IndyCar ushers in next generation of the Indianapolis 500 in thrilling fashion

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

SPEEDWAY, Ind. — If Sunday’s 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 is any indication, then the race is positioned well for another 99 runnings.

In the months leading up to 2016’s historic 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Douglas Boles was filled with confidence, noting happily that the event was a sellout and basking in the revelry of a race that’s existed for more than a century.

However, he had one worry – a lingering fear that manifested itself as a question in the back of his mind.

Selling the 100th running is easy. Would people continue to care and come back for the 101st?

As it turned out, the answer was yes.

A Complete Package

Fernando Alonso was one of they key selling points of the 2017 Indianapolis 500. (Photo: Richard Dowdy/INDYCAR)

Fueled by a strong showing in 2016 and aided by the announcement of electronic dance music DJs Marshmello and Zedd as performers for the Snake Pit and the berth of ‘Alonsomania’ – a groundswell of anticipation associated with the shock addition of Formula One great Fernando Alonso to the field – 2017’s edition of ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ again brought fans out in droves.

The numbers weren’t as strong as 2016 – it’s difficult to top a sellout, after all. But a significant portion of people again showed up for the annual voyage to Indianapolis.

Those that did were treated to one of the grandest spectacles of race in the facility’s 109-year history.

The 101st edition of the Indy 500 had everything fans could hope for.

Bold passes. Parity. Great storylines. An element of danger.

Fans of nearly every driver were treated to a show on Sunday, as nearly half of the field found themselves in contention throughout the day.

15 different drivers led the way during some portion of the Indy 500’s 200 laps, a record for the race. Max Chilton led the most, commanding the field for 50 laps while trying to hold the lead amid a strategy play that saw him finish fourth at day’s end. Alonso held the point for 27 circuits, his first laps led since 2014 in F1. Former winners Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves combined to pace the field for 90 laps.

Others who didn’t lead still found themselves in contention, led by rookie Ed Jones, whom surged into the top five late before finishing third in his Indy 500 debut with Dale Coyne Racing.

In many ways, Sunday’s 500-mile show at Indy was among the race’s most competitive ever.

Which leads to the next point: Danger.

Bravery

Like it or not, the thrill of danger is among the biggest selling points in auto racing. With the competition so close on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, many in the field supplied highlight fodder with accidents throughout the day.

The scariest incident – a harrowing shunt involving Scott Dixon and Jay Howard that led to a lengthy red flag for track cleanup – will be the memory many take away from the day.

The field delivered another wild crash late in the race when they channeled NASCAR’s restrictor plate races, bringing “The Big One” to Indianapolis.

One of IndyCar’s greatest appeals is the level of bravery required from the tour’s many drivers. It’s what makes Indianapolis so alluring in the first place – 33 drivers running within inches of each other at speeds of over 230 mph.

Race winner Takuma Sato deserves his own highlight reel after the race he ran. The Japanese shoe drove with every bit of the reckless abandon one would expect from a 40-year-old driver eying redemption with his first truly competitive ride in a half-decade.

There were aggressive blocks. There was the attempt to split the middle of Helio Castroneves and Ed Jones for second, or the three-wide pass on the outside moments later. Even the bold move to take the lead enticed cheers and chills in unison from the crowd.

Beyond Sato, there were wild moves abound in the pack. Alonso attempted passes in the short-chute. Restarts were continually chaotic. The field once went five-wide – yes, five-wide.

The Verizon IndyCar Series paddock collectively supplied one of the best races Indy has ever seen.

Storylines Abound

For a time, it appeared anyone in the field could win the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500. (Photo: Mike Harding/INDYCAR)

North America’s top open wheel tour also supplied a litany of storylines.

First comes the obvious – a daring duel between two of Indy’s best. Eying redemption for his last-lap crash while battling winner Dario Franchitti in 2012, Sato attacked the 2.5-mile oval relentlessly for the entirety of the race’s three hours. Looking to cement his legacy as an Indy legend, Castroneves overcame his involvement in the aforementioned Dixon-Howard shunt to place himself in the running for his fourth Indy 500 win.

The duel between the two drivers might not have lived up to standard set by Castroneves’ last battle with Hunter-Reay in 2014, but it provided a similar level of tension, with the outcome in doubt until the final straightaway.

In third came Jones, a rookie who spent the entire month overshadowed by Alonso.

“In the media, it’s been overshadowed,” Jones told Kickin’ the Tires on Thursday’s Media Day. “But I think the people within the paddock – the guys for my long term career, people who really need to notice, I think I’ve proven a point to them. For me, at the moment, that’s the key thing.”

Jones said dormant for two weeks, silently putting together one of the best months any rookie or Dale Coyne Racing driver had ever managed. On Sunday, the United Arab Emirates native broke out of the shadow and into the light, scoring the third podium for a rookie in the last five years, following Carlos Munoz’s second-place run in 2013 and Rossi’s 2016 victory.

Fourth came Max Chilton, an afterthought entering the month who parlayed a strong INDYCAR Grand Prix showing into something much greater in INDYCAR’s biggest race. The Chip Ganassi Racing shoe led a race-high 50 laps, keeping himself in contention until the bitter end.

The returning Juan Pablo Montoya earned a solid sixth-place run despite Team Penske’s pace struggles through ought the month. Gabby Chaves supplied a near-perfect run for the newly-formed Harding Racing that saw the team finish ninth in their debut.

James Davison and Oriol Servia both proved strong contenders until they were lost to a late crash. Mazda Road to Indy staple Juncos Racing kept both cars out of trouble to garner two top 20s in their first race as an IndyCar team. Simon Pagenaud Struggled, Tony Kanaan flourished.

Then, there was Alonso.

Despite driving what essentially amounted to a papaya orange target by the time the green flag flew, Alonso maintained a contact presence inside of the top 10 and led as late as Lap 138 to prove his talent in his oval indy car debut.

Sadly, the run went awry for Alonso in the closing moments, when he became the last of a group of Honda stars to suffer an engine failure throughout the month. The Spaniard would be credited with only a 24th-place run, but his willingness to go attempt to master a completely new medium garnered praise from throughout the motorsports world.

A Successful Day

The morning of the 101st Indy 500 was met with uncertainty, both in regards to weather and overall impact.  In the end, the storms stayed clear until hours after the race, long removed from Sato’s time to kiss the bricks.

In many ways, the Indiana weather was symbolic of the weekend as a whole for Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

There are storms in the distance – the ever-evolving culture of cars and motorsports, safety improvements, aerokit changes – and they’re eventually going to arrive. But for right now, the humble town of Speedway, Indianapolis remains the pinnacle of motorsports come the end of May.

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