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COLUMN: Indy racing as good as ever

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INDIANAPOLIS – It’s human nature to look wistfully upon the “good ole’ days” – whenever they may be.

Things were always better, more idyllic, more pastoral, some time ago.

In motorsports, the pining for the “good ole’ days” is a rite of passage. Growing up in the 1980s, there were wishes for the roadster era to return, and there were none better than Bill Vukovich. I’m sure that when Vuky and Sam Hanks and Jimmy Bryan were winning Indy 500s in the 1950s, there were folks in Stand E calling for Wilbur Shaw and Mauri Rose to return.

I certainly grew up in one of those eras – growing up watching the Unsers, Andrettis, A.J. Foyt, Gordon Johncock, Johnny Rutherford, Tom Sneva, Emerson Fittipaldi and the incomparable Rick Mears in an era that spanned a couple of decades in IndyCar racing.

Like a lot of folks, I fondly remember “Spin & Win,” the Mears-Michael duel, “Mario is slowing down,” Al Unser Sr.’s wild win in 1987, his son’s thumbs-up two years later, A.J.’s retirement and the like.

But it’s time to stop looking back.

The “good old days” are now.

Each era has its defining race. In 1948, it was Bill Holland forgetting the lap count and conceding the lead (and the race) to Mauri Rose. In 1960, it was the incredible duel between Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward.

In 1982, it was the wily veteran, Gordon Johncock, facing the crafty youngster in Rick Mears, nose-to-tail for the last several laps. What we often forget is that was unheard-of in open-wheel racing at the time —two drivers going wheel-to-wheel in a compelling finish in racing’s biggest event.

Finishes where the margin of victory was a lap or two (or, in the 1989 Indianapolis 500, six) were much more common.

Now, fans go home disappointed if they don’t get a Johncock-Mears-like shootout at the end.

They got one Sunday – and there has been one virtually every year the race has gone 500 miles since 2006.

Since Johncock held off Mears by 0.16 seconds in 1982, what was once – by far – the closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history has been eclipsed thrice. This year’s 98th running was one of those, and one of the most compelling, as Ryan Hunter-Reay had just enough to hold off Helio Castroneves’ bid, winning by 0.0600 seconds in one of the most compelling, breathtaking shootouts in Indianapolis 500 history.

It was the second-closest finish in the race’s history – but instead of being the cherry on top of an otherwise-forgettable race, as the freezing-cold, crash-marred 1992 event that saw Al Unser Jr. survive by 0.043 seconds over Scott Goodyear was – it was the finish of a compelling event where strategy played out perfectly and drivers were running nose-to-tail up front for the entire race.

“As expected, this race was ridiculously close and competitive,” Hunter-Reay said, noting the IndyCar field is, time-wise, as close as it’s been and is very deep.

“It’s a testament to the series the way it is, the cars are so close, give an opportunity for everyone,” added Castroneves, who has won Indy three times, but never a series title.

In the last three Indianapolis 500s alone, there have been 136 lead changes – 34 each this year and in 2012, and a record 68 in 2013. All three weren’t decided until the final corner of green-flag racing.

This year’s race saw a compelling finish with a pass in the grass by Ryan Hunter-Reay to take the lead, only to see him lose it two turns later, and then re-take the lead as he drove under the white flag. In 2013, it was a restart between Tony Kanaan and Hunter-Reay that lasted one corner. The prior year, Dario Franchitti and Takuma Sato went into Turn 1 on the final lap side-by-side for the lead. Sato ended up in the wall, Franchitti came around to take the checkers.

Part of the era has to do with the new DW12 chassis that’s in its third year, and has provided both versatility and raciness on the multiple types of courses IndyCar runs. Its aerodynamics – punching a hole in the air provides a significant draft on straightaways like those at Indianapolis, allowing cars to stay close to each other. For the 149 consecutive laps of green-flag racing, the leaders stayed nose-to-tail for nearly all of that time.  It also allowed for the compelling duel between Castroneves and Hunter-Reay – with Marco Andretti right behind – that conjured up memories of Jim Rathmann and Rodger Ward in 1960, only without the tire wear.

“We were doing stuff at 220mph,” Castroneves said. “It’s a great testament to the car to hold on in those type of circumstances. When you have two experienced drivers battling like that, it’s a great show. It was awesome.”

Twice – in 2006 and 2011 – the leader going into Turn 4 on the last lap didn’t win. Sam Hornish Jr. finished reeling in Marco Andretti in 2006, winning by .0635 seconds, and in 2011, J.R. Hildebrand hit the wall coming out of Turn 4 as Dan Wheldon drove by. Prior to 2006, that had never happened in 500 history.

It’s not just the close competition. It’s a veteran field that’s seeing change – Hornish and Danica Patrick are in NASCAR, Wheldon passed away in 2011, and Franchitti retired a year ago – but several top drivers and champions remain and are still in their primes, including Castroneves, who missed a fourth Indy win by an eyelash.

It’s not lost that Hunter-Reay is a rising American star, following a similar career arc that Franchitti followed. He has hit his stride after his 30th birthday, starting with Andretti’s team, with a title and an Indy 500 win in close succession.

This feels a lot like the late 1970s and 1980s, with a cadre of veteran champions being augmented by fresh new drivers – and a few with familiar last names. It’s created a deep, and entertaining series that has brought back crowds in excess of 200,000 fans on race day.

“You look at the NASCAR side, it’s all Americans,” Hunter-Reay said. “This is an international sport. It’s the best talent from around the world coming to do battle on all kinds of circuits, short ovals, road courses, big ovals, street circuits. It’s the only series in the world like that. Winning this one is a game-changer.”

Enjoy it while it lasts, before these truly become the “good old days.”

Andrew Smith is a columnist for the Daily Reporter and former sports editor. Contact him at grsports@greenfieldreporter.com

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