Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud – Alexander Rossi Stretches His Fuel to Rookie Indianapolis 500 Victory

Who’s in the headlineAlexander Rossi was a Formula One driver a year ago who had never turned laps on an oval before February of this year. He ran a fuel strategy that took his car nearly four laps farther than anyone had done all day. He ran near the front but also utilized his teammates to help his strategy play out successfully. He becomes the first rookie to win the 500 since Helio Castroneves took home the Borg-Warner trophy in 2001.

What happened – James Hinchcliffe started on pole and spent the first 13 laps swapping the lead every lap with Ryan Hunter-Reay. The race went green for 47 laps and, as a result, green flag stops resulted in Josef Newgarden, Carlos Munoz and Sage Karam leading before Townsend Bell joined into the Hinchcliffe/Hunter-Reay parade. On lap 117, under the fourth caution of the race, Castroneves, Bell and Hunter-Reay get together on pit out which essentially ends Hunter-Reay and Bell’s hopes of winning the race. Rossi took the lead for the first time on lap 122 and managed to lead 10 laps before the caution flew on lap 163. Newgarden, Kanaan and Munoz traded the lead over the next 34 laps while Rossi conserved fuel and drafted off of anything that was moving to stretch his distance. As one leader after another peeled off to get fuel Rossi slowed down and held on for all he had. As Munoz pitted on lap 194, Rossi took over the lead and ran out the final three laps to win by almost 4.5 seconds.

Why you should care – The race was sold out. The 500 has not been sold out in over 60 years. Part of that is due to the limited amount of space available in the infield, but much of it was due to the historic nature of the 100th race. The race was fantastic and the crowd was very energized. That should turn into ticket sales nearly equal to this year’s attendance. A second show sold out or nearly so will go a long way in securing more sponsors, more manufacturers and, subsequently more race teams.

What your friends are talking about – Attendance is what EVERYONE was talking about on Sunday. Not just for the race but for Carb Day on Friday and Legends day on Saturday. Over an estimated 100,000 people paid the $30 to watch an hour of practice and the Indy Lights show on Carb Day. Saturday’s Legends day saw another large crowd of people come out for autograph sessions and concerts. Sunday was a sold out show for the first time in over 60 years so the race wasn’t blacked out in the Indianapolis area. These kind of numbers had not been seen at Indy since 1995.

Speaking of the blackout, the infield at Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been dramatically altered in recent years to include far more entertainment and activation space. The resultant loss of fan “seating” space reduced the number of general admission tickets from “unlimited” to a fixed number. When that number of tickets was sold, the event was declared a sellout and the blackout was lifted. Many comments on social media indicated that some people would have stayed home had they known the blackout would be lifted. For those who don’t appreciate that is the reason for the blackout, here’s your sign.

The field of 33 was set with a qualifying format that set the top nine positions and the remainder of the field on the second day. With only 33 cars entered there was no bumping and, thanks to some contact with the wall on the second day of time trials, Alex Tagliani made the field with no time. That begs the question of what it will take to bring more cars to the track. Several individuals in the Media Center chimed in this weekend. Most of them came to the conclusion that more manufacturers are needed. Whether that is chassis, engine, aero or other, more will spur teams to be more aggressive and encourage more teams to take a chance. The attendance can also spur additional teams because having those numbers of butts in the seats provides exposure that is hard to find from a captive audience anywhere in the modern environment.

Sarah Fisher, a driver who ran in IndyCar from 2000 (actually made a start in 1999) to 2010, took some hard hits in her early years. It appears those hits have affected her memory. Safety changes in the sport have advanced, and most of the hits she refers to came before many of those advancements, but it is still worth nothing. With head trauma being so front and center in the collective mindset these days, it is a bit disheartening to hear of her experiences. Fortunately she admits that she is fine with whatever issues she has and appreciates the advancements that have been made.

