Gut wrenching crashes, engine disintegration and revenge sums Sunday’s Indy 500 as ex-Formula One driver Takuma Sato wins the Greatest Spectacle in Racing
Unpredictability has defined the rich history of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana. Sunday’s 101st installment lived up to the unpredictable nature of the race and featured another first-time winner and his name was Takuma Sato.
Sato—once denied a win after crashing on the last lap when Sato attempted a bold pass on Dario Franchitti in 2012—overcame the drama, danger and disheartening moments of his fellow competitors and held off three-time winner Helio Castroneves and rookie Ed Jones to win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing in his eighth attempt.
It’s Sato’s first Verizon Wireless IndyCar Series win since Long Beach April 21, 2013 and the first driver to win the 500-mile race at age 40 since Eddie Cheever in 1998.
Sato was filled with joy, shouting “Yes!” and “Thank you, Michael (Andretti)!” over the radio. Sato’s celebration continued when he got out of the car, sipping the traditional glass of milk and poured it on his head, knowing he became the most successful Japanese driver in auto racing history.
In an interview, Sato said the win was an unbelievable feeling after battling Castroneves.
“I can’t thank the whole team enough,” Sato said. “It was obviously a tough, tough, tough race but Helio really drove fair and I trust him. It was a fantastic race. Hope the crowd enjoyed it.”
Sato added he learned from his mistake in 2012 and jokingly said he drove in the right direction in turn one.
“It’s beautiful,” Sato said. “With three laps to go, I really didn’t know if I was going to win. But when Helio went side-by-side with two laps to go, that was the moment I had to go for it and go flat. We did it and pulled away, it was fantastic.”
Sato’s victory also brought car owner Michael Andretti his fifth Indy 500 victory (all since 2005), tying Lou Moore for second on the all-time owners wins list.
Andretti Autosport has also won three of the last four Indy 500 races, trailing Team Penske’s 16 wins for most all-time.
Andretti said he was shocked one of his cars won the race after some of his cars suffered engine problems.
“We had such good cars and they were falling to the side. Takuma came through and he’s awesome,” Andretti said. “I’m so happy for him. Oh my god, I can’t believe it.”
Andretti said his team worked hard to make their cars competitive year-in and year-out at Indianapolis.
“We work really, really, really hard on this race,” Andretti said. “We focused on it a lot and having all those cars out there, gaining all the information helps a lot. In the end, we have great people on this team and they’re the ones that got this win. Takuma as well, he drove unbelievable.”
The lead changed 35 times among a record-high 15 drivers and the race was slowed down 11 times for 50 laps including one red flag on the 53rd lap that shook the racing community.
Ryan Hunter-Reay and the lapped car of Jay Howard—making his first Indy 500 start since 2011—were side-by-side as Howard was sent through the grey surface and hit the turn one wall.
Howard’s car veered left as pole sitter Scott Dixon’s No. 9 Camping World Honda had nowhere to go and ran into the left rear of Howard at full speed, sending Dixon’s car airborne and flew several yards until Dixon hit the inside SAFER barrier and catch fence.
Dixon’s right side hit the top of the wall, splitting his car in half. Dixon’s mangled vehicle whiplashes and hits the grass, resulting a few tumbles and slid across the track where it laid to rest.
Fans across the world were concerned of Dixon’s condition but in a sigh of relief, Dixon got out of the car under his own power. Howard was also uninjured from the accident.
Dixon remained in good spirit and said he was a little beat up from the accident.
“It was a rough ride and I’m bummed for the team and Camping World because we had a great shot,” Dixon said. “We got a little loose on the first stint but they dialed it in and started to make some progress. Overall, we were a little light on downforce but for later one for the race, it would’ve been the right move to have. I’m just bummed for them and glad everyone was okay. It was a wild ride for sure. Big thanks to Dallara and everyone for the safety standards that we have.”
Dixon said he committed to the inside lane, hoping to avoid Howard.
“It’s tough. I was hoping Jay was going to stay against the wall,” Dixon said. “But with the impact, he went down and I already picked my lane and there was nowhere else to try and avoid him. I’m glad he’s okay too and it’s just a wild ride. You have to hold on and believe in the safety progress.”
Howard blamed Hunter-Reay for causing the accident after trying to let him go.
“We ended up a couple of laps down after we run out of fuel in the first stint,” Howard said. “We were trying to pick up some laps and salvage something from the race. Hunter-Reay gets a run on me, I lifted and let him go. He moves right over on me and puts me on the grey and the rest is history. He caused a massive accident. To say I’m unhappy is an understatement.”
Howard said he didn’t noticed Dixon hit his car.
“It happened way too quickly,” Howard said. “I let Hunter-Reay go and tried slotting behind him but he pushed me out in the marbles. I was just a passenger at that point.”
Castroneves sustained minor wing damage to his car and drove underneath Dixon.
Castroneves said he knew Howard was going to bounce back the track.
