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Two big disappointments with the Indy 500 

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

Harvick wins regular-season Cup title, Todt touts Indy for F1 and all the news 

I was sorry about a couple of things after watching Sunday’s okay-but-not-too-exciting Indianapolis 500, which was won by Takuma Sato with Scott Dixon second and Graham Rahal third.

First, it is 2020 and race fans expect green-white-checkers finishes. Three laps of balls-to-the-wall racing. One of the people Indy car fans used to love to hate, Brian Barnhardt, made the instant decision in 2014 to red flag the race after Townsend Bell – yes, the Townsend Bell, who’s on the NBC announcing team these days – crashed with nine laps remaining. The restart came with six laps remaining and the four passes (or was it five?) for the lead over those six circuits were breathtaking.

According to the Indianapolis 500 box score, Spencer Piggot was six laps behind at the finish Sunday. So they had a chance, if the call had been made instantly, to stop the race, clean up the mess made by Piggot’s crash, have two warmup laps and three or four laps of green-flag racing and that would have been edge-of-your-seat stuff.

And why would it have been that exciting? Because Dixon said after the race that Sato would have been tight on fuel (the winner confirmed this later). While Dixon would also have been close, he suggested he had enough fuel to last a lap more than Sato. So, as well as out-and-out speed, there would have been a question of whether or not one or the other would have had enough remaining in the tank to make it to the finish.

Yes, I know. It’s the Indianapolis 500. I am not suggesting it should have become the Indy 501 or 502. NASCAR, and other sanctioning bodies and stand-alone races, do that all the time in order to have a green-flag finish. They call it overtime. But in cases such as this, you have to have someone make a call immediately in order for the race to be stopped and then restarted for the race to have a flying finish.

Reporters asked Race Control why the race wasn’t stopped and were told: “Following the assessment of the incident, there were too few laps remaining to gather the field behind the race car, issue a red flag, and then restart for a green-flag finish.” (They gave Chip Ganassi Racing a different excuse and were sending out even more reasons last night.)

I read that first reason and I was gobsmacked. That answer shows whoever was in charge Sunday can run a major race about as well as the Conservative Party of Canada can run an election for a new leader. Which means they can’t. The key words: “Following an assessment.” So they had a discussion? Swell. By the time they did that, a lap would have gone by. Then, if they did decide to stop it, they would have had to send out the pace car with Sarah Fisher driving and Al Unser Jr. riding shotgun, wait for the field to come around, and then stop it. That would have taken up another lap.

No wonder they ran out of laps.

Nest time, if there is the possibility of a red flag, designate one steward, the Race Director, to make the decision. Somebody like Paul Tracy, who said on TV right after the crash happened that they should stop the race. Tell the drivers at the drivers meeting before the race that a red flag means stop. Right there. No slowing down and creeping along. Stop. The pace car can be sent out, starters dispatched and the race can be restarted without muss ‘n fuss. And laps will be saved.

There might have been a silver lining in having an empty speedway. They didn’t have 300,000 angry fans leaving the place.

The other thing I was disappointed about was that our James Hinchcliffe wasn’t able to get past Pato O’Ward to finish sixth instead of seventh. I mean, I was hoping he’d win, and a Top Ten finish is nothing to sneeze at, but if you can’t climb onto the top step of the podium (or ride Roger’s new contraption up to the Victory Lane in the Sky), the next best thing is to stick it to your old team. If he’d been able to finish ahead of O’Ward, he would really have rubbed it in the noses of Sam Schmidt and fellow Canadian Ric Peterson for double-crossing him last winter when they fired him in favour of the Mexican and Oliver Askew, who crashed out of the 500 earlier.

Said Hinchcliffe, of Oakville (he was introduced as being from Toronto, Canada): “We had a little problem on our second pit stop, couldn’t get the car in gear, and went all the way to back of the lead lap. From there, it was just kind of damage control. That was before halfway, and I got on the radio, ‘Hey, look it’s a long race, and a lot can happen.’

