Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

Chasing Baja 1000 glory, via a McMillin Racing chase truck

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Last month, I had the opportunity to take in my first SCORE Baja 1000, the 49th running of the off-road classic. Trying to chronicle the experience took a bit more time than just doing a day-of report.

In part one of my reflection, I looked back at the event itself on the whole. In part two, I’ll reflect on my ride-along in a chase truck with McMillin Racing, one of the preeminent teams in Baja history. Sincere thanks go to to the team and to BFGoodrich Tires for making this all possible.

And now, without further adieu, part two…

Imagine for a moment you’re embedded with Team Penske at Indianapolis. Or Porsche at Le Mans. Or Hendrick Motorsports at Daytona.

Except you can’t really imagine it, because unless you’re either a wunderkind who is the best 20-something prospect out of university or a grizzled veteran with enough years experience to make it into arguably the crème de la crème of any of these teams, it’s probably not going to happen.

Such a tantalizing and unattainable prospect though is turned on its head when BFGoodrich Tires tells you, “you’re going to be embedded with McMillin Racing at the Baja 1000.”

This is the off-road equivalent of getting your masters’ degree at the legendary university that is Baja.

And when I heard I’d be embedded with these guys for this year’s race, my already stoked, piqued interest was taken to the next level.

BACKGROUND ON “BIG BLUE”

The No. 23 McMillin Racing truck at speed. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
The No. 23 McMillin Racing truck at speed. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

There is so much more to San Diego than its mere inclusion in Anchorman, with Ron Burgundy’s rather legendary/infamous description of the town far from giving the town justice.

While it’s an incredible city filled with great beaches, food and culture, it’s not particularly known for racing – at least circuit racing.

But this is the city where the McMillin family laid its roots and began its conquest. From when Macey “Corky” McMillin began to explore the local deserts near his home, they figured out very quickly this was a terrain to be conquered.

And when McMillin started a small construction company in San Diego, it wasn’t just a construction empire they built. It was also an off-road one.

This year marked BFG’s 40th year at Baja but for the McMillins, this year also held that same 40-year significance.

From the humble beginnings in 1976, for more than 30 years, McMillin and the desert have been synonymous with success. No, they weren’t the only team of dominance but they’re one of the legendary outfits.

As of 2014, the team had 667 total race entries with 303 races entered. In that span, there were 236 class podium victories, 100 race class victories, 45 overall race victories, and 40 team owned or prepped race vehicles.

The story began with an “old” hi-jumper class 9 1200cc VW Type 1 buggy in 1976; today, McMillin Racing is known for its Trophy Truck presence for third generation drivers Dan and Luke McMillin. It’s a custom tube frame truck from Racer Engineering, with a Kroyer Ford V8 engine under the hood. It exudes power and strength at every opportunity.

The unofficial “godfather,” as you were, is their father Mark McMillin, who was a standout driver and Baja winner in his own right and is now the team principal. In just a three-day period, I got to see firsthand the level of dedication to his team, his craft and his people. It was one of the most engaging experiences I’ve had in 11 years reporting and in 21 years in motorsports since I first became a fan.

Much more can be found about the team’s history in the “Big Blue” book, which does over 500 pages of storytelling. Without even really getting going, I’m already just at over 500 words here in building up the intro.

RACE DAY LAUNCH

The two McMillin Racing trucks at contingency. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
The two McMillin Racing trucks at contingency. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

So when you’re embedded with a race team at Baja, you become one of the crew. With a team of 53 people at this year’s Baja, I’m treated no differently than any of McMillin’s full-time crew, or its volunteers – this is to say that I’m already part of the family almost from the off.

I met the guys I’d be riding with on Thursday at contingency. The order was simple; get yourself to our hotel before 8 a.m. on Friday, race morning, and we’ll take it from here.

Race day dawns. It’s weird, first off, that you’re going to a hotel first and not to a track. Everyone loads up here and then heads out to our first checkpoint, which the trucks won’t be hitting for several hours.

