Fans Can Gorge on 107th-Running of The 500 Storylines

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 27 2023

Graham Rahal broke down in tears after being bumped from the 500 last Sunday. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Storylines in sports are like free shrimp appetizers at nice restaurants: more is better (unless you’re a shrimp or the bus boy who has to clean up those disgusting slimy pink shells). This year’s Indianapolis 500 features a very nice spread. Giant portions and reasonable prices (if you are watching from the couch).

Here are five of the best storylines for Sunday’s 107th running of the Indianapolis 500, aka, the biggest one-day sporting event in the world:

– Graham Rahal. This story began when practice began at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month and it became evident that his team, co-owned by his father, was struggling to produce speed at the 2.5-mile flat oval. As the days went by and the laps piled up, the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team searched in vain for speed. When qualifying began last weekend there was a sense of oh-oh around RLLR as it became apparent that with 34 cars competing for 33 starting spots in the field, it could be a RLLR driver who would be bumped.

That driver became Rahal and in the most gut punching way imaginable. As the clock on the final qualifying session ticked toward zero hour – OK, 6 p.m. – it became Rahal and teammate Jack Harvey vying for the final spot. Rahal had a lose grip on it with just time enough for two more qualifying attempts. Harvey went out for a quick attempt but used that simply to cool down his heated Honda engine. With just a couple minutes left, with a still hot engine and scrubbed tires, he took one last unlikely shot – and against the odds, secured P33.

“We had done two attempts. Neither of them seemed to be enough to get it done,” Harvey said during. “And actually on the final one, I said to the guys, ‘Do you even think we can do this? The car is hot, engine is hot,’ and they said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got to try; it’s the Indy 500.’ In that moment just tried to forget about everything else.”

Not enough speed in his car, Rahal admitted a couple times during the day.

“You’ve got to be humble and gracious in victory and defeat,” he said. “I just knew from the start that we were in trouble. It’s a tough day. The last few days I’ve said that we’re in trouble.”

Video caught all of the very-popular Rahal’s agony.

He was an emotional mess as he broke down during an interview, walked away and fell sobbing into the arms of his wife – drag racer Courtney Force – and toddler daughter, Harlan Ann.

Rahal – whose father Bobby had given the 500 one of its unforgettably emotional moments when he won the race in 1986 as his uber-respected owner, Jim Trueman, was suffering from terminal cancer and would pass away just days later – further suffered the indignity of being the only member of his Rahal Letterman Lanigan team to not make the show.

But this is Indy. Two days later, driver Stefan Wilson was injured when, ironically, he was rammed to the wall from behind by RLL teammate Katherine Legge, who is making a one-off a appearance on the team.

The injured Wilson was ruled out of the race and his team owners, Dennis Reinbold and Don Cusick, offered his car to Graham Rahal. Boom; what a yarn.

A win on Sunday will not make history in terms of tangibles and numbers. It will be talked about forever.

– The Indianapolis 500 has made a lot of people historically significant. P1 on that list is A.J. Foyt. The surly Texas won the event four times, which ties him with Al Unser, Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves for most wins ever in the big one. What separates Foyt from the other four timers is his giant persona. Rugged, with a titanium jaw that only a fool would try to tag and with hands and arms strong enough to work the largest of torque wrenches, offendingly honest, self made and self-assured to a fault. This is the guy who would hop out of a balky car, grab a hammer and go to work. The guy who attacked Arie Luyendyk in Victory Lane after a race in Texas. The guy who once almost won a race in at the Milwaukee Mile in a front-engine dirt car after his rear-engine racer blew up the week before at Indy.

That was all as a driver. As a team owner, perhaps because of some of the above traits, Foyt has been less legendary in recent years. The last time a Foyt driver won the 500 was 24 years ago.

Sweden’s Kenny Brack won the 83rd Indy 500 on May 30, 1999 in the No. 14 A.J. Foyt Power Team Dallara/Oldsmobile Aurora under sanction of Tony George’s Indy Racing League. Brack, the first Swedish driver to win the Indy 500, also won the IRL championship in 1998 for Foyt’s organization.

This year, the Foyt team has put on its hair shirt. Young Santino Ferrucci has had terrific month of May with the high point being qualifying. Ferrucci will start P4. His four-lap average was at  233.661 mph in the iconic No. 14 Chevrolet.

