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DiZinno: Reflecting on Month of May 2016, and 100th Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Exhale. It’s over.

The month of May 2016, a month which promised so much, delivered even more and produced a wide swath of memories, emotions, surprises and story lines, is now as finished as Alexander Rossi’s fuel tank of his No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda.

The unpredictable month had its final round of twists and turns during the race itself but produced quite a number of takeaways of note:

WHAT A SAFE MONTH IT WAS

Last year, safety was the buzzword leading into the Indianapolis 500. Three devastating looking, airborne accidents dominated discussion in the run-up to qualifying. There was the awkward Mark Miles and Derrick Walker, hastily organized press conference.

Then, of course, there was James Hinchcliffe’s accident on the Monday, that has been talked about, written about and discussed ad nauseam in the 12 months since. How “Hinch” handled himself throughout the process of being asked the same question, “Hey, what do you think about almost dying?” approximately 789 times is nothing short of admirable.

This year, the words “transported to Methodist Hospital” were never uttered. Once.

And you can thank INDYCAR for that.

Karam's crash was big, but still safe. Photo: Getty Images
Karam’s crash was big, but still safe. Photo: Getty Images

While the timing of the safety enhancements for 2016 being announced wasn’t ideal – late November around Thanksgiving – the trio of the domed skids, the rear wing beam flaps and the nose tethers successfully completed their jobs.

Cars crashed without getting airborne, from both manufacturers. There were hard hits but in each case drivers got out, walked away and completed the requisite trip to the infield medical center, concerned more for their crews in needing to repair the primary or assemble a backup.

All the while, the “infamous” domed skids made the cars harder to drive and truly revealed the caliber of talent from each of the 33 drivers who started.

It’s easy to rip on INDYCAR when they’re wrong, but the competition and operations side of the equation merits a round of applause this year for ensuring we made it through May entirely unscathed.

RACE CONTROL? WHAT RACE CONTROL? 

Remember how much consternation there was at Long Beach over just the warning call for Simon Pagenaud exiting the pit lane and emerging ahead of Scott Dixon? Yeah, a long distant memory now.

The only time we heard Arie Luyendyk’s name this month was in reference to being a two-time Indianapolis 500 champion. Max Papis and Dan Davis? Didn’t hear them once.

INDYCAR Race Control has a thankless job and is often first in the line of fire for critique and criticism when a questionable call occurs. It’s only fair, then, to give them extended kudos for their work this month. There were plenty of penalties called in the race – but it’s hard to say any of them were controversial.

IMS, CROWD LIVES UP TO THE HYPE

Welcome to the Indy 500 Snake Pit. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Welcome to the Indy 500 Snake Pit. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Preparing for 350,000 people on race day was no small feat. Neither was preparing for 100,000-plus on Carb Day – the day when drunken debauchery takes center stage along with the respective concert on display (this year, it was Journey).

Alas, it seemed that the IMS staff did a pretty good job of getting the message out about getting there early, dealing with the crowds, and keeping the track safe and fun for all associated events. Even the “yellow shirts” weren’t as trigger-happy on their whistles and nicer than usual for most of the month.

The witnessing of the crowd on race morning was simply incredible. As others have written, it was more the fact the crowd got to their seats so early that stood out. At about 10 a.m. the stands were I’d say 70-75 percent full; usually they’re 50-60 percent, there or thereabouts at that time.

Other than intermittent Internet outages in the pressroom – not ideal, certainly, when your job relies on it – it was a month that ran largely smooth and cleanly without interruption.

To track president J. Douglas Boles and his entire staff, I say thank you.

THE FUTURE WON OUT OVER THE PAST

Munoz, Brabham and Hinch.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Munoz, Brabham and Hinchcliffe. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

In a race that looked forward as much as backwards – yes, there was plenty to commemorate the past of the 99 previous runnings of the Indianapolis 500 – it was a future-looking top-five finishing order.

Race winner Alexander Rossi is 24, and the first winner under 25 since Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000. He’s the first under 30 winner since Scott Dixon in 2008, then 27.

Then consider the rest of the top five: Carlos Munoz (24), Josef Newgarden (25), Tony Kanaan (41) and Charlie Kimball (31).

Polesitter James Hinchcliffe is 29. He finished seventh. JR Hildebrand, the hard-luck runner-up in 2011, finished sixth on Sunday. He’s still only 28.

In Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power, the remainder of the top 10 featured drivers still in their mid-to-late-30s, and Ryan Hunter-Reay was another of those who was unfortunate not to finish higher than he did. Each of these four still has several good years ahead of them.

Although this year’s field featured eight drivers north of 40 – Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Kanaan, Townsend Bell, Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani and Buddy Lazier – the vibe of the month felt more concentrated around the next generation of IndyCar stars.

Looking toward the future, that’s a good thing.

DON’T HATE THE PLAYER, HATE THE GAME 

Rossi and crew pulled it off. Photo: Getty Images
Rossi and crew pulled it off. Photo: Getty Images

It’s fine to not be a fan of fuel mileage races. But don’t hate the result just because a driver and his team nailed the strategy, then nailed the execution.

There’s been quite a bit written already about Rossi’s final stint, how it started earlier thanks to two prior bad pit stops where, ironically, refueling issues dropping him into the low-20s on the running order.

Still, the drama of whether he’d make it home or not was electric. It was fascinating knowing he’d start the white flag lap on fumes after doing enough to have saved enough fuel, then have to use the clutch and coast that final lap.

