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Kligerman: The perfect racing event happens to be the biggest with the Indianapolis 500

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Growing up a motorsports fan in the Northeast in the early 2000s was as antisocial as it comes.

In attending two elementary schools, I met only “racing fans,” and both were fans because of their dads. They both grew out of it by eighth grade.  Girls.

Racing is a niche sport — always has been, always will be. It’s not the first BBQ, water cooler or social gathering topic. It doesn’t cause fan riots that shut down cities as a result. It’s far more insulated.

That is why it’s so astonishing that the largest single-day sporting event in the world occurs in the Midwestern United States and is a race  —  the Indianapolis 500.

The day of the Indy 500 starts early — really early. Some working at the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar actually will sleep at the track the night before the race. The teams will arrive bleary eyed and full of butterflies, around 4-6 a.m. And the fans will start emerging, either from a night of debauchery or a simple Midwestern chain restaurant dinner, from 6-11 a.m.

We (my girlfriend and I) arrived at the track for the 101st running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing around 8:30 a.m. And do know it is the greatest.

As you step off the plane at Indianapolis International Airport, you are reminded many times it is “The Greatest.” Walking out of the terminal, you are told that you are “The Greatest Fans in Racing.” I was waiting to run into “The Greatest Urinal in Racing.”

After a seemingly short Uber ride from a hotel in downtown Indianapolis, we hit dead-stop traffic 2 1/2 miles from the speedway. We only could listen to our Uber driver drone on so long, talking about how only an hour earlier there was no traffic.

So we ditched the car and started walking. We weren’t alone. At this hour, it was a march of the early and dedicated.

People were in the usual patriotic attire celebrating Memorial Day and their societal-imposed idea of how to dress for a race: Sleeveless T-shirts, jean shorts, cowboy boots, flip-flops and (my personal favorite) shirtless.

As we arrived to get our credentials, we experienced the first signs that the speedway has done this 101 times. There was no line. And not in the context that you would expect a line at an event of this magnitude, but that there simply was none.

Multiple times, I used bathrooms that were completely empty. I’ve been to events with 100 people that seemed more overrun.

We headed into the infield and the garage. But in doing so we walked amongst the general admission, the Snake Pit and grandstand ticket holders.

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What is the Snake Pit?

Well, in a move that blurs the line of genius and lunacy, the speedway has decided to legitimize the college and youthful overindulgence that the infield has harbored for years.

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

The Snake Pit is now a full-on, all-day EDM festival inside Turn 3. Starting at 7 a.m. and coming to a fireworks-exploding, bass-booming conclusion just before the race ends at 3:30 in the afternoon.

It is the truest example of an old joke about big races: “It’s a party where a race broke out”

Inside the Snake Pit, you can’t even hear the race cars. This is an attempt at introducing young people to the race, which would have you believe it would be easy to separate the Snake Pit attendee from the race fan.

The problem is aside from an obsession with a girl named “Molly”, Snake Pit attendees and race fans coexist impossibly well among the crazy attire and obvious signs of intoxication.

Which brings me to the race fans.

What first strikes you as you look at the fans or “attendees” as we should call them? They are in normal clothes. No team jerseys, favorite driver hats or sponsor-laden attire. This is unlike a NASCAR race, which is full of shirts signifying allegiances to a driver or team.

These attendees are not IndyCar fans. They don’t even know many of the drivers’ names. They are Indy 500 fans. This will be the only race they attend, and they will not watch another on TV for the rest of the IndyCar season.

But come May 2018, they once again will walk through the gates of this hallowed ground amidst hundreds of thousands. To sit, sweat and watch their favorite race.

To put this in perspective, the IndyCar series’ second race of 2017 occurred at the much-vaunted street course in Long Beach, California. Only 321,000 people watched on NBCSN. There was an estimated 300,000 in attendance for the 2017 Indy 500.

After a short walk in a dispersed crowd, our gracious passes allowed us to join the famous, the elite, the Hall of Famers and the fat wallets of the race grid. Much like being invited onto the red carpet of the Oscars, it’s a who’s who of the Indy 500.

The cars sit guarded by team members as they are engulfed by sponsors, family members and a famous actor or two. This year, it was Jake Gyllenhaal, who at one point was 10 feet from me. We never made eye-contact or acknowledged each other’s presence. He looked like he does in the movies.