“HURRY UP AND WAIT”

It's time to play "spot the Baja rookie." From left to right, Steve Schuler, Shawn Huddleston, myself, Tom Calhoun. Photo courtesy Shawn Huddleston
It’s time to play “spot the Baja rookie.” From left to right, Steve Schuler, Shawn Huddleston, myself, Tom Calhoun. Photo courtesy Shawn Huddleston

“Get where you need to go first, then dick around.”

This is the first lesson of race day at Baja. When you’re in a chase vehicle such as the Ford F-150 Raptor we were in, your goal is to get to your checkpoints before the truck arrives. If ever you are behind, this is bad.

I was in a truck with our driver, Shawn Huddleston, with support from Steve Schuler (co-driver, passenger’s seat) and Tom Calhoun riding with me in the backseat. In the truck, we have all sorts of supplies. It’s primarily parts for the trucks to ensure we’ve got whatever they might need out on the course, but it’s also parts for us, most notably lunchmeat and desserts.

“You’re going to be eating on the fly, and possibly doing other things on the fly, so get ready for that,” Shawn says.

The race doesn’t begin for the trucks until 10:30 a.m. local time, but the race morning preparation is already well underway hours before that.

Mark, who’d offered me a ride with the crew in a helicopter (I declined, because doing my first off-road race was enough before adding yet another variable), set off in the helicopter at 8:21 a.m. to get in position. The two chase trucks left the hotel at the same time.

More importantly, I devoured my first Clif bar.

The glamorous food you get in Mexico ends when the race starts. It’s a steady diet of ‘Merica from there.

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Photo: Tony DiZinno

We arrive at our first checkpoint at 9:30 a.m., slightly more than an hour after we left the hotel. In that time, we’d passed a military checkpoint, saw the bikes that were racing (they start earlier), while a car behind us honks its horn. Yes, because we were going to go ahead while the police – who were directly ahead of us – were holding us.

Once to “La Grulla,” the first checkpoint, the reality of how vastly different Baja is compared to any other race sets in.

You’re not watching a race. You’re watching men push carts trying to sell you various chotchkies or food while standing inches away from early 1990s Ford Pintos or equivalent cars. You’re watching to make sure none of your newly discovered friends are using the support truck as a temporary restroom. You’re talking politics.

At 11:30 a.m., we get our first radio call that Car 23 – Dan McMillin’s truck – was already at mile marker 20 at 11:02. Luke McMillin is in truck 83. We’re at mile marker 80 and change. So they’re on target to get here within an hour or so, likely a little longer. Things are going to plan.

It got busy at checkpoint one. Photo: Tony DiZinno
It got busy at checkpoint one. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Just under an hour later, our “pit” has grown as other support trucks keep parking on the side of the road. Pitting now is bad, because the race has only just begun. At this point, you’re just hoping the trucks blow past with no issues.

12:25 p.m. “Car 23, Mile 70. Everything OK.” These are the standard radio messages. If it’s anything different than this, you have a problem. If it’s the same, just with the mile marker updated, you’re good.

12:47 is when everything springs into action. Both the 23 and the 83 trucks fly by, the eighth and ninth trucks on the road, and mere seconds after they’re through the four of us scramble and jump back in the truck for our next chase to the next checkpoint.

Everything is good through checkpoint one. Of course, there’s still another 16 hours and change to go, but that’s irrelevant at this point.

THE CHASE BEGINS

This is Baja. Flat out over rough terrain with road cars on highway as backdrop. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
This is Baja. Flat out over rough terrain with road cars on highway as backdrop. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

At 1:06, we’ve long shifted from typical speed into “Chase Speed.” What this means is that we’re driving safely – but as quick as safely possible – through dirt roads, twisty uphill sections, some with barriers, some without, to get to the next checkpoint.

Laser focus is engaged by all four of us. The small talk stops.

This is what Baja means.

1:25 p.m. “Car 23, Mile 120. Everything OK.”

1:26 p.m. We’ve hit our first town of note, called San Vicente. The fish taco stands along the route are calling my name. Yet we cannot stop, no matter the lure of the pesca. The chase rolls on.

At 1:57, the team hits its first proverbial speed bump of the race. You’ll have issues in Baja – it’s just a question of what it is, and how or when it will hit. Luke’s truck, the No. 83, has had a flat tire and lost a brake caliper.

