th anniversary race. I do consider myself a mere fledgling race veteran with 31 races and the 39th anniversary of my first.

From the vantage point of a single seat on race day, among the throngs of people, there is precious little that you actually get to experience compared to the expansive pantheon that is IMS. So many stories and experiences yet to be told.

These stories, tagged with #IndycarLore by myself and several other bloggers/fans began in earnest from a twitter conversation with “inside the ropes” Indycar veteran, Pat Caporali in 2011.  You will find some of our stories here and also at The Pit Window by Mike Silver, and Another Indycar Blog by Eric Hall. Check them out when you want to read more #IndycarLore about the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Today I offer my small slice of trivia from the 1988 race which I, and a few hundred others witnessed in person: May 29, 1988 – Al Unser and the unlucky rabbit.

Hot, Hot, Hot! – There is always the tendency to embellish the details of an event for effect when storytelling, but it is totally substantiated that raceday of 1988 was the hottest I could recall. Air temps peaked at 98 degrees F and the percentage of humidity was nearly as high. Sitting in the baking sun with minimal clothing that day was a chore and I can only imagine how the drivers suffered under two layers of clothing that day.

After the race, the air conditioning in my car failed, leaving us in the slowest of traffic marches, with the windows and doors open in an effort to collect any breeze and relieve the build-up of suffocating heat inside the car. While stopped in traffic, we paid a slightly exorbitant $1 each for an 8 ounce cup of warm water sold by some neighboring kids on the side of the road. Desperate times for sure.

A fifth 500 for Unser a possibility – Defending champion Al Unser retained a ride in 1988 with Roger Penske after not having one for 1987.  Due to a hard practice crash at Indy, Danny Ongais was deemed unfit to drive at Indy the remainder of the month.  Big Al got the call from Penske and along with teammates Rick Mears on pole, and Danny Sullivan middle of Row 1, Al started on the outside of the front row.

(c) 1988, IMS photo

A new race record Big Al had been near the front or leading for a great portion of the first half of the race, dueling largely with Sullivan and Jim Crawford. He lead briefly during pit stops on laps 31-33 and again at Lap 105 after Sullivan’s Turn 1 crash and Crawford’s pit under yellow. When the race went green on lap 107, Al need only to complete that lap in the lead to surpass the all-time leading-laps leader, Mauri Rose, to up his career total to 614.  What is not officially known is if Rose, from the great beyond, attempted to preserve his record by sending a rabbit onto the track in and into the path of the onrushing Unser and Mears during that lap 107 restart.

My seats on that sweltering day were squarely in the middle of the backstretch bleachers not far from the USAC tower just to our south and across from some maintenance buildings. At this mid-race point, we clearly noticed a rabbit hopping along the bleachers and venturing through the first fence to the concrete wall which lined the inside of the track.

USAC tower right, Armco barrier wall opening, left (c) 1988, D. Zehr

Back and forth it ran and during the lull of Sullivan’s yellow, more fans began to notice the rabbit and cheered as it darted north and south often along the concrete wall. The track action had quieted a bit as pit stops were made, but the rabbit became increasingly frantic as the cheers grew louder from the stands. Soon the rabbit traveled farther south near a section of steel Armco barrier and the rabbit was now free to enter the track side of the wall.

Unlucky Rabbit’s Foot – Many became concerned as we knew it wouldn’t be long before the cars would exit the pits and be heading down the backstretch. The rabbit stayed to the inside of the track during the first pass of the pace car and field, but as people became more vocal and pointing as if to alert someone of the rabbit’s presence, the rabbit made its worst possible decision as it darted to the outside track wall and began to run against the flow of traffic. As the race went green on lap 107, the field came around a full speed and leader Al Unser’s front outside wing dealt a fatal blow to the rabbit which then passed under his car and was again struck by Mears’ front inside tire.

ABC TV footage screen grab

Unser continued on but his wing was damaged, making it loose-handling. Perhaps the ghost of Mauri Rose directed the rabbit or perhaps it was all a large coincidence, but Al’s day at the lead was effectively halted from the damage. Al continued to lead for another lap, but the yellow again came out for the debris (rabbit carcass) and was passed on the restart by the undamaged chassis of Mears.

All-time Lap Leader – Big Al would stay out as long as possible to remain on the lead lap instead of pitting to change the wing, so he managed to lead one more lap during a subsequent caution and pit cycle, then went a lap down in the pits due to an error with the right rear tire gun and nut install, effectively ending his chance for an unprecedented fifth Indy 500 title. Mears pitted under a later yellow for fresh tires, but stayed ahead of Unser before a final yellow ended the race.
That day was my first race as an adult and first I had attended since my father took me as a child in 1980 when the bright yellow Pennzoil car also won that day, driven by Johnny Rutherford.

Brickyard Legend – Al did finish third in 1988, with all other cars at least one lap down to Mears and second-place Fittipaldi. Al finished the 1988 race leading 14 laps. He later led in 1992 (4 laps) and 1993 (his final 14 laps) finishing his career with a record 644 laps lead. Big Al currently sits at or near the top of the major statistical charts for Indy:
Tied for most Indy 500 wins (4, with A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears);
Third in Starts (27, to Mario Andretti’s 29 and A. J. Foyt’s 35);
Second in Miles driven (10,890, to Foyt’s 12,272.5)
Tied for fourth in number of races led (11, with Mario and Scott Dixon, trailing 12 by Helio Castroneves, and 13 by Tony Kanaan and Foyt).