MILLER: Indy's 100th an awesome American tale
Monday, 30 May 2016
Robin Miller / Images by LAT
Winner Alexander Rossi running 179mph on the last lap, pretty much all alone on the main straightaway, is not how anyone envisioned this ballyhooed, banzai-fest ending.
The fans still roared with delight as the American rookie took a most improbable checkered flag but it was a shocking, almost numbing, conclusion to what had been three hours of May-hem at 220mph.
Instead of Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden, Carlos Munoz and James Hinchcliffe dicing and drafting for the victory, the most-hyped and anticipated Indy 500 in 20 years was decided by those two evil words: fuel mileage.
"If I was Alex, I'd be the happiest man in the world right now and wouldn't care how we won the damn race," said Newgarden, who wound up a frustrated third. "But it just sucks we didn't have a shootout where we could have raced each other."
That's what most of us wanted to see and seemed destined to get after an afternoon of breathtaking passes throughout the field. Because everyone has become so conditioned to 0.$%# of a second finishes, this obviously was pretty anti-climatic.
But it was better than finishing under caution and had a lot more positives than negatives, such as:
Five years after Dan Wheldon pulled out an improbable victory for Herta's tiny, Indy-only effort driving #98, the former CART/IRL winner called perfect strategy after Rossi dropped to 28th because of two bad pit stops.
"There is nothing negative about this day and even the haters will have trouble finding anything," said Herta, who was forced to partner with his pal Andretti. "But this was such a team effort. Ryan (Hunter-Reay, who led a race-high 52 laps) and Townsend (Bell) were strong early and had their troubles but played a big role in Alex winning. We were on a fuel plan and they both helped it by dragging us around in the draft."
Herta was, understandably, a tad excited and why not? A potential sponsor didn't pan out last winter and he flew to Indianapolis to pitch Andretti on a deal when Rossi became a strong possibility after his Formula 1 ride went away.
"I thanked Michael on the parade lap for letting me be here because I'd have been watching on television without him."
Making only his second start ever on an oval, Rossi spent the month in fast company near the top of the speed chart, never put a wheel wrong and qualified 11th. He never lost his composure, or pace, following the disastrous pit stops and turned the fastest lap of the race at 225.288mph.
"Then all we asked him to do was save fuel but don't lose track position for 36 laps," chortled Herta. "He's not rookie of the year, he's rookie of the century!"
Rossi, who was coasting on the straightaways that final lap, was finally told he could gas it going into Turn 3 and then found himself standing in Victory Lane a few minutes later.
"I didn't expect to be standing here," he said with a smile. "But I'm really starting to like it."