It was about an hour from the ceremonial “Drivers, Start Your Engines!” Slowly, the grandstands were filling until suddenly, I looked and all I could see were people.

Here come the drivers!

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I was very curious to hear who would get the largest cheer during driver introductions as I failed to see a single fan representing any of them.

I was convinced it would be the man of the month, two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso, or maybe an American such as Ryan Hunter-Reay.

But the loudest roar occurred when a muscularly compact, one-time winner of the Indy 500 stepped up. Brazilian Tony Kanaan had a level of cheers I have heard only at a Drake concert.

Soon, the Memorial Day prerace patriotism started.

The view on the frontstretch grandstands. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

I stood at the back of the grid where there was a tunnel running under the track for fans to reach the infield, and many were obvious Snake Pit attendees. But as the national anthem started, many came to a stop and stood hand over heart. A young man in a Donald Trump sleeveless tank top stood beside an African-American and his lady friend, side by side.

The patriotic displays were not an American eagle gripping a machine gun-patriotism but a more respectful American flag off the front of a colonial house, golden retriever with a Stars and Stripes collar-patriotism.

On a grid full of nationalities, my girlfriend would remark at the incredible amount of different accents and languages being spoken amongst the crowd.

Soon, we were being ushered off the grid by the famously obstinate “yellow shirt” Indianapolis security with a stark reminder “We can’t start this race if you’re still standing here.”

Thanks for clarifying that.

I got one last up-close look into the grandstands to notice the predominant demographic in the crowd.

It was the 35-year-old-and-older male and his family.

On the weekdays he wears the badly fitting, never-tailored suit and is a regional salesman with a Starbucks card. A white collar in a blue-collar pay grade and upbringing. His order request each weekday morning is “The usual” with an anxiety-filled laugh.

This is his off-weekend, a chance to ditch formalities and experience the unplanned and unpredictable, sans Excel sheets. He has been coming for more than 20 years, and it is tradition. The Indy 500 is the Coachella of the Midwestern worker. One of his kids joins him in the stands; the other is in the Snake Pit.

That’s not to say the crowd is homogeneous. As we reached the suite we were provided, I was continually amazed at the diversity in the stands.

It’s not full Brooklyn diversity of pink hair, funny socks, skinny jeans and half-shaved heads. But it’s 9 to 5 Middle America diversity. It’s inclusive as they come, young to old, black or white, natural born or immigrant.

There is a place for you in this event. There is a driver for you to root for.

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If the Daytona 500 is the The Great American Race, the Indy 500 is the race for America.

And the thing is, you get the sense the Indy 500 is trying to impress you. Not in the gaudy intent of a rich kid pulling up to a nightclub, but in the endearing pose of a child trying to show his or her parents a new trick or skill. From the pomp and circumstance to the constant reminders you are at “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing.”

Add in the tons of activities that have nothing to do with the race, and you feel it’s an event that so badly wants you — the attendees and the first-timers — to enjoy themselves. And to return.

Even the drivers know this is their opportunity.

The iron is in the fire on a stage bigger than the rest of the year combined. If they impress, it could mean millions in winnings and thousands in new fans, renown and career stability.

Takuma Sato takes the checkered flag. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

They race like it, too. Nothing is held back, no move is calculated twice. It’s go hard, make moves and hope it all comes out straight and shiny side up.

Because of this, the race itself is perfect. A balance of skill and death-defying speeds, mixed with an aerodynamic draft that allows almost 30 cars a chance to win the race. Its unpredictable nature along with thrilling speed makes each crowd reaction a feeling of intensity you can’t experience anywhere else.

And as the winner crossed the finish line, it didn’t matter that it was a driver whom few knew. Everyone rose to their feet in applause because it is tradition to do so.

Which is why more than 250,000 have attended this race for so long: tradition.

As we were walking out a mere two and half hours after the race, the track was shockingly empty. And as an evening shower engulfed the track, we were under the tunnel in between turns 1 and 2, where a random man helped us find our way to the Uber pickup zone.

He was shirtless, with a rolling cooler behind him, very sunburnt and alone. It seemed as if a coherent word would have been a struggle, but he spoke with the eloquence of a college professor.

His phone had died, his Apple watch had died, and he was walking home.  I asked him, “How long have you been coming here?”

“Fifteen years. All of my friends make a big weekend of it. It has become our tradition.”