It’s important to note here Dan’s truck, the No. 23, runs on 39-inch BFGoodrich Tires, and have red-rimmed wheels. Luke’s are on 40s, and have blue-rimmed wheels. So we have to be extra careful to ensure the right size tire goes on the right truck.

By 2:06, the 23 was clicking along at Race Mile 160. The 83 had lost six minutes but completed a successful change of the tire and wheel.

Big air. Big fans. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
Big air. Big fans. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

Just over an hour later, the first official pit stop beckoned. This required us to veer off the highway onto the dirt area where the pits are set up, and where we saw the rabid Baja fans in person. The noise of the fans screaming is as loud, if not louder, than the trucks. Both the 83 and 23 trucks came through.

This offered the rare opportunity to scramble into the cooler in the back of the truck, then grab the lunchmeat, mayo, waters and soda. We had to complete this task in under a minute, because the race wasn’t stopping for us to do our best Dale Jr. mayo-and-banana sandwich imitations.

At 3:26, we witnessed the first instance where our chase would put us directly behind the No. 23 truck on the highway itself, thus watching its progress and reporting back to the co-drive inside the truck. Everything was OK.

THE RUN FROM DUSK TO DARKNESS

As the sun started to set, my note detail started to set along with them.

4:10. 83. 260. OK. 23. 280. OK.

Why write more if you don’t need to?

That brevity was briefly interrupted by my own stupidity.

When we’d made a stop along the road, I got back in the truck only to feel that my foot had an inadvertent sharp “resting pad” underneath it.

The offending cactus. Photo: Tony DiZinno
The offending cactus. Photo: Tony DiZinno

The note here reads: 4:31: Discover you stepped on a cactus.

Now the concern isn’t just whether we’ll get to our next checkpoint before sunset. It’s whether I’ll have the opportunity to take the damn thing out of my shoe in time.

Many things are changing at this point, as the race had been going about six hours or so. The temperature is dropping along with the sunset; it had been in the mid-to-high 70s ambient but was now 65. The specter of reliability issues and with most of the race run in darkness began to rear their ugly head. At least if you go out early in an endurance race, you don’t have the heartache that exists the longer it goes.

At 4:56, we’d stopped to ensure our trucks were going strong as the night was about to be long, at the southernmost tip of our journey. I used a rock to remove the cactus and by 5:00, we were set to turn around and head back north for the chase.

THE DARK RETURN HOME

The last vestige of light before darkness. Photo: Tony DiZinno
The last vestige of light before darkness. Photo: Tony DiZinno

Maintaining focus and composure as the night falls is extra important. We refuel as a team at 6:04 at a Pemex for gas, food and more, and are back on the road shortly thereafter. At 6:21, the 83 was at Race Mile 350, with the 23 at 380. Almost halfway in this 854-mile marathon.

Why is focus so hard to maintain? When at 6:51, your note reads of a Seinfeld distraction: “The Big Salad” spotted in San Quentin.

At 7:16, it becomes apparent that Dan’s truck, the 23, is actually in with a shout at winning this thing. “23 P4. +11 (minutes) to leader. 415.”

Billy Joel’s line from “Summer, Highland Falls” on Turnstiles enters my head a few minutes later.

“It’s either sadness or euphoria.”

The high of the 23’s potential win hopes start to erode at 7:36. The report is that the truck’s water temperature is running warm at over 250 degrees. The concern is there’s a voltage issue or a serpentine belt stalling out.

This is the mystery of Baja. Because you have no way of seeing what’s happening to the truck, you’re left to know only via radio – which you may or may not have considering you’re out in the middle of freaking nowhere and it’s pitch black out – you have to rely on whatever little information you get to ensure the truck is running well.

A mix of brief relief and new concern comes on the next transmission. “23 voltage good. We’re at 420 Race Mile. Transmission temp at 153. Possible cooling issue.”

But the 23 presses on. By 7:45, the gap is closed to just 7 minutes to the leader at Race Mile 438. The temps are a little better, but there’s a report that dirt might be creeping in. The radiator will need to be checked at the next stop.

