DiZinno: Final thoughts, musings, observations on 2017 Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – With the month of May now complete, here’s some final thoughts on this year’s full rundown of Indianapolis 500 festivities:

  • Takuma Sato will be a class winner. Sato’s already got the respect of the paddock and the adoration of the Indianapolis fans, and his welcome appreciation and understanding of what he achieved on Sunday will stand large for however long he continues to compete in the race. At age 40 though, and with what he’s been through over the course of his career in both F1 and IndyCar, you could tell how much this sunk in at the moment. Sato’s old reputation for crashing has definitely subsided in recent years and he’s already making the most of the media rounds. He’ll be a good champion.
  • Andretti Autosport’s six-pack strategy worked. With six cars in the race, at least four of them for Andretti Autosport boasted realistic win chances. Sato emerged from a group that also included Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and Fernando Alonso, before all three hit trouble later in the race. Marco Andretti held on to eighth despite losing a rear wing end fence while Jack Harvey’s month of gradual improvements came to a halt in the Michael Shank Racing with Andretti car when he got collected by debris from Conor Daly’s car, through no fault of his own.
  • INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, leads Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

    Helio Castroneves drove one of the best races of his career. Sometimes it’s hard to properly appreciate Castroneves, but what he did Sunday in a car down on power and after also losing one of his rear winglets was one of the most impressive drives he’s done in 20 years, bar none. None of the other Chevrolets had a particularly realistic shot, but Castroneves drove most of the race with a car seemingly set up for qualifying in the race. It doesn’t ease the sting of his losing out on a fourth ‘500 win, but he gave everything he had and then some for Team Penske.

  • Fernando Alonso lived up to the (excessive) hype. On-track, Alonso did all he needed to do and then some. He proved his point; he was a definitive victory contender with his drive in the race, the capper to a month where he hit all the key notes he needed to both on-and off-track. And he rolled with all he needed to do, never saying the wrong thing or acting the wrong way in public sphere. His acceptance speech for Sunoco Rookie of the Year was gracious and humble. While he did well, as the month wore on, it became obvious the hype shifted from adoration to overkill, and indeed the story line of Alonso vs. “The Other 32” often superseded the remaining competitors. Indeed Alonso’s presence was good for IMS and for the Indianapolis 500, and good for PR value for both him and McLaren, although his winning Sunoco Rookie of the Year raised some eyebrows. But the circus moves on without him to Detroit next weekend, and normalcy will be restored to the galaxy.
  • Revenge of the old guys. A year ago, youth dominated the top-five and top-10. Sunday, the 40-year-olds had their day. As noted by IndyCar Radio’s Nick Yeoman, with Sato (40), Castroneves (42), Tony Kanaan (42) and Juan Pablo Montoya (41) in the top six, and with Oriol Servia (42) poised to have finished near them if he didn’t get collected in the final accident, there’s a good chance five of the six 40-somethings in the field could have all been in the top six or seven. Even Buddy Lazier, now 49, was more competitive this month than in recent years thanks to Mitch Davis’ input, and could have ended in the top-20 had he not had his accident at Turn 2.
  • INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Camping World Honda, stands alongside his daughters during driver introductions ahead of the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

    Two lucky escapes. Although Sebastien Bourdais did sustain the multiple pelvic fractures and fractured right hip, he’s already working hard on the road to recovery. And Scott Dixon survived one of the more horrific looking accidents in recent memory on Sunday. We could already joke about it once Dixon was checked and released. INDYCAR has made headway on safety enhancements over the years and the combination of the HANS device and SAFER barrier were paramount to both drivers – and the others involved in accidents this month – to keeping the field safe. Some cries for canopy protection were made, as could be expected, but it’s worth noting how fast Dixon was already climbing out of his car in the race, and how quickly Bourdais wanted to get out but couldn’t after his smash.

  • Reliability a welcome story line to see back. The Honda camp would probably argue otherwise, but there was something magical about seeing booms and pops like the days of old, because it meant the Hondas were pushing the envelope like hell. Chevrolet runners had a quiet confidence their aero and reliability edge could steal them the race, but Honda’s pace and skill set from its pack of 18 drivers netted them the win. Knowing the outcome was in doubt as Ryan Hunter-Reay, Charlie Kimball and Fernando Alonso all fell by the wayside was fascinating to watch, and it opened doors for the likes of Sato, who won, and both Ed Jones and Max Chilton who were third and fourth.
  • Former Carlin teammates Jones, Chilton emerge at head of the young guns. In a good race for a number of Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires graduates, it was former Carlin teammates Jones and Chilton who ultimately led the way as Honda’s – and IndyCar’s – surprise revelations among the young chargers. Jones, 22, and Chilton, 26, were competitive from the word go this month and never looked overmatched for the moment. As IndyCar has not had a first-time race winner since Alexander Rossi at last year’s Indianapolis 500, both of these two have thrown their hat in the ring to be next up among the first-timers. Carlos Munoz made the most of his day with A.J. Foyt Racing and ended a more than solid 10th. Lots of others impressed, notably Gabby Chaves in Harding Racing’s debut and Sebastian Saavedra and Spencer Pigot, the latter of whom held on to a brutally handling car for Juncos Racing’s debut. James Davison also did a nice job in his progression through the field before his accident late on.
  • INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Camping World Honda, leads the field during during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