Which is exactly what makes it the perfect racing event.

It’s the Indy 500’s tradition to impress you and make you want to keep coming back for more.

Verstappen hoping for unofficial ‘home GP’ boost at Spa

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Max Verstappen’s 2017 Formula 1 season has been blighted by unreliability and inconsistency, but the 19-year-old Dutchman will be hoping the closest thing to a home race for him – this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps – can provide a boost to kickstart his season.

While he’s often been quicker than Red Bull Racing teammate Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying this year, races have often gone begging for Verstappen as he only has a single podium finish, third in China in April.

Verstappen’s Belgian record isn’t ideal with an eighth place in 2015 at Toro Rosso and a ragged 11th last year in his first Spa drive with Red Bull. But as the unofficial “home favorite” this weekend, the track not far from his home country of the Netherlands, Verstappen is optimistic for a big race.

“I can’t wait to get to Spa this year. I just love the track and it’ll be nice seeing so many orange fans in the grandstands,” he said ahead of the weekend in the team’s pre-race advance.

“Spa is my favorite track of the year. You have to get everything right but when you get a good lap it’s very rewarding. There is a good flow with the fast corners and of course the best moment is Eau Rouge where you go up the hill, even though it’s easy full throttle in modern F1 cars it’s still very nice when the underneath of the car touches the tarmac and then gets very light at the top of the hill. This year it’s going to be a bit faster everywhere with the new cars which will be more challenging and more fun for sure.

“It definitely feels like a home Grand Prix for me because it’s so close to the border and as there isn’t a Dutch race at the moment a lot of Dutch fans are coming over. Already last year there were a lot of orange T-shirts and flags around the track which was very cool to see and makes it even more special.”

Teammate Ricciardo won his third Grand Prix here in 2014 and rallied to second place last year.

Times for this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix across the NBC Sports Group networks are linked here.

IndyCar: Pocono Recap

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LONG POND, Pa. – Sunday’s ABC Supply 500, the 14th of 17 races this season, marked the fifth Verizon IndyCar Series event at the “Tricky Triangle” that is Pocono Raceway since the series made its return in 2013 after a 24-year hiatus.

Since returning to the schedule, it became evident very quickly that this would be a strong venue for IndyCar, and one that would produce great racing.

Sunday’s race was yet more evidence of that. Below is a recap of what was a wild Sunday in the Pocono mountains.

THE BEST RACE OF THE YEAR?

Different people will offer different opinions about what constitutes a great race. Some will say it’s about several drivers battling it out for the lead in a constant slip-streaming duel. Some will say you only need two drivers pushing each other to the very limit of performance for them and their cars to have an exciting show. Some will also say strategy needs to play role, as it involves everyone on the team playing a role and could result in a surprise winner.

Sunday’s race had all of those elements and more.

The racing was manic from the get-go, with the 22-car field going 7-wide on the initial start behind pole sitter Takuma Sato.

Helio Castroneves went from 20th to 10th on the opening lap. Josef Newgarden, too, was a big mover on the opening lap, jumping up to seventh after starting 14th. Ryan Hunter-Reay gained six spots in the first seven laps, up to 15th from 21st. By contrast, pole sitter Sato and eighth-starting Gabby Chaves dropped down the order to 13th and 22nd, respectively, by Lap 10.

Tony Kanaan and Graham Rahal had maybe the best battle for the lead we’ve seen all year, as they swapped the lead multiple times before finishing fifth and ninth.

Even Esteban Gutierrez, in his first start on a 2.5-mile oval, was in the mix before dropping out after brushing the wall. As shown below, Gutierrez made a slick four-wide pass on the front straightaway in the early laps.

That trend of drivers moving up continued through the day, with Hunter-Reay going from 21st on the grid to eventually lead laps before finishing eighth. And eventual winner Will Power and runner-up Josef Newgarden each fell back in the field in the middle of the race, Power due to front wing and rear bumper pod damage and Newgarden due to a caution coming out before he pitted, only to work their way back forward.

That’s where the strategy gets in the mix. Power fell off the lead lap after a Lap 67 pit stop to change the front wing, dropping to 21st and last of the cars running at the time, but got back on the lead lap following a Lap 116 caution when Sebastien Saavedra hit the wall exiting Turn 1 and stopped on course. Power stayed out while the leaders pitted, taking a wave around to get his lap back.