“I was experimenting out there, and it was actually a little bit of a fluke that I figured out how to save the most,” Rossi admitted on Monday. “I had a big moment in Turn 2 and I had to bail out of the throttle quite a bit behind Scott, and then I came across the line and I was still behind Scott quite close, and the fuel number was above what I needed, and I was like, all right, not that I want to try and end up in the wall in Turn 2 every lap, but I figured out a technique that worked quite well.”

In a strange way, the fact that Rossi crossed the finish line so relatively slow was almost a perfect homage to the past 100 runnings.

He’d gone as fast as the present allows – 230-plus and change thanks to a trimmed out, fairly low downforce setting having set both the fastest race lap and fastest trap speed in Turn 2 – but also slow enough as cars in the past once did.

For those fans who weren’t around to see what a winner at 135 mph looks like back in the old days, now we did… except with a car capable of so much more.

SOME ADDITIONAL LEFTOVER THOUGHTS

Dixon was hard to find .  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Dixon was hard to find most of May. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
  • All respect to him, but thank goodness Simon Pagenaud had an off day for the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series championship chase. After his incredible 2-2-1-1-1 start and qualifying ahead of Scott Dixon, Pagenaud held an 83-point lead and threatened to put a stranglehold the title before June. Leaving afterwards, the gap is just 57 points, and with 10 races to go we will have a title fight.
  • A driver that rarely figured in the month on-track? Dixon (above). Rare for the Target “lightning bolt” to be anonymous – and starting 13th and finishing eighth for a driver and team used to winning is just that. But the biggest story of the month for the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet crew was its heroic 64-minute engine change to get him out for qualifying. If he wins the title by less than 20 points, remember that effort.
  • Starting 10th and finishing 12th doesn’t sound like much, until you realize it’s a one-off entry driven by a veteran who undoubtedly – even if he wouldn’t admit it – helped Schmidt Peterson Motorsports this month. This is why Oriol Servia, who drove the No. 77 Lucas Oil Special Honda to those results this month, is still employable. Servia told me about his SPM bow pre-race: “Listen, I’d love to take credit. But when I arrived on GP weekend and entered engineering meeting, I cannot lie, I was impressed with the talent. The quality of people Sam and Ric have put together is no joke. If anything I hope I pushed more. Yeah, somehow I’m still not getting tired of this BS! Both of trying to get a ride, and getting it last second, and making it work.”
  • Two quietly good runs in the race? Englishmen Max Chilton and Jack Hawksworth both bounced back from early month adversity (a crash and an engine failure) to go P22 to P15 and P31 to P16, respectively. For Chilton’s first ‘500 it was a perfectly respectable result and after Hawksworth’s second successive month of nightmares, a better ending than expected.
  • Matty Brabham and the Brett “Crusher” Murray-led PIRTEK Team Murray brought a festive Australian flair, and a good amount of fun, to the Brickyard all month. The 22-year-old Australian American finished in the same spot as his age in the No. 61 Chevrolet, following a clean month.
  • Stefan Wilson, in the No. 25 Driven2SaveLives-KVRT Chevrolet, also ran better than anticipated early but retired with gearbox issues. It was a month for both he and his CoForce team around him to be proud of.
  • It was rare and odd to see Ed Carpenter, the driver, a non-factor both all race and all month. Qualified 20th and retired early with mechanical issues.
  • 13 different drivers led laps on Sunday. For 12 of them, all but Helio Castroneves, it was their first laps they led this season.
  • The Mazda Road to Indy’s nine races this month featured more drama in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires than in either the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires or Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda ranks. Enter Dean Stoneman as the story of the month here, having won both the Freedom 100 and one of the two road course races for Andretti Autosport.
  • There wasn’t a wide swath of negative news. Watkins Glen got formally announced during the Indy GP weekend and INDYCAR’s lawsuit against Boston got released/dumped at arguably the best time, mid-week, before the final buildup.
  • There’s no rest for the weary, with car changeover happening early this week before teams head out to Detroit for the traditionally backbreaking doubleheader weekend on Belle Isle Park.

A FINAL THOUGHT 

Having not done the full month personally until this year, it’s amazing how draining it is. But it’s also exhilarating.

The hangover from the high of the event lingers for a couple days, but the memories created last a lifetime.

Ironically, it’s the quiet moments of peace and reflection – more than the noise of 33 cars and 350,000 of your closest, screaming friends – that make you appreciate this place most.

Indy race morning starts like this....  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Indy race morning starts like this…. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

You feel the soul of the place most on race morning, early, pre-5 a.m., out on the course before the gates open to the public and you walk on the pavement, a track where so much history has been written.

Then you get the four-to-five hour rush of emotions in the buildup to race start, from watching Monaco in the press room, to the final stroll through Gasoline Alley, to then heading back on the grid hours later, the crowd beginning to fill in, the anticipation intensifying.

And then it gets like this.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
And then it gets like this. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

The final bit of quiet and prayer comes as all the Memorial Day tributes begin. The songs before the command. Taps. The flyover. That’s when it hits you what’s about to take place.

The race goes green.

Three hours that you’ve been building towards all month go by in a blur.

Shock hits as the checkered flag falls with a surprise winner crowned champion of the 100th running, but one who in just a handful of days has already begun to properly understand and embrace the magnitude of what he has accomplished.

And then, you leave the track… back in quiet reflection after the track has written its latest chapter.

And you reset the countdown clock for when you do it again, 12 months later.

F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.