“Luckily, on that last restart, we just got a monster restart and picked off a couple of cars. The No. 29 Genesys Honda was strong. It’s just so hard when you get further back in that line. We were ahead of Pato (O’Ward) and Josef (Newgarden) before that stop. If we had been able to keep that track position, there’s a chance we could’ve had a solid top-five run.

“I can’t thank Andretti Autosport and Genesys enough. It’s been a lot of fun being back here and being back at the Speedway. I think for a partial season coming to a close here like that, it’s not bad.”

It’s interesting that he finished by pointing that out. Yes, his on-track season is finished but he’ll be part of the NBC commentary team from now until the end of the season, whenever that is. I have a friend who thinks Hinch drove his last race in IndyCar Sunday and I say he probably performed well enough for his sponsor, Genesys, to buy him a complete season in 2021.

One way or the other, he’s not going anywhere. He’ll either be in a car or on TV and whichever it is, I – for one, and I am not alone – will be happy to see him.

I was sorry to see Dalton Kellett of Stouffville (he was introduced simply as being from Canada) crash out after 82 laps. He was trying to get past somebody named Ben Hanley going into Turn 3, got loose and whacked the wall. His was one of six crashes and was far from being the worst but it knocked him out of his first 500, which was a big disappointment.

Said Kellett: “The start felt pretty good. I thought I was going to get the jump on Tony (Kanaan) and Will (Power) but they showed my rookie status and got the jump on me, so now I know where to go next time. The car felt really good the first stint. We were just chipping away at it, working with the tools and dealing with a bit of understeer with the tailwind in Turn 2. The car felt really good in (Turns) 3 and 4, making moves in traffic and I was able to pass guys.

“On the second stint, the wind shifted a bit, so I was getting a run out of (Turn) 2 into (Turn) 3 but got stuck behind (Ben) Hanley, who was running a bit off the pace. I kept trying to draft and get by him going into (Turn) 3. I went pretty late, and I didn’t know if his spotter didn’t let him know I was pretty low or he didn’t think I was going for it.

“He came down almost immediately, so I didn’t have time to back out of it, and he skimmed my front wing and took all the air off it. After that, I was just trying to save it and couldn’t quite get it turned enough to miss the wall. Pretty disappointed that was how it ended. We were having a really good month up to that point.”

Kellett is driving the road and street courses for A.J. Foyt Racing. The 500 was an oval one-off. The pandemic, of course, has knocked everything (not to forget everybody) for a loop so it’s up in the air how many more races he will be able to run this season. He was paid a great compliment by Tracy, however, who said there were some who thought Dalton was in a little over his head but he showed that he belonged out there and will only get better.

Two other drivers of note: Marco Andretti, who was the sentimental favourite and the focus of a huge buildup by NBC, finished 13th. He said the car had been fast all month but just wasn’t on the pace Sunday. And Fernando Alonso said he was battling the car all day and only finished 21st. This will likely be his last appearance at Indy as he’s returning to Formula One for the next two seasons and the team he will be driving for, Renault, will not give him permission to race at Indianapolis.

It was Sato‘s second Indy 500 victory and his teammate, Rahal, was third, which was a testament to the team led by Bobby Rahal and including partners David Letterman and Mike Lanigan. Said the Japanese driver: “Obviously, we pitted (a lap) short from Dixie (Scott Dixon). The fuel strategy was a bit tight. I saw Scott was coming right through out of Turn 4, and he was screaming coming at me. And I just held him off. Thank you so much.” (About winning at age 43): “This was the entire Rahal Letterman Lanigan team. HPD and Honda gave us a lot of power, a lot of fuel mileage. And my boys … they sacrifice a lot. I can’t thank all of the people (enough).”

Notebook jottings:  

The last time I heard Roger Penske give the command to start engines was in 2001 at Nazareth  Speedway in Pennsylvania. (Dixon beat Kenny Brack and Paul Tracy by a smidgen – 4/10ths of a second –  for the win that day.) There was a problem with the mic, though, so when Penske belted out, “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines” you only heard the word “Gentlemen,” before it cut out. Sunday, he said some complimentary things about the Hulman-George family and that, as owner of the Speedway, he was only a steward, and then said (in these gender-neutral times), “Drivers, Start Your Engines” but this time the word “Drivers” was a little weak.  Practice makes perfect, however, and look for the command to be letter perfect next May.