While that incident helped Power, it hurt teammate Newgarden, as it occurred during a cycle of green flag stops and Newgarden was one of a handful of drivers who hadn’t pitted. He briefly fell back to 11th.

As a result, both drivers were at the back of the lead lap, but a Lap 125 caution for a crash involving James Hinchcliffe and JR Hildebrand opened the door for pit strategy to work in their favor. Both drivers topped up their fuel (on Lap 126) and then Power topped up twice more under the yellow (at Laps 129 and 131), using the caution to also change out the rear wing/bumper pod assembly, which was damaged in the aftermath of the Hinchcliffe/Hildebrand crash. The Penske duo then went significantly longer on their stints than anyone else, with Power especially churning out fast laps above 217 mph to eventually lead by over four seconds when the cycle of pit stops concluded.

Newgarden, too, used that strategy to move back toward the front, emerging from the second-to-last round of pit stops back in the top five. Newgarden then emerged in second after the final stops and ran down Power in a last-ditch effort for the win.

And while Power ultimately kept him and third-placed Alexander Rossi at bay, his aggressive, pre-emptive moves to defend the inside line entering Turn 3 were plenty hair-raising in their own right.

In short, the ABC Supply 500 was an absolute thrill ride, and the numbers back it up. The lead changed hands 42 times, an IndyCar record at Pocono, and 590 on-track passes, 524 for position, were recorded during the 500 miles.

The Indianapolis 500 and Rainguard Water Sealers 600 from Texas Motor Speedway were both hair-raising as well, but sometimes for the wrong seasons as both were blighted by several frightening crashes. Sunday’s affair at Pocono, however, was hair-raising for all the right reasons.

PENSKE DOMINANCE OVERCOMES HONDA POWER

The battle between Chevrolet and Honda has been an intriguing one this year, with each manufacturer demonstrating strengths at certain tracks.

The prevailing thought among many entering the weekend was that Honda would have the upper hand, due to its speedway package and supposed advantage in the horsepower game.

And they were certainly strong, with Honda drivers Alexander Rossi, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, and James Hinchcliffe leading 160 of 200 laps.

Yet, it was Team Penske and Chevrolet going 1-2 at the end, with Power’s victory serving as Penske’s fourth win in a row in 2017, the first time they’ve done so since 2012.

Will Power crosses the start/finish line to win the ABC Supply 500 in what was a 1-2 for Team Penske and Chevrolet. Photo: IndyCar

While some may have been surprised that Chevrolet managed victory over Honda this weekend, Power was not one of them. Power even tipped his hand about an engine upgrade that the “bow tie brigade” brought this weekend, which may have paid dividends in the closing stanza of the race.

“You could tell like when we came up here, Chevys were definitely in the game,” Power said in the post-race press conference. “I had a new engine in, so we had a bit of an upgrade. I think the engine was better.”

Power also added that the aerodynamic package this weekend had an impact. “As you saw at Texas, same deal on the superspeedway, it’s a different configuration than Indy. We all have to run the Dallara rear wing, so that seems to even everything out there aerodynamically. But yeah, I think our cars were really good compared to the Honda.”

Power’s win gives Chevrolet eight wins on the year, all from Team Penske, compared to Honda’s six. And the next event, the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park, appears to favor Chevrolet. However, as Pocono indicated, anything can happen, so Honda could certainly steal a win in the right circumstances.

MISC.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay may have had the drive of the day in getting up front, leading laps, and finishing eighth while nursing injuries from his qualifying crash. Though he did not suffer any serious injuries, Hunter-Reay was certainly in pain on Sunday and put in an ironman-like effort to run as well as he did.
  • Pole sitter Takuma Sato was mysteriously never a factor, and never actually led a lap as Tony Kanaan passed him to lead Lap 1. Sato then quickly dropped down the order and finished a lowly 13th.
  • Carlos Munoz finished tenth at Pocono, his fourth top ten of the year, which gives a nice jolt to an A.J. Foyt Enterprises team that has struggled to get both cars at the sharp end of the field on a regular basis.
  • Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing finished a quiet 15th on Sunday, their worst finish in three races this season. However, for a team that’s still very new to the racing business, simply finishing the race and running all the laps is a noteworthy accomplishment in and of itself. Though things are far from finalized, Chaves and Harding are hopeful to be full-time entrants next year.
  • In a bit of late-breaking news from earlier this morning, Jack Harvey will contest the final two races of 2017 in the No. 7 Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Sebastian Saavedra filled in at Pocono, finishing 21st after early contact with the Turn 1 wall, and will also race at Gateway next weekend.

