One by one last Sunday morning they stepped out of the oppressive heat into the air-conditioned cool of North Green Room. There, the 33 drivers in the 96th Indy 500 gathered 30 minutes before they slid into their cars. In the cramped space at the base of the Pagoda at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, chaplain Bob Hills moved from driver to driver, quietly saying a prayer with each. Will Power, winner of the last three races in the IndyCar season (all on road courses), kept telling his rivals to "be smart, be smart." Marco Andretti, strolling past Susie Wheldon—the widow of 2011 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon, who was killed in a crash last October at Las Vegas Motor Speedway—said to no one in particular that it was "time to be safe." And Dario Franchitti, who had been one of Wheldon's closest friends, sat alone in a corner, stone-faced and deep in thought.
This is one of the most soul-searching moments in U.S. sports: the quiet before the engines blast to life for the most highly attended single-day sporting event in the world. (This year's crowd was an estimated 220,000.) In North Green Room there was more anxiety than usual for two reasons: a new chassis that had never been raced on an oval track, and heat that would reach 91°, second-highest in 500 history, making the 2.5-mile Brickyard slicker than it had been during the three weeks of practice.
"Whoever adapts the best to all that is new is going to win," said three-time 500 champion Hélio Castroneves. "There is so much we don't know."
After 500 sweat-soaked miles on Sunday, we know this: Franchitti, the four-time series champ who was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and now lives with his wife, the actress Ashley Judd, in Nashville, has officially entered the pantheon of alltime IndyCar greats. With two laps to go he blazed past Scott Dixon along the front stretch at 221 mph to seize the lead. It was the race's 34th lead change, a new record. (The most in any previous 500 was 29, in 1960.)
On the final lap Franchitti charged into Turn 1. Takuma Sato, who had not finished higher than 20th in his previous two starts at the Brickyard but led 31 laps this year, cut underneath him, trying to pass on the inside. But Franchitti moved down, forcing Sato to turn harder to the inside. The Japanese driver lost control and spun into the wall. The caution flag waved, the field was frozen, and Franchitti rolled across the finish line at 80 mph to become the 10th driver to win his third Indy 500. The 39-year-old Scot, who in 2008 moved to NASCAR but lost his ride after one woebegone season, now has 31 career IndyCar wins, tied for seventh on the alltime list, behind only the legendary names Foyt (A.J.), Andretti (Mario and Michael) and Unser (Al, Bobby and Al Jr.).
Did Franchitti believe he was capable of such success after his flop in NASCAR? "No," he said as he stood in the infield on Sunday evening. "Not at all. Never."
Wearing an orange tank top and white pants, Susie Wheldon approached the podium last Thursday as part of a traditional ceremony at the Speedway. For the first time in 66 years the reigning race champion wasn't at Indy. In her husband's absence Susie accepted the 2011 winner's ring from a track official. A few feet away the Wheldons' three-year-old son, Sebastian, giggled and held a toy race car. "Dan loved Indy and what it meant to be here," Susie said quietly.
Dan was one of the test drivers for the IndyCar chassis that debuted this season, whose design included new safety features such as rear wheel guards engineered to keep the cars from going airborne, as Wheldon's did at Las Vegas. The new chassis also has more substantial bodywork than any other in Indy history, so it's more susceptible to aerodynamic tow, which means a trailing car now gets "sucked up," as they say in the paddock, by a leading car and propelled past it. Indeed, passing in the 500 had never been as easy as it was on Sunday, which made the race as stirring as any in recent memory. "This car has made the racing more exciting for the fans but more stressful for the drivers," said Marco Andretti, who led 59 laps but, with 13 to go, lost control in Turn 1 and crashed out. "Things happen just so fast."
No one took more advantage of the increased passing opportunities than Franchitti. After starting 16th, he was spun out in the pits on lap 15 by E.J. Viso and dropped to 29th. But the two-time champion never panicked. "Dario is the kind of guy you like to have because he's been there, done that," said his car's owner, Chip Ganassi.
After Franchitti picked his way through the field—and chugged the milk in the winner's circle—he, Judd and Susie Wheldon jumped into the back of a convertible and rode slowly around the big track. In his dreams this is how Franchitti had envisioned his 500 ending: on a victory lap, three smiles gleaming, the memory of his friend all around him.