INDIANAPOLIS –After his third second place in the Indy 500, Scott Dixon was left second-guessing both IndyCar officials for holstering a red flag for the finish and himself for being left in position to be affected by the decision.
Dixon led a race-high 111 laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway but lost control of the race over the final green-flag stint when he couldn’t match the pace of race winner Takuma Sato while trying to conserve fuel.
But when Spencer Pigot spun off Turn 4 with four laps and slammed into the attenuator at the entrance to the pit lane, Dixon thought he would get at least one more shot at winning his second Indy 500.
“I definitely thought with five to go they were going to immediately because, one, the size of the crash, and two, where it was,” Dixon said. “It wasn’t going to be a quick cleanup. I was kind of surprised they didn’t. I kind of heard they said, ‘Normally we don’t do that.’ History would tell you that’s not true either.”
This was the ninth time in the past 18 years that the Indy 500 has ended with a caution flag, most recently in 2013 when the last five laps were run under yellow
In a statement Sunday, IndyCar said the series “makes every effort to end races under green, but in this case following the assessment of the incident, there were too few laps remaining to gather the field behind the pace car, issue a red flag and then restart for a green-flag finish.”
If he’d been afforded the opportunity, Dixon – who took the lead from pole-sitter Marco Andretti with a pass on the first corner of the race – believed he could have beaten Sato.
“For us it would have been really good because I think the leader would have been a sitting duck,” Dixon said. “That’s kind of harsh on Sato. If they got out there and had a dash with three laps to go, I think all is fair in a situation like that.
“I can’t change that. It is what it is. I think it would have been interesting to see how that played out. It would have been much better for us rather than Sato.”
Bobby Rahal, the co-owner of Sato’s car, wasn’t as sure and said it “it’s silly to sit there and try to predict what might have happened.
“You can prognosticate all you want about what if they red flagged it and you had a restart,” he said. “Maybe the guy in third would have been the guy in the upper hand, big tow, went by both of them. Who knows?
“All I know is we won the Indy 500 today and that’s what counts.”
Dixon, who won the Indy 500 in 2008, was left pondering why Sato became the 20th multiple winner of the race instead of him.
“It’s a bit funky like this sometimes,” he said. “You can’t rely on being strong all day. You can’t rely on past races or anything like that. It is what it is. It’s definitely tough when you come up short in a situation like that.
“Everything we did, strategy, was on point. We definitely had a pretty fast car. We knew it was always going to get tricky at this point of the day. We thought we kind of made the right call.”
The race’s turning point was the final restart on Lap 154. Unable to hit the fuel mileage needed to make the finish on one more stop, Dixon’s team gave up power for efficiency by switching to a leaner fuel mixture.
The five-time series champion gave up the lead to Sato on Lap 158 but still thought he’d be in good shape. But though he got within striking distance of Sato a few times in traffic during the final 15 laps, the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver kept pulling away (Rahal later said Sato had “plenty” of fuel despite pitting a lap earlier than Dixon).
“We didn’t think they were going to make it on fuel,” Dixon said. “Seemed like there was a hesitation maybe about 15 to go or 12 to go where I got beside him on the straight. It’s like they started to go to a lean mixture, then they decided it was just too slow, so they kind of went back at it.
“I probably should have been a little more aggressive on that high side there. I think he would have just run me up anyway, which maybe would have put both of us in the fence, or maybe just me.
“Maybe we should have gone harder. Maybe we would have run out of fuel and been in the same position. I don’t know what was the right call. Just shows you, when I was asked if I wanted to be leading with five laps to go yesterday, absolutely, especially with a scenario like this.
“Definitely hard to swallow for the team. Massive thank you to the 9 car crew. They did a tremendous job on pit road today, strategy, everything we could. Got to say congrats to Sato, too. He drove a hell of a race. They were victorious. He’s drinking the milk, and that’s what counts.”
The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test
The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.
To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.
“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.
“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?
“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.
“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”
The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.
The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.
Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.
“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”
The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.
With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).
“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.
“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”
On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.
Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.
His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).
Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.
Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.
Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.
“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.
“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.
“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”
But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.
“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.
“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.
“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”
Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.
“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.
“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”
Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.
“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.
“It’s pretty good.”
The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.
Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?
“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.
“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?