    Elsewhere in the field. Neither Graham Rahal nor Oriol Servia were able to parlay pace into a result for RLL Racing. A puncture resigned Rahal to 12th after he led, while a potential top-three for Servia went begging when he got caught up in the five-car accident. … Penalties also sabotaged the days for Ed Carpenter Racing’s pair of Ed Carpenter (work in a closed pit) and JR Hildebrand (jumped a restart), leaving them an unrepresentative 11th and 16th. … Carpenter (front wing loss), Mikhail Aleshin (sidepod damage), Simon Pagenaud (rear wing assembly damage), Jones (hole in the nose) and Marco Andretti (lost rear wing end fence) were all among those who had to press on with damage during the race, on a chaotic afternoon where a lot of bits of bodywork flew. … Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden had rare off months, never fully able to contend for Team Penske, which was hard to fathom. … Similarly, it was a tough month for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with multiple engine issues, relatively anonymity from the usually exciting Mikhail Aleshin, a tough end for James Hinchcliffe and an early end for the returning Jay Howard, who’d been fine all month but didn’t cover himself in glory with his accident and then blaming Ryan Hunter-Reay after his crash. … Quiet credit to Pippa Mann who endured a tough month dialing in the feel of her Dale Coyne Racing Honda, but pressed on anyway for a ‘500 career-best 17th place. She’s now finished her last seven 500-mile races in IndyCar in a row dating to 2014. … Alternator problems affected Sage Karam before his DRR Mecum Auctions Chevrolet could ever really get going. … It was hard not to feel a bit for Stefan Wilson this month. Having stepped out for Alonso’s seat to materialize and then finding out he didn’t get Coyne’s seat as a fill-in for Bourdais were two blows to him. One hopes he’ll be in this race next year, beyond the promises.

The normalcy of the IndyCar schedule, albeit after a crazy week for the crews in tearing down their speedway cars and prepping their street course cars for the Detroit doubleheader this weekend, resumes on Friday.

‘Baby Borgs’ bring special Indy 500 bonds, memories for Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi

Ganassi Ericsson Indy
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner

THERMAL, Calif. – Winning the Indy 500 is a crowning achievement for driver and car owner, but for Chip Ganassi, last May’s victory by Marcus Ericsson had meaning even beyond just capturing one of the world’s greatest sporting events.

When Ganassi was 5 years old and growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his father, Floyd, attended a convention in Indianapolis in 1963. Floyd went to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to tour the track and visit the former museum that used to stand next to the main gate on 16th and Georgetown.

Ganassi’s father brought young Chip a souvenir from the gift shop. It was an 8-millimeter film of the 1963 Indy 500, a race won by the legendary Parnelli Jones.

“I must have watched it about 1,000 times,” Ganassi recalled. “More importantly than that, something you did when you were 5 years old is still with you today.

“I was 50 years old when I celebrated my Thanksgiving with Parnelli. It dawned on me that something I did when I was 5 years old took me to when I was 50 years old. That’s pretty special.”

Ericsson and Ganassi were presented with their “Baby Borgs,” the mini-replicas of the Borg-Warner Trophy, in a ceremony Feb. 2 at The Thermal Club (which played host to NTT IndyCar Series preseason testing). The win in the 106th Indy 500 marked the sixth time a Ganassi driver won the biggest race in the world.

Ganassi will turn 65 on May 24, just four days before the 107th Indianapolis 500 on May 28. The 2023 race will mark the 60th anniversary of the victory by Jones, who is now the oldest living winner of the Indianapolis 500 at 89.

Jones wanted to do something special for Ericsson and Ganassi, so each was given framed photos personally inscribed by Jones.

Parnelli Jones (Steve Shunck Photo For BorgWarner)

“Congratulations Marcus Ericsson and my good friend Chip Ganassi on winning the 2022 Indianapolis 500,” Jones said in remarks conveyed by BorgWarner publicist Steve Shunck. “There is no greater race in the whole world and winning it in 1963 was by far the biggest thrill in my life.”

Ganassi’s relationship with his racing hero began 60 years ago, but the two have shared some important moments since then.