THE LONG STOP OF DOOM FOR THE 23

All hands on deck as the No. 23 truck's race ends. Photo: Tony DiZinno
All hands on deck as the No. 23 truck’s race ends. Photo: Tony DiZinno

At 8:44, the dream for Dan’s No. 23 team at this year’s Baja ends.

A theoretical normal stop is taking much longer, and the water pump is leaking. Meanwhile, the McMillin team has to ensure enough space is cleared for when Luke’s No. 83 truck pits not much longer afterwards.

We watch the truck numbers 3, 91, 11 and 200 go past. No. 11, Rob MacCachren’s truck, is the ultimate race winner. Even though they’re flying, the passes happen in slow motion.

At 9:03, Dan climbs out of the No. 23. The truck is taking in too much water. The hood has climbed back off.

Mark, who’s long since landed in the helicopter a few hours earlier, calls us to check the status.

It’s game over at 9:11. The note in the notebook? 23 – SHE DONE. Ouch.

BAJA GIVETH, BAJA TAKETH AWAY

As night fell, so did the No. 23. The No. 83 became McMillin's lone hope. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
As night fell, so did the No. 23. The No. 83 became McMillin’s lone hope. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

At this point, we make a crew switch in the chase truck. Tom Calhoun is moved over to the transporter that’s set up where the No. 23 truck is parked, while Cameron Parrish, a likable, humorous and tall individual who’s the co-driver of that truck, will now chase with us for the remaining No. 83 truck.

Cameron is known as an eating machine around these parts, and Shawn advises me to tell him we don’t have much food left in the truck for that reason.

At 9:24, Luke’s No. 83 truck arrives in the pits. Three other trucks – the Nos. 6, 15 and 31 trucks – pass on the road. All hands are now on deck for the No. 83.

Cameron’s a mix of winded, exasperated and devastated all at once when he steps into our chase truck.

“Baja… she’s so cruel, but you just can’t quit,” he sighs, at a higher than normal octave level for a sighing remark.

EXHAUSTION TAKES OVER

Cameron makes a phone call, looks at his GPS coordinates, then passes out in the backseat.

I’m told going into the race that if you need to rest, rest, in the backseat of the truck. Having covered both Daytona and Le Mans’ respective 24-hour races, rest is part of the program there. But I was determined to make it all the way at Baja and I…

ZZZZZZZZZ

The next note in my notebook I think read, midnight: back in Ensenada, headed to Highway 3. Then ZZZ.

At this point we had to head East from the starting and ending point in Ensenada, where the course continues.

I wasn’t sure whether it was 1, 2 or 3 a.m. from there, depending on what state I was in.

Anyway, 3 a.m.: 83. 755 miles. 3:01: 83. 770. OK.

3:40: A Jar Jar Binks voice comes out. Why remains a mystery. It’s 36 degrees and freezing.

In no other race can you manage to weave in cactus, Seinfeld and Jar Jar Binks.

THE FINAL RUN TO THE LINE

The radio call comes at 4:51 a.m. “Car 83 is at the finish line.”

We didn’t know if we were sixth or seventh, but we did know we’d made it.

Cameron, much like Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, reflects a bit on his life at this moment of glory.

“There’s another two weeks of my life, gone,” says Cameron.

“And that’s with another two weeks of pre-running and prep. So that’s three or four weeks a year for maybe 15 years.”

“That’s a year of my life I’ve spent chasing this damn race.”

I ask in my somewhat awake, mostly asleep stupor whether he’d had enough of it.

“This race, you never get enough,” he replies. In that moment, Cameron Parrish is my Baja spirit animal.

Additionally, Shawn and Steve deserve thorough shoutouts at this point. Shawn he drove all 19 hours himself with no relief drivers. Steve stayed awake all 19 hours to navigate and communicate on the radio.

THE GLORY OF FINISHING

Finishing the Baja 1000 isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.

Because there’s more than 260 entries into the race, roughly half finish. And if you’re not in contention for the overall win, finishing is the singular goal.

After attempting to sleep, I stumbled back down to the finish line around 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.

Seeing more vehicles roll in, including a couple of the Baja Challenge entries, was the pinnacle of seeing Baja at its zenith.