Who is mad – Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell were both taken out in an incident that can really only be described as a racing deal. They were exiting their pit stalls while Castroneves was leaving his as well. Three-wide on the pit lane in Indy doesn’t work. The resultant contact, while it didn’t take either of them out, caused enough damage and loss of track position, that they were eliminated from potentially winning the race.

Munoz finished second, again. Munoz has run the Indianapolis 500 four times. He finished second for the second time today and also has a fourth place run as well. Three top 4 runs in four starts in the 500 is a very strong record. Munoz was leading when he had to pit for fuel because, unlike Rossi, he pushed his car and didn’t try to conserve nearly as much as the eventual champ. The result was he had to come from behind and ran out of laps, finishing almost 4.5 seconds behind.

Juan Pablo Montoya won the 2015 500. He finished last this year. On lap 64 he ran out of talent in turn two and spun into the wall, ending his attempt to repeat in 33rd position. He was the third defending champion in history to suffer such a fate. Johnny Rutherford won in 1976 and was last in 1977. Jimmy Bryan was the first, winning in 1958 and not even completing a lap in 1959.

Who is happy – James Hinchcliffe has much to be happy about before today’s race. Hinchtown almost bled out after a crash last year that resulted in his failing to run the 2015 race. Not only was he able to get back into a car this year, he won the pole for the race. Some people thought it was a fluke and that he’d slowly drop back to mid-pack once the race started. Not only did he not drop back, he competed in the top 5 for much of the race before finishing seventh. Hinch has fun and loves life more than many others in the garage and this weekend had him on top of the world.

Like Hinchcliffe, Newgarden started on the front row and stayed near the point for much of the day. He was battling for the lead with Munoz and Kanaan as the laps wound down but had to peel off for a splash of gas. In the end he finished third and was close enough that a minor problem with the front two just might have put him in the Winner’s Circle.

Alex Tagliani heard about his qualifying tribulations for a week. After starting 33rd he not only climbed into mid pack, he was able to lead two times for 11 laps. Similar to Montoya, Tags was the third driver in history to lead the race after starting 33rd. Tom Sneva pulled off that feat in 1980 and Phil Shafer started 22nd in a shorter field in 1925.

When the checkered flag flew: Alexander Rossi was the 10th rookie to win the Indianapolis 500. The first seven occurred before 1967.

Rossi led 14 laps. That is the second fewest led by a rookie winner behind Graham Hill’s 10 in 1966.

14 laps is ties for seventh fewest led by a race winner. He is tied with Gaston Chevrolet.

Rossi is the third driver to win from the 11th starting position. Gordon Johncock in 1973 and Castroneves in 2001 were the other two.

In the last six races the winner has taken the lead for the final time with fewer than five laps to go.

Rossi’s number is 98. He is the fourth driver to win the 500 with that number. The previous three are Dan Wheldon (2011), Parnelli Jones (1963) and Troy Ruttman (1952)

The race trails only the 2013 race in lead changes and number of leaders. This years race had 13 leaders, one shy of 2013 and 54 lead changes. That is 14 shy of the record 68 in 2013.

Tagliani has led six consecutive races. That ties him with Rick Mears for second all-time. Tony Kanaan has the record at seven.

Kanaan has led 12 races in his career. He is one shy of the record, held by A.J. Foyt.

Helio Castroneves has led 12 consecutive races, which is the record.

What is in the cooler – The failure of this race to have a razor thin margin of victory like the Indy Lights is the only hinderance to it being a barn burner. Near record lead changes, near record number of leaders, suspense to the very end and 350,000 people in the stands gave it almost everything. As a result we’ll give it five ice cold Hinchtown Hammerdowns from Flat 12 Brewery

Where do you point your DVR for next week – It is a doubleheader weekend for the IndyCar series. The road show heads to Belle Isle Park in Detroit for twin street course races on June 4th and 5th. The races can be seen each day at 3:00 PM on ABC.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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