If Penske wants to make further improvements to the Speedway (he’s already spent $15-million spiffing up the place), I would suggest he take out a couple of rows of seats behind the pits so he can make the pits wider. Never mind things like Rossi nearly running into Sato when he was released following his car being serviced, I held my breath every time one of those cars left and nearly clipping the right-rear tire changer who was still working on the car in the pit ahead. That job is too dangerous as things stand. So widen the pits please, and take away some of that danger.

I know it was Indy 500 Sunday but it sure didn’t feel like it. I’m not talking about the lack of spectators; I mean that it wasn’t May and I wasn’t there.

Indy 500 Sunday, for me, usually starts with getting out of bed in my downtown Indianapolis hotel at 3:30 or so in order to drive to the Speedway and be at my work station in the Media Centre before 5 a.m. The older I get, the more I hate crowds and so I want to beat everybody else to the track. There usually aren’t that many people there that early – writers Bruce Martin and Lewis Franck are also early risers with Reuters reporter Steve Keating right behind. Then, as the military bomb goes off at 6 a.m. to open the gates and you see the grandstands start to slowly fill up, you can watch the Grand Prix of Monaco and later, back at the hotel after you’ve sent in your story or stories, you can watch the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600.

Auto racing overload.

Because everything is so jumbled up this year, none of that was happening. And I was in my Family Room at home, taking notes, instead of taking in the view from the IMS Media Centre, which is one of the greatest places to watch the action in all of professional sports.

Oh, and I wasn’t dragging my butt, either. Climbing out of bed at 8 a.m., instead of 3:30, is so much more civilized.

OTHER RACING and RACING NEWS 

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the big F1 news this week was the outright sale of Williams F1 to a U.S. private investment company, Dorilton Capital. It will continue in the sport as Williams but the American company will run it. They will not be moving it to the U,S., however. Everything will continue in England. . . . . NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson has let it be known that he is seeking sponsorship to run a two-car IndyCar team that would run the road and street circuits in the first year and the whole shebang, including the Indianapolis 500, in Year Two. He’s hoping to be racing open-wheel cars next  year. He’s in his last year in NASCAR now. I hear that Roger Penske may – may – be giving him a hand in this sponsor search. . . . . FIA President Jean Todt was Penske’s guest at Indy this weekend and said later that it would be “very good for Formula One” if it returned to the Speedway. Of course, Liberty Media will make that decision, or not. The problem is that the F1 teams all think of Indianapolis as “Naptown,” and don’t want to go back there. If anybody has been to Austin, Tex., lately, you wonder where they got the idea that Indy was a hicktown place. . . . . .

NASCAR Cup held two races at Dover this weekend. On Saturday, Denny Hamlin was first, with Martin Truex Jr. second and Kyle Busch third. Sunday, Kevin Harvick wrapped up the regular season Cup points championship by finishing first. Truex was second (he’s now in a second-place rut; he was in a third-place rut for about the last six races, or maybe it was five. Whatever; he finished in the same place multiple times. NASCAR Xfinity: Saturday – Justin AllgaierAustin CindricRoss Chastain. Sunday – Chase BriscoeRoss ChastainAustin CindricNASCAR trucks: Friday – Zane SmithMatt CraftonBrett Moffitt.

Here’s some karting news. The Karstars Canadian Nationals were held at Goodwood Kartways last weekend. Winning air tickets to Italy to represent Canada in the World Nationals come October were Jordan DeleoMatthew MilesDavid GrecoJohn Cariatti and Austin Boyle, younger brother of Stadium Super Trucks driver Russell Boyle. Congratulations, boys. Who will be the next Nicholas Latifi or Lance Stroll? We shall see.