A chat with stunt man, tire genius and wheelman Andrew Comrie-Picard, better known as “ACP” in BFG circles, revealed the raw emotion of what finishing this race means.

His team of drivers had all got sick at some point, and their bodies were turned upside down, inside out and sideways over the near entirety of the treacherous off-road terrain.

Yet seeing his colleagues with him up there on that stage, all having given their all for each other and in the pursuit of finishing, spoke volumes of their dedication and their desire to bring it home.

His team was but one example of what it means to finish at Baja… there are many different examples.

The winning Baja Challenge team. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
The winning Baja Challenge team. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
More finishers at this year's Baja 1000. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
More finishers at this year’s Baja 1000. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

The glory and pursuit of Baja is what keeps you coming back, or piques your interest for more.

Watching a team as prepared as McMillin undertake it gives you a sense of the operation it takes to win. Yet watching the smaller outfits finish and cross the line hours later is part of the soul of the event.

Baja will thrill you, inspire you, cut you and break you all at once.

All the while, it’s daring you to get more notebooks for the next time you head back down.

Baja matches beauty and treachery at once. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto
Baja matches beauty and treachery at once. Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSomePhoto

Castroneves is second in Indy 500, but jumps to No. 1 in IndyCar standings

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Second-place may be the first loser, but for Helio Castroneves, finishing second in Sunday’s 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 left him with a very nice consolation prize:

He’s now No. 1 in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

Castroneves took over the top spot in the IndyCar rankings from Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud, who dropped to a three-way tie for second place with Sunday’s 500 race winner Takuma Sato and 500 pole-sitter Scott Dixon, who was involved in a terrible crash about one-fourth of the way through the race.

Castroneves has 249 points, while Pagenaud, Sato and Dixon are all 15 points back with 234 points each.

Last year’s Indy 500 winner, Alexander Rossi, is fifth in the standings with 190 points.

Tony Kanaan, who finished fifth in Sunday’s race, is sixth in the IndyCar standings with 188 points. Rounding out the top-10 are teammates Will Power and Josef Newgarden, who are both tied with 186 points.

IndyCar rookie Ed Jones, who finished a very strong third in the 500, is ninth in the rankings with 185 points, and James Hinchcliffe is 10th with 170 points.

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With third-place showing, Ed Jones is highest-finishing Indy 500 rookie

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Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Ed Jones had been overshadowed much of the Month of May by Fernando Alonso, a fellow rookie at the 101st Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. With Alonso garnering much of the media attention, Jones was somewhat of a forgotten man.

However, he had been impressive in the opening rounds of the 2017 season, scoring consecutive top tens to begin the year, and he was quick during practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before eventually qualifying 11th.

He was then vaulted into the role of team leader on the driving front after Sebastien Bourdais’ accident and subsequent injury, but Jones remained overshadowed in the rookie battle by the aforementioned Alonso.

And, while Alonso led laps and ran amongst the leaders for most of Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, it was Jones who emerged as the best-finishing rookie at race’s end, with strategy and timely cautions putting him in position to do so even before Alonso fell out with an engine failure.

However, the race took a turn for the chaotic for the Dale Coyne Racing driver on lap 52 following Scott Dixon’s horrifying crash, one which saw Jones hit debris and suffer damage. “It damaged the floor and also the rear wing. We had to change the rear wing. That sent me to the back of the field. We had to claw our way back up again,” he said of the incident.

He also revealed that the car had wing damage in the final stint, which created several issues for the 22-year-old driver. “I actually damaged my front wing, had a big hole in it. My legs got pretty cold, to be honest. I had wind blowing into them like crazy. (It) also created a lot of drag,” he explained.

Dating back to his days in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Jones now has five podium finishes on ovals. But, victory continues to allude him, a fact that disappointed him in spite of an otherwise strong performance. “I’ve had five podiums or five top 3’s on ovals now and I haven’t won one. It’s really frustrating not to get one. I’m working my hardest to get it the next time,” he asserted.

However, Jones earned the praise of his peers, most notably from Helio Castroneves, who was sure to compliment him during the post-race press conference. “I have to say he did a very good job. When we ran side-by-side, he was very smart,” Castroneves said of Jones’ performance.