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F1 launches official eSports competition

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Formula 1 is going virtual in a way it hasn’t previously, with an official F1 eSports competition launched today for competitors using Codemasters’ F1 2017 game (launches on Friday, August 25).

The eSports series will run from September to November, with the first F1 virtual world champion to be crowned the Monday after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Per the official f1esports.com site, which launched today, qualifying will take place Sept. 4 at the Monza and Suzuka circuits before the semifinal occurs on Sept. 10, and will see 40 drivers race from the Gfinity esports arena in London to cut the field to 20. The two-day final occurs in Abu Dhabi in November.

Users of the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC (steam) platforms are eligible to enter.

This new series represents “an amazing opportunity for our business: strategically and in the way we engage fans,” said Sean Bratches, Managing Director, Commercial Operations of F1, via Reuters.

The esports arena has recently emerged in racing with competitions such as McLaren’s The World’s Fastest Gamer sim racing program, CJ Wilson Racing’s 570 Challenge (with McLaren; team also held a Cayman Cup challenge in 2016) and Formula E’s eraces, which are often part of an ePrix weekend. Formula E held a standalone erace in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Still, this marks a big step for F1 to formally sign off with it in this partnership with Codemasters and Gfinity.

Hinchcliffe’s epic save goes for naught after crash with Hildebrand (VIDEO)

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James Hinchcliffe had hoped for Pocono Raceway to be a place to turn around sagging fortunes in his Verizon IndyCar Series season, and for most of the first half of the race it looked that way.

From 12th on the grid, his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew delivered him an early excellent stop that vaulted him five positions – 10th to fifth – on Lap 26. With a risky but good low downforce setup, Hinchcliffe continued to advance forward and was into the lead by Lap 86.

But shortly thereafter Hinchcliffe locked up his tires on another stop, having overshot his box, and dropped back.

What followed in the next few laps shifted from heroic to gut-wrenching in the span of one caution.

Hinchcliffe somehow, miraculously, saved his No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda through Turn 1 when in traffic past the halfway point. While outside of Carlos Munoz on Lap 102, Hinchcliffe washed up and somehow saved his car at more than 200 mph.

“I was at Grandview Speedway watching a dirt race the other night so I guess I learned some tips,” Hinchcliffe joked to NBCSN’s Robin Miller when describing how on earth he hung on.

Alas, it all came unglued for him a bit later after teammate Sebastian Saavedra wasn’t so lucky in Turn 1, having pancaked the wall with his No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda on Lap 116.

Following the restart, Hinchcliffe washed up into JR Hildebrand on Lap 125, which took his longtime friend and competitor in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, with the two cars both having heavy contact.

Hinchcliffe took the blame after the incident, but even Hildebrand felt apologetic as well.

“It was a racing deal. There were a bunch of guys two wide (ahead); I was on inside of JR,” Hinchcliffe told Miller. “There was a bunch of understeer, and it pitched him sideways.

“Ultimately it’s my fault because we shouldn’t have been back there. Guys had a killer first stop. Had a really good race going, but I screwed up on the stop.”

The incident for Hildebrand capped off a tough weekend where he was slowest qualifier, but started 19th ahead of three drivers – teammate and team owner Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay – who were unable to complete or make qualifying attempts.

“We ran two-wide, and the guys in front of us went two-wide. I had a bunch of push. It wasn’t leaving enough room,” Hildebrand said.

“We fought the car all day. We made good fuel economy. It’s frustrating to have it end that way. And it’s a bummer to have it take out Hinch that way. We tried to find it; tried to tune the car. But it wasn’t quite there. Maybe it would have been towards the end. A really unfortunate way to end a tough weekend. We’ll get through it.”

If there’s a saving grace for Hildebrand ahead of next week’s race at Gateway Motorsports Park, it’s that the Ed Carpenter Racing team’s best performances of 2017 have come on short ovals, and Hildebrand has scored two podium finishes at Phoenix (third place) and Iowa (second).

For Hinchcliffe, Gateway represents the final oval for the SPM team to get some kind of result – his 10th place at Iowa is the team’s only top-10 result in the five oval races this season.