But wait, there’s more. Rookie Benjamin Pederson of Denmark added to A.J.’s enjoyment by impressingly qualifying for his first Indy 500 an impressive 11th at 232.671 mph in the No. 55 A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet. He qualified 11th.

“Today was a pretty good day,” said “Super Tex,” 88, who watched the session on TV from inside his Gasoline Alley garage. “We had high hopes of maybe getting a pole but you know, getting a pole with all the competition you have here is pretty tough. This is about the best we’ve been in the last 20 years. So, I’m happy we’re starting fourth. I won the race from the fourth spot (twice) so maybe that’s a good luck charm. I never won it from the pole, so maybe it’ll come true again. Anyway, we had a lot of fun.”

His team enters the race will a couple cars more than good enough to win. How much fun would that be?

– Two native Brazilians, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, represent terrific stories this year and for different reasons, though bother are tethered to each other by being fan favorites at the Speedway.

Castroneves could become the first driver ever to win five Indy 500s. That a big enough story for ya? Castroneves is 48 years old and had better be careful if he does end up climbing the crash fence at the yard of bricks. But should he, every camera phone within 1,000 yards will be aimed his way by fans witnessing real gosh-dang history. And the thing is, the gregarious “Spiderman” may need a victory on Sunday to keep his career going.

His performance has dropped off since winning the 500 in 2021. Last season his best finish in the series was seventh – which came at Indy. He had only two other top-10s. This year, his 10th-place finish at Texas gave him his only finish in the top 20 for his Meyer Shank Racing team. A fifth win will have to come from a P20 spot on the starting grid.

But no matter what happens in Castroneves near future, he will go down in history not only as a four-timer at Indy but the only IndyCar driver to finish P1 on “Dancing With The Stars”!

Kanaan, having announced he will retire from IndyCar at the end of the season, likely will be taking his last shot at winning the 500 for a second time. He, too, is 48. Less outwardly flamboyant as Castroneves, he may actually be more popular. He certainly is a favorite among those who have covered the sport because he’s a dang-classy gentleman. He neither searches out the media when he has a good day nor run for cover after a bad day.

Kanaan has drove for the best – from Mo Nunn to Andretti to Foyt to Vasser to Ganassi. He won the 2013 500, which was one of his 16 wins in Indy cars.

Kanaan gets special props for graciously putting up with Danica Patrick as a teammate and for poking fun at his own large nose.

– Scott Dixon is the pre-eminent Indy car driver of his generation. That is not open to debate. He’s won 52 times in 334 starts. He’s stood on podiums 129 times. He’s won six IndyCar Series championships. In seven other seasons, he finished third or better in points. He’s also won in CART and sports car series. He likes fender cars, too, as won the Rolex 24 at Daytona multiple times.

If there is a small hole in his resume, it is the 500. He has won the big one just once; in 2008. A second win at IMS would gild his lily big time.

Dixon is 42 so he’s young enough to get a couple more shots should he come up short on Sunday. And good shots those will be as long he is driving a Chip Ganassi Racing car and have the marvelous Mike Hull as the team’s managing director.

But then again, every opportunity missed for win No. 2 at Indy represents one more step away from his prime.

Dixon does everything with a touch of class and Indy loves class. He’s earned another drink of milk. He’ll start sixth on Sunday, on the outside of the second row.

– Katherine Legge made history last Saturday when she qualified at 231.070 mph – the fastest four-lap speed by a female driver in the event’s history. A couple days later, she made a lot of people angry.

The journeyman British driver had secured a spot in her third Indy 500 and first since 2013. Legge’s single flying lap of 231.627 mph broke the record of 230.201 mph set by Simona de Silvestro of Switzerland in 2021; Legge’s four-lap average junked the mark of 229.439 mph set by Sarah Fisher in 2002 and secured the final Day 1 locked-in position at 30th. Legge finished 22nd as an Indy 500 rookie in 2012 and placed 26th in 2013.

Then, during practice on Monday, she inexplicably ran into the rear end of the car of Stefan Wilson. Wilson had a broken vertebrae and needed surgery, making way for Rahal, and Legge’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda was badly damaged, though she walked away unhurt. RLL did not have a backup car for Legge as she is doing the 500 as a one-off for the team.

There was little in the way of a mea culpa from the 42-year-old. She tried to brake and townshift, she said. Gee.

The wrenches spun at the team’s garage as crew members scrambled to put the car back together again. They got the job done in time for Carb Day but Legge needs a big effort on race day to erase memories of the spear job she put on Wilson.



| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 27 2023
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