Jones’ third place is his best career IndyCar finish to date and his first career podium in the series. His prior best was a sixth-place finish in April’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

 

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Team Penske has bittersweet overall finish in Indianapolis 500

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Even though it had five drivers – just under one-seventh of the 33 cars in the field – Team Penske had a bittersweet overall showing in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

Celebrating its 51st season in motorsports, Team Penske was searching to extend its record 16 wins in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, but came up real short — as well as not so short.

The good aspect was Helio Castroneves finishing a close second to race winner Takuma Sato. Castroneves came so close to winning a fourth time at Indianapolis, which would have tied one of the most elite records in motorsports history shared by A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

Instead, Castroneves finished second for the third time in his career at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It’s tough to accept,” Castroneves said. “I did my best. I really pushed it. The guys did a phenomenal job. We drove our heart, no question.

“The good news, sounds like we’re leading the points (he leads teammate Simon Pagenaud — who is also tied with 500 winner Takuma Sato and 500 polesitter Scott Dixon — by a 245 to 234 point margin. Hey, there is always a positive note. I think that it is very positive.

“Yes, finishing second again sucks. So close to get the fourth. I really am trying. I will not give up this dream. I know it’s going to happen.”

Castroneves almost ran head-on into disaster on Lap 53, when Jay Howard and Scott Dixon crashed. Somehow, Castroneves was able to sail under Dixon, whose car went airborne after contact with Howard’s car, and continued on.

“What can I say? My race was pretty adventurous,” Castroneves said with a smile. “We have a lot of things. We started from the back. I knew I had a good balance. Then we went to the front about lap 50, then were in the top 10.

“Unfortunately with the accident with Dixon and (Howard), we broke a winglet and broke the front wing because it went off the track. I don’t know how to be honest. It was a good save, I have to say that. This place brings the best out of me. It was pretty good.”

Sato passed Castroneves for the lead heading into Lap 196. Castroneves rallied to pull even with Sato with three laps to go, but couldn’t complete the pass.

“I tried everything I could with three laps to go, two laps to go,” Castroneves said. “I went outside. Unfortunately my tires were overshot a little bit. I would have ended up in the wall. I thought it was good timing because I would try to make a move again. Man, he just took off and that’s it. That was my last chance.

“Really disappointed for the fans, for obviously my team. They gave me a great car. I did everything I could, trust me, everything I could. Unfortunately, second place is the best for us today.”

Castroneves said he’ll once again go for No. 4 in 2018: “Sorry, next year, then.”

Also having a good day was former 500 champ Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished sixth in a one-off Verizon IndyCar Series start.

“Our Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevy was good,” Montoya said. “We had a problem there in the beginning when we ran out of gas in Turn 3. We should have had another half-gallon in the car. It put is in a tough position because we lost a lot of positions there. From there to come back to where we finished was great. We ran 12th or 13th most of the day and then the car was really good at the end of the race. The balance just wasn’t there. Then I told the guys on the last stop, let’s take swing and we did and the car came to life. I would have liked to have had some more laps at the end.”

Defending IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud finished 14th.

“It wasn’t the finish we wanted today for the Menards Chevrolet team,” Pageaud said. “But for the big picture it was a decent day. We’re still in that top group in points as we head to Detroit. That’s a place that suits us pretty well. The (Indianapolis) 500 remains a goal and we’ll take another shot at it next year.”

Then came the bittersweet aspect. Two drivers that many felt would win Sunday – Will Power and the latest addition to Team Penske, Josef Newgarden – were involved in the same wreck late in the race that ended their days.

Newgarden finished 20th, while Power finished 23rd, both collected in a late race wreck.

“It was an OK day,” Newgarden said. “We just got caught up in that wreck there at the end. That hurt us. When we were up front we were good. We seemed to keep racing ourselves toward the front of the field. Then we would just get dropped back by a couple of issues. If we would have been up front the whole time, I think we could have finished in the top five. We performed really well today, things just didn’t go out way.”

Added Power, “I’m not sure what happened out there. All I know that I was sliding backward. It was an up and down day for the Verizon Chevy. We were able to stick our nose in there a few times and we were stuck back in the back other times. Then, we got caught up in that deal at the end that ended our day. We’ll move on to Detroit. The thing about this race is that we get to turn the page pretty quickly.”

