The Day After: Thoughts on the 94th Indy 500

Mike Conway's Dallara disintegrates against the catchfence at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay (37) (Photo: Jef Richards/IndyCar.com)

If yesterday was the best day of my year - the Indianapolis 500 - the day after usually counts as one of my worst... for no other reason than the fact that it will be a whole year before we get to do this all over again.

Usually, I spend the Day After the 500 prowling Indianapolis, buying Long’s Donuts for breakfast, visiting the IMS Museum, going downtown to the NCAA Museum, and so forth.

But since I’m not in Indy this year, I’m robbed of that series of small pleasures that keep me from ruminating on the race just completed. That means that you get a ringside seat as I spew those usually-postponed post-race thoughts into this blog.

So Frico Suave won the race. For me, the outcome wasn’t in question the minute he took the lead and started opening the gap. Now, I’ve been around the Indy 500 for almost 40 years now, so I know that it’s never over until the checkers fly. But these are the days of spec cars and "bulletproof engines" - thank you, cost containment - so I knew that a car as dominant as Franchitti’s would be nigh impossible to catch, and that the odds of him losing an engine or suffering mechanical failure were even lower.

Look, it’s not my money that’s being spent so it’s easy for me to say that the current formula of ultra-reliable leased motors and rigid chassis and aero guidelines needs to be dumped for a more open rulebook. But let’s face it - racing needs to be exciting and cutting-edge, and what we saw yesterday fell somewhat short. Sure, the speed was exciting, but that sense that a leader who opened a big gap on the field could be caught later in the race was totally absent. In fact, if anything it felt like 2000 all over again, when Juan Pablo Montoya completely dominated the race from start to finish for the same team owner.

There just didn’t seem to be any element of uncertainty in the race beyond the human error on pit road that cost Roger Penske the shot he wanted at his 16th Indy 500 win. At least, not the kind of uncertainty of years past - when an Andretti could dominate a race only to blow up within a few laps of the finish. That’s not to say the race itself was boring per se, although ABC Sports did its level best to make it so - but there was just an element of reliability (or worse, predictability) there that removed some of the suspense that normally accompanies the event.

Now, having said all of that, how could anyone not be thrilled by the spectacular run Tony Kanaan made through the field? His late-race pit stop for a splash of fuel cut short one of the most amazing rallies in the race’s history as TK powered from dead last on the grid to a couple of car lengths out of the lead. It was the most stirring part of the 500 by a mile (unless you are Ashley Judd) and a bravura performance from a guy whom everyone wanted to see succeed.

If there is a low point that counters Kanaan’s charge to the front, it has to be the last-lap wreck involving Mike Conway and Ryan Hunter-Reay. I haven’t seen a wreck that bad for years. That Conway is undergoing surgery on his left leg today should not obscure the fact that he is alive in the first place to experience that agony. I am amazed at and grateful for the IndyCar safety rules that helped him survive that accident.

With that in mind, I want to take issue with those who say that Conway’s survival was a direct result of the Dallara chassis and, by extension, that the accident actually proves that the IndyCar series should stick with the current car spec beyond 2012. The fact of the matter is that the Dallara has been prone to taking flight over the entirety of its 8-year lifespan. Granted, any flat-bottomed race car would have flown under the same circumstances as Conway’s, but it seems like the current-spec Dallara is particularly eager to experience the life of a bird. One only needs to remember the airborne flights of Mario Andretti, Sam Hornish and others to know how frightening these cars can be when the downforce pinning them to the track is disrupted.

Would a new car cut down the likelihood of a flight into the catchfence? I’m not an aerodynamicist so I couldn’t say for sure. Obviously with the specific kind of wheel-to-wheel contact between Conway and Hunter-Reay, the car is going to get into the air. But I believe a car with different aerodynamic properties - even with the obligatory flat bottom - might not have helicoptered so drastically or gained so much altitude. Maybe that belief is wrong and there is no way to avoid such things, but I refuse to acknowledge that people smarter than I am are incapable of finding a solution to this issue.

What I do know for sure is that I hate seeing cars fly - they are not, after all, aircraft - and I hate more the sight of them careening into the catchfences and disintegrating themselves, the fence, and possibly a few spectators along the way. You can’t remove an element of risk from racing but you can address specific problems when solutions are there for the taking (i.e., HANS and SAFER).

In the case of the Dallara chassis, there are eight years’ worth of evidence that some new thinking needs to be done about how these high-speed race cars should be built to cut down the flight risk. The fact that Conway survived such an enormous accident - while a testament to the current safety rules - should not detract from the realization that the car itself contributed directly to the accident’s severity. For all of the vitriol directed towards the Delta Wing concept, it is very unlikely that a Delta Wing under similar circumstances would have behaved the same way as the Dallara.

Knee-jerk change is never a good idea - usually because such change causes more problems than it solves - but in fairness the brightest minds in the industry have had nearly a decade to come up with solutions to the current spec’s issues. It’s past time for these solutions to be implemented.

Because the lasting image from this year’s Indy 500 is not that of Dario Franchitti drinking the milk, or Ashley Judd running barefoot down pit road, or of Jack Arute’s leathery tan - it’s of Mike Conway spinning in mid-air like a top and 300,000 people holding their collective breath and praying.

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