“When I saw Jay hit the wall, I knew he was going to bounce back but I didn’t think he would bounce back that hard with Scott,” Castroneves said. “When I saw Scott flipping, I just tried to avoid him. I didn’t think it was going to happen so fast. As soon as I heard something break in my front wing and back winglet, I’m like ‘oh come on, my car was so good.’ But it didn’t affect my car and got better.”
Photographer Ron Graphman suffered minor injuries from the accident. Graphman was conscious and was taken to the care center on a stretcher.
Graphman told the Indianapolis Star Monday his back twitched when he tried to avoid being hit by flown debris and Dixon’s car.
“The instant I saw Dixon hit the fence, a ton of debris was coming through the fence at me,” Graphman said. “As I was holding my hands to guard my face, my body because of all of the debris, I instinctively knew to drop. As I was doing both, that’s when I twitched my back and got a pinched nerve and pulled muscles.”
Graphman said he followed Howard’s car through the lens.
“I saw Howard do a wiggle spin and at that moment, I looked in the camera and followed the wreck as it unfolded through the lens,” Graphman said. “The lead spinner is who I stayed on. I don’t have peripheral vision inside a lens, so I focused on Howard and the action that comes in to Howard.”
The red flag lasted over 18 minutes to repair the damaged fence and resumed on lap 60 with Indy 500 rookie Fernando Alonso leading.
The two-time Formula One World Champion has been the main story throughout the month of May, foregoing the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix to the 2.5-mile circuit.
Alonso led 27 laps and was in contention of winning the Indy 500 as a rookie which would’ve joined him with the likes of Castroneves, Graham Hill, Juan Pablo Montoya and Alexander Rossi.
Alonso’s incredible month however, came to a smoking halt and much like his 2017 Formula One season at McLaren, Alonso couldn’t escape engine woes as his bright papaya orange No. 29 Honda quit on lap 179 after running in the top-10 most of the race.
Alonso finished 24th as he received a standing ovation by the crowd. He was awarded Rookie of the Year Monday despite being the second highest finishing rookie.
Alonso’s engine failure was also the last of a series of Honda’s engine disintegration this month. Other engine failures Sunday included Alonso’s teammate Hunter-Reay and Charlie Kimball.
Alonso said he felt the engine was letting go when it took place.
“I felt the noise, the engine friction and backed off when I saw the smoke,” Alonso said. “It’s a shame. We deserved at least to finish the race. The whole day was a nice experience and the racing was fun. My performance was good. I was up there leading the race and was surprised to come here with the best oval drivers and be competitive.”
Alonso said the window is open for a return at Indianapolis in the future.
“I feel competitive and if I come back with something that I know, it will be easier the second time,” Alonso said. “It was really good fun. Thanks to IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the fans because this has been the best experiences of my career.”
Alonso’s misfortunate stacked the field for another restart, however it was disastrous for other prominent contenders.
A multi-car collision at the South Short Chute (turn one) retired drivers Will Power, Oriol Servia, James Hinchcliffe and James Davison.
Both Davison and Servia’s car lost control, causing an accordion effect for the rest of the field.
Davison—running for the injured Sebastien Bourdais—came from the 33rd starting position and led two laps before crashing. Davison finished 20th.
At the front of the pack, another driver with a background in Formula One began stealing the spotlight late in the race.
26-year-old British driver Max Chilton—through strategy and several cautions—was leading the race heading into the final restart.
As the green flag dropped for the final time, all bets were off as Chilton played defense to hold off Sato and Castroneves.
Chilton held the lead until Castroneves passed him for the lead at the back stretch with seven laps to go and cleared Chilton entering the North Short Chute (turn three).
Chilton was then passed by Sato and never recovered. Chilton finished fourth after leading a race-high 50 laps.
Sato gained ground on Castroneves who was a few laps away from joining A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser as the only four-time winners at the Indy 500.
Castroneves’ lead was short lived as Sato caught the draft and pulled a slingshot pass on Castroneves with six laps to go. Sato never looked back and his No. 26 Ruoff Home Mortgage/Panasonic Honda crossed the yard of bricks as the race winner.
Indianapolis was also the sight of Sato’s only career podium in Formula One, finishing third in the BAR Honda behind Ferrari drivers Rubens Barrichello and race winner Michael Schumacher in 2004.
Sato told RACER Magazine reporter Robin Miller he never expected to win the Indianapolis 500 after racing Formula One from 2002-08.
“I never thought it would happened this way,” Sato said. “This is the best race to win. We had an exciting race but this is history and the fans went crazy. I love this race.”
After the race, Castroneves was alone, collecting his thoughts of what could’ve been if he won his fourth Indy 500.
Castroneves said he thought he had Sato beat and did everything to win the race.
“It was a little bit too hard and came up short,” Castroneves said. “I really thought we had it. Even when I had momentum, I couldn’t do it. I think I bend the throttle so hard but it was a great team effort.”
The pageantry and tradition that’s defined Indianapolis for over a century has concluded. Alonso will resume his Formula One career at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, Quebec, Canada June 11.
The rest of the IndyCar Series travel to Detroit for two-races at Belle Isle Park in Michigan June 3-4. Bourdais won the first race and Power took the second race last season.