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Takuma Sato captures 101st Indianapolis 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Similar to last year, an Andretti Autosport driver that wasn’t the most discussed or fastest has won the Indianapolis 500.

But like Alexander Rossi last year, Takuma Sato flew under-the-radar all month, then delivered the goods when it mattered most.

After his best month yet at Indianapolis, bravery and tenacity has won Sato the 2017 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, driving the No. 26 Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda for Andretti Autosport.

And for Helio Castroneves, finishing second leaves him again, one spot short of his elusive fourth victory with Team Penske in the No. 3 Shell Fuel Rewards Chevrolet

Rookie Ed Jones was third ahead of Max Chilton, the former Carlin teammates in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires showing impressively well in their first and second ‘500s with Dale Coyne Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing, respectively. Tony Kanaan completed the top five for Ganassi.

Meanwhile Fernando Alonso had an engine issue that took him out from a star drive, and Scott Dixon survived a crazy accident early on despite going airborne.

This was a crazy race because it had 11 yellow flag periods and 15 different leaders, a record.

Sato started fourth and was one of four Andretti Autosport cars that seemed poised to contend for the race win, as he, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Fernando Alonso all led – with Hunter-Reay 28 laps, Alonso 27, Rossi 23 and Sato 17 – for a total of 95 laps.

One of the race’s primary contenders was out early, when on Lap 53, polesitter Dixon was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time at Turn 1. After fighting an ill-handling race car in his first stint, Dixon came upon Jay Howard’s slowing and crashing car in Turn 1. Dixon dove low, but unfortunately went right into Howard’s path. That launched the New Zealander airborne in a terrifying accident. While he was seen limping later in the day, Dixon had been checked, cleared and released after the biggest crash of his career.

A red flag followed for repairs to the catch-fencing, which had a hole torn in it as a result of the impact. Alonso was leading at the time of the red flag, which lasted 19 minutes.

The crash set in motion a crazy chain of events that seemed to follow the rest of the day, and saw the phrase “yellows breed yellows” influence the race.

Alonso was clearly proving his race craft in his first oval race, racing against Rossi, Sato, Hunter-Reay and others – initially Ed Carpenter and JR Hildebrand for Ed Carpenter Racing – and later the Team Penske contingent, which was trying to move forward from poor qualifying positions.

A crash that took out both Conor Daly and Jack Harvey in separate incidents also brought out the third yellow, second actual yellow following a yellow continuation after the restart. A separate debris yellow from Laps 81 to 83 meant there were four within a 30-lap window on Laps 53 to 83 after going the first 53 laps at caution-free pace of more than 219 mph.

Within this segment, Castroneves had been issued a drive-through penalty on Lap 75 for jumping a restart, which knocked him back outside the top 20. It would also set the stage for his comeback.

Indeed by the halfway mark, Castroneves had the overall lead from Hunter-Reay, Rossi, Alonso, Kanaan and Graham Rahal, withle two different strategy plays emerging – Chilton in seventh and Will Power in ninth were not running the same strategy as the leaders.

There seemed a chance at the halfway mark that these two could run the final 100 laps on just two stops and not the three expected by others. But a rash of yellows from Lap 122 onwards changed that play.

After the stops near the halfway point of the race, on Lap 115, Hunter-Reay led Rossi, Alonso, Castroneves, Power, Josef Newgarden, Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan, Chilton and Sato.

However for the second straight year it was Buddy Lazier who caused a yellow – this time a crash on Lap 128 – that would change the complexion of the race. Lazier was the only driver transported to a hospital on the day, complaining of chest pains.

Chilton went for another off-strategy play here along with Hildebrand, Simon Pagenaud, Marco Andretti, Charlie Kimball, Jones, James Davison (started last as Sebastien Bourdais’ replacement) and Pippa Mann. It took the one fewer stop strategy out of play.

One thing that hadn’t yet entered the equation was reliability, the pre-race storyline, as Honda’s engines were under the microscope.

And suddenly on Lap 137, the first blew. Hunter-Reay was the first one to go, after running second having just lost the lead to Alonso, and that took him out of the race.