It was Jones that signed off on Ganassi’s first Indianapolis 500 license in 1982. Jones was one of the veteran observers who worked with Ganassi and other rookie drivers that year to ensure they were capable of competing in the high-speed, high-risk Indianapolis 500.

When Ganassi turned 50, he got to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner with Jones.

“We’ve been friends over the years,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “He wrote me a personal note and sent me some personal photographs. It really says what this race is all about and how important it is to win the biggest auto race in the world.”

Michelle Collins, the director of global communications and marketing for BorgWarner, presented the “Baby Borgs,” first to Ganassi and then to Ericsson.

“More special is winning the Indianapolis 500,” Ganassi said during the presentation. “It’s been a big part of my life. I want to call out my buddy, Roger Penske, and thank him for the stewardship of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and what it means to us. It’s about the history, the tradition and, to me, it’s about the people that have meant so much in my life.

“Thanks for the trophy, Marcus.”

Marcus Ericsson and Chip Ganassi hold their Baby Borgs while posing with the Borg-Warner Trophy (Bruce Martin).

The Baby Borg presentation also came on the birthday of sculptor William Behrends, who has crafted the Bas-relief sterling silver face of each winner on the Borg-Warner Trophy since 1990. The “Baby Borg” presents each winner with a miniature of one of the most famous trophies in sports.

“I have to thank BorgWarner for everything that has happened since winning the Indianapolis 500, including the trip to Sweden,” said Ericsson, who took a November victory lap in his native country. “I’m very thankful for that because it’s memories that are going to be with me for the rest of my life.

“To bring the Borg-Warner Trophy to my hometown, seeing all the people there on the city square on a dark day in the middle of November. It was filled with people and that was very special.

“I’m very proud and honored to be part of Chip Ganassi Racing. To win the Indianapolis 500 with that team is quite an honor. It’s a team effort and a lot of people worked very hard to make this happen.

“Our focus now is to go back-to-back at the Indy 500.”

If Ericsson is successful in becoming the first driver to win back-to-back Indy since Helio Castroneves in 2001-02, he can collect an additional $420,000 in the Borg-Warner Rollover Bonus. With Castroneves the last driver to collect, the bonus has grown to an astronomical amount over 21 years.

Ericsson is from Kumla, Sweden, so the $420,000 would have an exchange rate of $4,447,641.67 Swedish Kronor.

“It’s a nice thing to know I could get that if I do win it again,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “But the Indianapolis 500 with its history as the biggest and greatest race in the world, it doesn’t matter with the money, with the points, with anything. Everyone is going to go out there and do everything to win that race.

“It’s great to know that, but I will race just as hard.”

Marcus Ericsson points at the newest face on the Borg-Warner Trophy (Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner).

A popular slogan in racing is “Chip Likes Winners.” After winning the 106th Indy 500, Ganassi must really love Ericsson.

“It doesn’t get much bigger than that, does it? I’m very thankful to be driving for Chip,” Ericsson said. “He likes winners and winning the Indianapolis 500, it doesn’t get better than that.”

When Ericsson was presented with his Baby Borg, he stood off to the side and admired it the way a child looks at a special gift on Christmas morning. The wide-eyed amazement of his career-defining moment was easy to read and met with delight by executives of BorgWarner (an automotive and technology company that has sponsored the Borg-Warner Trophy since its 1935 debut).

“I noticed that immediately and I was watching him look at it wishing I had a camera to capture that,” Collins told NBC Sports. “But maybe not because we always have our phones in front of us and it’s nice to take in that moment as it is. That is what makes the moment well worth it.”

Marcus Ericsson (Bruce Martin)

Said BorgWarner executive vice president and chief strategic officer Paul Farrell: “It’s very special to have the big trophy that has been around since 1935 and to have a piece of that. Hopefully it’s something that (Ericsson) cherishes. We think it’s special, and clearly, Marcus Ericsson thinks it is very special.”

The trophy process begins shortly after the race as the winner has the famed Borg-Warner Wreath placed around his neck, and the Borg-Warner Trophy is put on the engine cover. The next morning, the winner meets with Behrends, who has been sculpting the faces on the trophy since Arie Luyendyk’s first victory in 1990. Later in the year, the winner visits Behrends’ studio in Tryon, North Carolina, for a “Live Study.”

The process takes several more steps before the face is reduced to the size of an egg and casted in sterling silver. It is attached to the permanent Borg-Warner Trophy and unveiled at a ceremony later in the year. Ericsson’s face was unveiled last October during a ceremony in Indianapolis.

That’s when it hit Ericsson, a three-time winner in IndyCar after going winless in Formula One over 97 starts from 2014-18.

