SI Vault
Mark Bechtel
June 03, 2002
Even a controversial finish couldn't obscure the fact that the Indy 500, after years of decline, has roared back in fine form
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June 03, 2002


Even a controversial finish couldn't obscure the fact that the Indy 500, after years of decline, has roared back in fine form

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At 7:45 on Sunday night, a good 5� hours after he had climbed the trackside fence a la Spider-Man in celebration of having taken the checkered flag in the 86th Indianapolis 500, Helio Castroneves was walking through Gasoline Alley when he was told that the race results had finally been stamped OFFICIAL. He celebrated by scaling another fence, this time the seven-foot-high barrier that borders the garage area. But when word came shortly thereafter that an appeal of the results would be heard on Monday, one had to wonder just how many fences Castroneves would have to climb to become the race's undisputed champion.

Car owner Barry Green paid the $500 fee to file a protest on behalf of his driver, second-place finisher Paul Tracy, who claimed he had blown past Castroneves into the lead on the penultimate lap just before the yellow caution lights came on. (Two cars had wrecked in Turn 2.) Because the race went on to finish under caution, Tracy felt that he should have been crowned champion. Video replays appeared to support the initial ruling that Tracy had passed Castroneves a split second after the caution lights, which signal drivers to hold their positions. On Monday race officials, after deliberating for over five hours, denied the appeal.

Not even the controversial ending could take the luster off what was easily the best race at the Brickyard in seven years—ever since open-wheel racing split into two feuding bodies in 1996. As a result of that schism between CART and the upstart IRL, the '96 Indy 500 was contested largely by a group of unknowns (15 rookies in a field of 33), and in the following years the event was in danger of losing its hallowed place in American sport. This year, with more and more CART teams being encouraged by their sponsors to run at Indy, the field was filled with almost all of the sport's top teams. This race was the fastest in Indy history, with an average qualifying speed of 228.648 mph.

Before Tracy pulled alongside him, Castroneves was more worried about whether he would have enough gas to make it to the finish line. Most of the field had refueled with 23 laps to go, but Castroneves's crew had filled his tank with 42 laps remaining, and owner Roger Penske was willing to gamble that his Brazilian driver could make it the rest of the way. Heading into Turn 3 of the penultimate lap with Tracy closing in, the 27-year-old Castroneves noticed a flashing yellow light on his steering wheel, which—in his frenzied state—made him think he was out of gas.

"I was so tense," said Castroneves after the race. "I thought I was running out of fuel. Then the guys on the radio were yelling, 'Yellow! Yellow!' [meaning the race was under caution], and I was shocked." Castroneves eased off the gas pedal as Tracy passed him. Race officials disallowed the pass, and after three final miles under caution Castroneves became the first back-to-back winner of the 500 since 1971 and the first driver to win the race in his first two starts at Indy.

The result also underscored the extent to which the balance of power in open-wheel racing has shifted. Last year CART drivers, led by Castroneves, swept the top five spots in the race, a showing that was a slap in the face of Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George, who broke from CART to form the IRL. At the time of the split the only things George had going for him were his promise of less expensive racing and his famous track. While the cost issue is significant (CART has followed George's lead in the frugality department, mainly in using a simpler and cheaper engine), it is the powerful lure of the track itself that has fundamentally turned the tide.

Despite sagging interest in the 500, a huge backlash from the racing community and observers accusing him of ruining America's biggest race, George refused to buckle. Instead of enticing CART teams to the race, he waited for them to come to him. Eventually they did, when their sponsors insisted upon it. The series got a huge boost last December after one of George's most vocal critics, Penske, who was a founding member of CART, jumped to the IRL full time, largely at the behest of his sponsor, Marlboro. "I think Tony's vision is one of the things [that has made the IRL successful]," says Penske. "I have to take my hat off to him. He's stayed the course."

George pulled off another coup three days before this year's race, when engine manufacturer Honda, which has provided the power for the last six overall CART champions, announced it would start supplying engines to IRL teams next year. Last fall Honda announced it will pull out of CART effective 2003, saying it had no interest in building the nonturbocharged engines CART is switching to. But Honda has since reconsidered and will make that engine for IRL teams.

The reversal wasn't an easy pill to swallow for CART's board of directors, which does not have a firm commitment from an established engine builder for next year. CART's situation could become even more dire if Honda clients such as Green, who owns the cars of Tracy, Michael Andretti and current CART leader Dario Franchitti, follow the engine manufacturer to the IRL. George did his best not to gloat, but when pressed on the question of whether bringing Honda on board signaled the final nail in CART's coffin, he said, "I bring my hammer to work every day."

If George keeps staging races as full of action as Sunday's, in which IRL drivers took five of the top six positions, it won't be long before he can leave the hammer in his toolbox.