On Lap 167, a second pivotal engine issue occurred – this time Kimball’s had some smoke, and it brought out the ninth caution of the race. Crucially, it put everyone on the same strategy to the end after a period when he, Chilton, Davison and Hildebrand all took turns leading, Davison having completed a 33rd-to-first run at that stage.

Chilton had pitted just before the yellow but didn’t lose a lap. As he had enough fuel to finish, he then leap-frogged back to the lead when others pitted under the caution, and he held off several advances from his competitors when racing resumed.

Alonso’s star debut came to an end on Lap 180, almost poetically, as a Honda-powered McLaren entry, with the traditionally star-crossed Andretti name at Indianapolis, slowed to a halt with smoke out of the back on the front straight. Gone too were his win chances, leaving him an unrepresentative 24th.

After this restart came another crash. This time, it saw Davison’s star run come to an end after contact with Servia, doing his typically under-the-radar drive through the field for Rahal – and second on the same strategy to Castroneves – while Power and Hinchcliffe were also caught up. Newgarden hit the wall but continued.

Sato, who’d been good but not quite delivered his standard “no attack, no chance” style, would restart second on Lap 189 before unleashing “vintage Takuma” from there.

A ballsy pass around the outside of Castroneves and Jones had moved Sato up to second and in position to attack Chilton on the final restart.

With a power advantage still to play in the Honda vs. Chevrolet battle, Castroneves’ car was no match for Sato’s, and the Japanese driver moved past Castroneves on the outside into Turn 1 on Lap 195.

The drama from there was whether Castroneves could counter. Castroneves had a run with two laps to go, but Sato defended against him on the inside.

From there his last best chance was gone, and Sato had his second career IndyCar win – albeit a slightly bigger one than his first and thus far only prior victory at Long Beach in 2013, then driving for A.J. Foyt Racing. He also started fourth in that race, as he did today.

Castroneves’ runner-up here after starting in 19th adds to past missed opportunities in 2014, losing to Hunter-Reay (who started 19th) and in 2003, losing to then-teammate Gil de Ferran. One wonders how many more opportunities he’ll have to get number four.

In finishing third, Jones actually didn’t lead a lap – he ran as high as second – and came up two spots short of emulating Rossi as a rookie winner from 11th on the grid in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda. The Indy Lights champion capped off a roller coaster month for Dale Coyne Racing with the team’s best ever Indy 500 finish, which beat Alex Lloyd’s fourth place in 2010. Jones is the first driver from the United Arab Emirates to race at Indy, although he’s a Dubai-based Brit who now lives in Miami.

Chilton led the most laps – 50 – which were the first he led all year and his first since leading just two at Iowa Speedway last year, his only prior laps led in IndyCar. The driver of the No. 8 Gallagher Honda has now delivered back-to-back career best results after also coming seventh at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course, although one must think this will sting after a career drive.

Kanaan was a somewhat under-the-radar fifth, leading 22 laps early but never making it back to the point in the No. 10 NTT Data Honda after Lap 27.

In sixth and never really a factor was Juan Pablo Montoya, in the fifth Penske entry, ahead of Rossi, who fell back with a similar fuel hose issue that affected him last year too. Marco Andretti was an anonymous eighth, Gabby Chaves an excellent and career-best equaling ninth in his first start of 2017 and Harding Racing’s debut, after starting 25th, while Carlos Munoz avoided the trouble for Foyt and brought that car home in 10th after starting 24th.

A heavy day of attrition meant that only 18 of the 33 starters finished. The finishers through from 11 to 17 were Carpenter, Rahal, Mikhail Aleshin, Simon Pagenaud, Sebastian Saavedra, Hildebrand, Pippa Mann and Spencer Pigot. Carpenter lost a front wing late in the day. Hildebrand fell back late after a drive-through penalty for jumping the second-to-last restart. Both Juncos Racing entries finished their debuts (Saavedra in 15th and Pigot in 18th), and Mann finished her seventh straight 500-mile race start in IndyCar, dating to 2011 (she skipped the 2012 race, bu has raced in every Indy 500 since 2013).

Unofficial results are below.