“Until then, it was strange because you are so busy with your season right after the Indy 500 you don’t really get much time to sit back and think about what you had accomplished,” Ericsson said. “It was the offseason before I really realized what I had done.”

The permanent trophy remains on display at Indianapolis Motor Speedway but has been known to travel with the winning driver on special tours, such as the Nov. 3-7 trip to Sweden.

“It’s been incredible to see the amount of interest in me and the IndyCar Series and the Indy 500,” Ericsson said. “The trophy tour with the Borg-Warner Trophy we did in November really made a huge impact in Sweden. I was on every TV show, morning TV, magazines, newspapers, everywhere. People are talking about IndyCar racing. People are talking about Marcus Ericsson. It’s been huge.

“I was back in Sweden last month for the Swedish Sports Awards and I finished third in the Sports Performance of the Year. Motorsports is usually not even nominated there, and I finished third. That says a lot about the interest and support I’ve gotten back home in Sweden.”

Ericsson continued to reap the rewards of his Indianapolis 500 victory last week at the lavish Thermal Club, about a 45-minute drive from Palm Springs, California.

Earlier in the day before the Baby Borg presentation, Ericsson, and Chip Ganassi were among the 27 car-driver combinations that completed the first day of IndyCar’s “Spring Training” on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile road course. The next day, Ericsson turned the test’s fastest lap.

The 32-year-old still seems to be riding the wave, along with his girlfriend, Iris Tritsaris Jondahl, a Greece native who also lived in Sweden and now lives with Ericsson in Indianapolis.

“Today, receiving my Baby Borg, it was another thing of making it real,” Ericsson said. “It’s not a dream. It’s reality. To get the Baby Borg and bring it home. My girlfriend, Iris, and I are house hunting, looking for a house in Indianapolis. It will definitely have a very special place in our new home.”

Marcus Ericsson and girlfriend Iris Tritsaris Jondahlc share a kiss at the Baby Borg presentation (Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner).

Ericsson told NBC Sports his most cherished trophy before getting his Baby Borg was for his first NTT IndyCar Series win in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix in 2021.

“It was such a huge win for me and such a huge breakthrough for me and my career,” he said. “After that, it catapulted me into a top driver in IndyCar.”

The Brickyard win was another level for Ericsson, who moved to Ganassi in 2020.

“Marcus kept himself in the race all day,” Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports. “Anybody that ran a race like Marcus ran, maybe you deserve the race win, but you don’t always get it. Marcus did everything that it took, and we are really, really proud of him.”

Ericsson also proved last year to be one of the best oval drivers in the series, a much different form of racing than he experienced until he came to the United States.

“Racing in Europe and around the world, I always liked high-speed corners,” he explained. “It was always my favorite. I always had this idea if I go to IndyCar and race on the ovals, it is something that would suit me and my driving style. I was always excited to try that. When I came to IndyCar and started to drive on ovals, I liked it straight away. It worked for me and my style.

“The first few attempts at Indy, I had good speed, but it was always some small mistakes that got me out of contention. I learned from them. I’m very proud I was able to pull it off, but it was a lot of hard work behind that.”

Michelle Collins of BorgWarner presented Baby Borgs to Marcus Ericsson and Chip Ganassi at a ceremony also attended by Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull (Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner).

The victory in the Indianapolis 500 is etched in history, as is Ericsson’s face on the trophy.

“It’s such a special thing,” the driver said. “The BorgWarner people and IndyCar and everyone at IMS, I get to experience so many cool things since winning the Indy 500. It’s a win that keeps on giving. It never ends. It still does.

“I can’t wait to get back to Indianapolis, the month of May, as the champion. I still have to pinch myself. It’s a dream, for sure.”

Ganassi doesn’t have to pinch himself — all he needs to do is look at his collection of Baby Borgs.

His first Indy 500 win — as a team co-owner with Pat Patrick — came in 1989 with Emerson Fittipaldi’s thrilling duel against Al Unser Jr.

In 1990, Ganassi formed Chip Ganassi Racing. Juan Pablo Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000, Scott Dixon in 2008, Dario Franchitti in 2010 and 2012 and Ericsson in 2022.

“It’s a feather in the team’s cap for sure just to have our representation on the Borg-Warner Trophy with five other drivers,” Ganassi said. “It’s a testament to the team, a testament to Mike Hull that runs the team in Indianapolis. I just feel really lucky to be a part of it. It’s great to work with a great team of great people.

“Just to relive that moment again and again never gets old; never goes away. I’m really lucky to be in the position I’m in. It’s an honor to represent the team with the great people that it took to bring Marcus across the finish line. He and I get to celebrate events like this, but it’s really about the people at Chip Ganassi Racing in Indianapolis that pull this all together.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500