At Merrittville Speedway Saturday night, 2018 S&W Service Centre 358 Modified track champion and 2019 Super DIRTcar Series champion Matt Williamson from St. Catharines returned to victory lane as Merrittville hosted a full Bobcat of Hamilton Weekly Racing Series program. Third-generation driver James Michael Friesen from St. Catharines won the feature in the Rick’s Delivery DIRTcar Sportsman,  Donny Lampman from Caistor Centre won the main event for the Hoosier Stocks, Ridgeway’s Josh Sliter picked up another victory in the RONA/Doidge Builders Mod Lites, Welland’s Kyle Rothwell picked up the victory in the Central Fabricating/Glo & Go Tanning 4 Cylinder Mini Stocks and John Couture from London scored the win in the James’ Auto V6 class.

Ashley McCubbin reports from Sauble Speedway: Making his Knightworks Design OSCAAR Hot Rods debut, Rob Bromley was able to out-duel Adrian Foster en route to securing the checkered flag behind the wheel of the No. 5 Corvair. Steve Book followed up his win at Jukasa Motor Speedway with a third-place finish, followed by Tyler Hawn and Paul Senior.

The first race of the year for the Living Lighting OSCAAR Pro Sprints would be dominated by Jaden Riddell, as he drove away from the field en route to victory. James Stanley finished second, followed by Ryan BattilanaWayne McKibbon, and Tyler Cullen.

Corvette Racing (Jordan TaylorAntonio Garcia) won the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT LeMans race in Saturday’s Michelin GT Challenge at Virginia International Raceway. In the GT Daytona class, Bill Auberlen and Robby Foley drove their BMW M6 GT3 to victory. The victory marked the 61st for Auberlen, breaking a tie with Scott Pruett as the leading all-time winner in North American sports car racing. Auberlen and Foley also won the Michelin Pilot Challenge at VIR.

Jeff Kingsley of Whitby finished first Saturday and second Sunday in the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA races at VIR. In so doing, he extended his lead in the point standings by seven. “The points are the most important thing at the end of the day, so I’m happy with that,” said Kingsley. Rounds 5 and 6 of the 2020 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama season are scheduled for Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta on Sept. 4-6. The first race will take place on Sunday, Sept. 5, at 9:30 a.m. ET, with Race 2 set for Sunday at 8 a.m. Both races will be streamed live on IMSA.com

And Ryan Hunsinger, a GTA sprint car driver of note, won the feature Saturday night at Brockville Ontario Speedway. Brockville is the eighth speedway where he’s won races, the others being Jukasa, Flamboro, Delaware, Ohsweken, Humberstone, Merrittville and Brighton. Good stuff.

FINALLY . . . (and now for something completely different) 

Farewell to two guys I admired who have left our world, Al Burns of Kapuskasing and Maurice Hugh (Lefty) Reid of Peterborough and Toronto.

Back in the late 1940s, early ‘50s, when there were only six teams in the NHL, and the American League and Western League were the only two minor leagues worth mentioning in dispatches, the calibre of hockey in small- and medium-size towns in Canada was superlative. Players who would be in the bigs today played intermediate and senior hockey in those places back then and if you were alive and a fan in those days you were in for a treat every time you went to a game.

Being a fan of goalies (I tried to be one myself), I got to see Art Mousley and Al Burns in action. Mousley played for the Abitibi Eskimos in the Northern Ontario Mines League. Burns played juvenile hockey for a team in South Porcupine and later in the Mines League for the Kap GMs (formerly Huskies). Except for Terry Sawchuk and Jacques Plante, they were the two greatest I ever saw.

Lefty Reid worked in sports for the old Toronto Telegram but, if truth be told, he was the founder of the Hockey Hall of Fame and later the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. He was curator of both until he retired and returned to his hometown of Peterborough where he founded that town’s sports hall of fame.

He was a competitive fastball pitcher, known for his windmill windup, and played in the Beaches Fastball League (one of best in North America, at one time). I was his catcher in the Sixties when he pitched for the Globe Retractians (typo on purpose) in the long-gone Toronto Senior Men’s Press League.

Great times. Great guys. R.I.P.