INDIANAPOLIS — OK, admit it. We’ve all become a little spoiled.
How else could we have possibly come away from the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 feeling unsatisfied? And yet we were, weren’t we?
The buildup to Sunday’s historic event was flawless, maybe a little too flawless. Not just the three days leading into the race, a time during which everyone from old, crusty sportswriters and older, even crustier racers gushed about the hundreds of thousands of people cramming through the chain-link gates of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (“Can you believe all these damn people here?” four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt said to me on Friday).
Not even the past two weeks, with headlines dominated by the inspiring near-death-to-pole-position story of affable Canadian James Hinchcliffe.
No, this escalation of excitement had been expertly ramped up for the past five years, dating to the centennial event in 2011 (take note: a 100th anniversary and a 100th running are not the same, especially when a pair of World Wars interrupt your timeline).
That day began much like this day, draped in motorsports history, and produced a befitting improbable finish when little-known JR Hildebrand inexplicably hit the wall in the final turn, handing the win to widely beloved Brit Dan Wheldon.
The four races between then and now, run in newly designed race cars, were the most competitive in Indy 500 history. All featured 30-plus lead changes, something that hadn’t happened at Indy since 1960. Four of those five featured a pass for the win during the race’s final four laps, something that had happened just 10 times in the previous 94 editions of the race.
All of those races also featured victories by popular characters — Wheldon, three-time winner Dario Franchitti, slump-busting Tony Kanaan, rising American hero Ryan Hunter-Reay and global superstar Juan Pablo Montoya, his second.
Sunday’s race featured 54 lead changes, second most in the event’s history, 13 different leaders and 850 passes throughout the field. It had eclipsed 500 passes just past the halfway point, boosted to that number by some of the most heart-shocking restart scrums the old Brickyard has ever seen.
That hyper-competitiveness, paired with the Speedway’s biggest crowd in years, and mixed with a red-carpet march to the green flag that featured Indy 500 legends, Pearl Harbor survivors and even Lady Gaga … it all felt like the perfect pile of ingredients to be crammed through an oil funnel to produce the perfect icing on Indy’s greatest cake.
Then … the stars started struggling, from Montoya’s wrecked title defense to Marco Andretti‘s fall through the field. Then … a long green-flag run to end the race that ran counter to a second-half trend that had brought out six yellow flags. Then … math(!) — in the form of fuel-mileage calculations. Then … as contender after contender pitted, the winner who emerged was … Alexander Rossi.
“What’s the guy’s name?” a well-lubricated race fan asked me as he reached through a fence and grabbed my shirt as I watched the traditional Victory Circle milk-chugging. I told him it was Alexander Rossi. “Dammit, he’s not even American, is he?”
Actually, yes, he is. He’s a Californian, a 24-year-old rookie who, in the drunken guy’s defense, few have heard of.
He was supposed to be racing in Formula One by now, not Indianapolis. But hard luck over there led him to join forces with a team facing hard times of its own, Bryan Herta Autosport, owned by former open-wheel racer Herta. He was so strapped for cash, he required aid from an old friend and rival, Michael Andretti, to field a car for this year’s race.
Rossi’s final time around the 2.5-mile track on Sunday afternoon felt more like 1976 than 2016. Desperate to stretch his final tank of fuel to a ludicrous 36 laps, it was run at a pedestrian 179.784 mph as he sputtered by the checkered flag, a whopping 45.5 mph slower than the fastest lap run all day (which, oh by the way, was a mark set by Rossi just past the halfway point of the event).
He won by nearly four-and-a-half seconds over Carlos Munoz. The average margin of victory over the past two years was .0823 seconds.
“It sucked not being able to really battle it out for the win,” confessed third-place finisher Josef Newgarden (another 20-something with a name that sounds like he’s from overseas, but is actually from Tennessee). “I know people don’t want to see teams doing math. But that final lap was a nail-biter. No one can deny that.”
But they will, young Josef. This wasn’t what we were promised. It wasn’t Castroneves winning to finally join Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as four-time victors.
Nor was it any of his teammates at Penske Racing, a team seeking its 17th win during its own 50th anniversary celebration. Nor was it any of the other possible multi-time winners, such as Kanaan, who fell back into his pattern of close-but-crushed.
And Rossi certainly isn’t a name like Andretti (Marco) or Graham Rahal, son of 1986 winner Bobby.
Yet those big names, while as stunned as the 300,000-plus who’d paid to watch them race, didn’t seem one bit fazed by Rossi’s victory. They welcomed the no-name to the land of the named.
“I honestly don’t know him very well,” Kanaan admitted, having just explained his fourth-place finish. “But I will be welcoming him into the club. It is the greatest club in the world. He has no idea how much his life is about to change. They might not have known who he was this morning. But they know now.”
Did we see history? Yes. We saw only the ninth rookie to win the world’s biggest race, just the sixth since the race’s earliest days, when pretty much everyone in the field were rookies.
Did we see a name? Yes. When Rossi held his winner’s news conference, he was joined onstage by Michael Andretti.
Did we see a super-competitive race? Yes. The fifth consecutive Indy 500 with 30-plus lead changes after decades without seeing one.
Did we all leave the 100th edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing feeling as if we wanted more great, more spectacle and more racing? Yes. But that’s not Alexander Rossi’s fault. It’s ours.
All of us — spoiled, stinking rotten.