Close calls force Indy 500 drivers to learn lessons, coping skills

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Takuma Sato learned a tough, painful lesson from his spectacular final lap crash at the 2012 Indianapolis 500.

Eventually, it paid dividends.

The Japanese driver believes he might not be the defending Indy winner heading into Sunday’s race had it not been for the ill-fated passing attempt that sent him spinning hard into the first-turn wall and gave Dario Franchitti his third and final race win six years ago.

“It helped me a lot mentally, physically and technically,” Sato said. “You don’t understand the challenge of winning unless you are there. Last year, I attacked it (passing Helio Castroneves) in a very different way from how I tried to pass Dario.”

Not all drivers are as fortunate as Sato, and for them the continual stories, constant questions and countless replays never seem to go away.

Michael Andretti has held the distinction of leading more laps at Indianapolis than any non-winner of the race for years. His father, Mario, kept coming close after his 1969 win but never got a second 500 win. Michael’s son, Marco, was actually in position to end the Andretti curse in 2006 – until Sam Hornish Jr. passed him in the front straightaway and won in the third-closest finish in race history.

Scott Goodyear had three chances in the 1990s and all ended in frustration.

In 1992, he started last and finished second to Al Unser Jr. in the race’s closest finish (0.043 seconds). In 1995, he had the lead with 10 laps to go when officials ruled Goodyear passed the pace car on a restart and assessed a penalty. When he refused to stop, he was black-flagged and finished 14th. Two years later, Goodyear was passed by teammate Arie Luyendyk with six laps to go and missed again on an even later restart because the flagman waved the green while the yellow lights remained on.

Perhaps nobody has reflected more on his close call than JR Hildebrand, who crashed on the final turn of the 2011 race while trying to avoid a slower car and skidded across the finish line in second place. He was named the race’s rookie of the year, not much of a consolation prize.

Since then, the 29-year-old from California has started six more 500s, led just six laps and never finished higher than sixth. Each year he returns and the reminders are all around. Hildebrand has learned how to cope.

He doesn’t watch the replays much. He clears his head, and when the questions begin, he answers every one honestly, as does Marco Andretti .

“I think the next year, I was so bound and determined because I was focused on winning this thing as soon as possible,” Hildebrand said before qualifying 27th for Dreyer & Reinbold. “That’s still probably the wrong attitude to have but what I’ve learned is that you really have to focus on all the little things.”

Even for winners, like Sato, the thought of the one that got away tends to linger longer than a victory celebration.

Just ask Castroneves, who won his first two races on Indy’s 2.5-mile oval in 2001 and 2002 before finishing second to teammate Gil de Ferran in 2003.

Over his next 14 starts here, the Brazilian for Team Penske has five top-five finishes – one win and three seconds, including last year to Sato. He is starting eighth Sunday as he again tries to become the fourth member of the four-time winners club.

“It sucks, that’s the feeling because so few people are able to win the race,” Castroneves said, referring to second place. “When you’re that close for 500 miles and when you’re so close to winning it, it just sucks.”

Somehow Sato managed to parlay the agony and frustration of losing such a big race on such a grand stage into becoming a better driver.

And on Sunday, Castroneves, Hildebrand and Marco Andretti will be among the many trying to duplicate what Sato managed to do last year while the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver tries to become the first back-to-back winner since Castroneves.

“Looking back on it, at least you know what you really needed to do to win the Indy 500,” Sato said. “You just have to believe that you can make it back again and that’s why you come back with hopes and dreams.”

Travis Pastrana leads flag-to-flag in Nitro Rallycross as the series returns to America

Pastrana Nitro Rallycross
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Travis Pastrana waited until the final trip around ERX Motor Park to take his Joker Lap – a longer way around the course that all drivers must do at least once in a race – and came out cleanly to win his first Nitro Rallycross race of 2022. With this win, Pastrana is the third driver to visit Victory Lane in the first three rounds of the 2022-23 season.

“This is the closest to a motocross track,” Pastrana told Katie Osborne on Peacock. “Thank you so much for a beautiful facility. It’s been a rough start to the season and I’m so thankful to be back out here. We had a good run in the side-by-side and now for this. This is much needed.”

Another thing needed was the sense of improvement. And Pastrana earned that affirmation each time he completed a lap around the course.

“I get my lap times read out and they said ‘fastest time of the week,’ ‘fastest time of the week’ (each time around) ” Pastrana said. “This is really special. We’re a long way behind in the championship, but welcome to America.”

In a pre-race press conference, Pastrana said that as Nitro Rallycross heads back to America, it was time for an American to win and he made good on his promise. Pastrana took the early lead over Robin Larsson and let the back of his Subaru hang out, taking risks he might not otherwise take if not for his need to win.

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Larsson’s second-place finish completed a perfect sweep of the podium in three rounds. In fact, he has not yet finished worse than second after winning the opening round at Lydden Hill in the United Kingdom and finishing second at Strangnas in Sweeden.

Fraser McConnel rounded out the podium for his best result of the season. He finished fourth in each of the first two rounds.

Last year, Pastrana finished second in this race to Scott Speed before narrowly edging his teammate for the championship.

Andreas Bakkerud crashed in prelims, but rebounded to finish just off the block in fourth. Bakkerud won the second round ahead of his teammate Larsson.

Oliver Bennett completed the top five.

Minneapolis is the first of three rounds scheduled in the United States. Next on the schedule is Glen Helen, Calif. on Octo 30 and then Phoenix at Wild Horse Pass on November 12th. Nitro Rallycross will then head to Saudi Arabia in December to continue their 2022-23 season.