WHO’S TOUGH ENOUGH TO BE CHAMP?
IndyCar champion crowned
This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!
Published on Mon, Sep 17, 2012
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
By Brian Kennedy The 500-mile race on an oval. Is there anything more iconically American than that? Indianapolis defines it, and every so often, another race attempts to catch the excitement that Indy offers. That might have been the primary reason the Izod IndyCars raced through the evening Saturday in Fontana, but for diehard fans, there was another outcome to observe as the season’s championship was at stake. They call it a “world” championship, and in some respects, it is. Drivers from Japan, the US, Canada, France, Brazil, and elsewhere compete on tracks that stretch from the north of Canada to the streets of Sao Paolo. But this year, it came down to two: an Aussie, and an American. No US-born driver has held this title since 2006, when Sam Hornish won it. Enter the great hope, Ryan Hunter-Reay, who came into the final race down by 17 points to Will Power, an Australian. You already know that Hunter-Reay won it. But it’s not so simple, because this is a story of endurance, guts, risk-taking, and mistakes which reveals a lot about the two men in contention for the trophy. So the scene is this: the eventual race winner dominates early but fades until he picks it up near the end. Others pretend to the throne for various numbers of laps, with Tagliani seeming most likely to gain a breakthrough win. And Power watches from the garage to see whether, somehow, his luck might come back to him, and Hunter-Reay could maybe slip back in the field. Or blow up. Or get into the mess of someone else’s wreck. Or cut a tire down. Or in some other fashion abandon the title that was his to claim after Power had hit the wall early on. In fact, Hunter-Reay almost gave his Aussie competitor the championship, first by seeming like he would place lower than he needed to, and later by getting in insanely close battles with a couple of other cars which looked like they might put him into the wall at any second. First, Power. You can read this guy one of two ways, neither flattering: he’s no good on ovals; he doesn’t have the moxy to finish a title hunt. The last three years, this one included, he’s gone into the final race leading the points. Each time, he has failed to win it. In 2010 and 2011, Franchitti beat him. This year, Hunter-Reay. Last year, with Las Vegas abandoned after a handful of laps, the final points-paying race was Kansas. Power finished 19th. The year before, it was Homestead that was his nemesis. He started that race third, finished it 25th. Fontana saw him 24th at the end, and only because after wrecking, he went out and did another dozen or so hop-along laps to overtake EJ Viso, who was parked with mechanical failure. So what’s up with this guy? After Saturday’s race, he said, “Ovals weren’t what I ever thought I’d do.” Do we have the crux of it here, because ovals are what American racing does. He added that he likes them better this year. That because the car is more tolerant of driver input. As these guys always say, “we can drive the car this year,” and that has yielded less of what Power termed “pack racing.” “It’s very obvious that I just don’t know why or can’t put my finger on one thing, but tonight, catching a seam . . . .” His thoughts were fragmented as they came out of his mouth. This, mind you, was three hours after the incident, so he’d had time to gather himself, and to form an answer. “I wish I had crashed in that seam earlier in the weekend. Other people did,” he said further. Of course the astute are going to ask why, when he knew this was a possiblity, he put his car there? For that, there has not as yet been an answer. Then came the bombshell: “I usually wait until the race to make a mistake—at least on the ovals.” He laughed heartily at his own joke, then went on: “I just don’t know what to look at on the ovals.” What he seemed to mean was that his racing on them doesn’t pass muster, not, I don’t think, that his vision of the track is flawed. Power had been hanging behind Hunter-Reay early while the latter diced and rode near the wall in a seemingly unnecessary battle with Sebastian Saavedra. His strategy seemed to be to go for it, while Power’s was to wait. Pretty sensible, especially in light of his statement earlier in the weekend that he didn’t have to beat the other guy. In fact, it was the other way around. Why, then did he get under Hunter-Reay going into turns one and two and end up in the wall, barely missing his rival as he spun? Is there something subconscious going on? After all, on Friday, Power had said that all he had to do was take Hunter-Reay out, and he’d win the championship. Or is he just not mentally tough enough to cope with the pressure of closing? As he spun, the crowd collectively sighed. “It’s over,” they seemed to say. Even Power said it as he got out of the car. It was around 6:30pm local time, but things actually wouldn’t be solved for another two and a half hours, nearly. While cars continued to race, and Power’s caution plus one more slowed things, Team Penske pulled the car in on a hook. It didn’t even get into the garage proper, but sat in the driveway while they fixed it. The grandstand crowd probably couldn’t see this, though I could from the press box terrace. TV likely kept viewers informed, but this is the great thing about seeing a race live: so much is going on, and it’s all so confusing sometimes. Power’s car emerged from the tunnel into the paddock. He went to the pits, fired up and drove off, and the crowd wowed and roared. It was 7:24pm. It was to be a fourteen-lap effort, punctuated by three pits stops and at speeds of around 180mph while the leaders did 215mph. The laps he put in were only to pressure his rival into finishing one more position up the grid. Meanwhile, day turned into evening, and the sun settled into an orange glow. The lights came on around the track.
After the race, Power said his car was loose while he ran the extra laps. And he summed up his mistake with, “I really needed to be there,” speaking of the need to do well in this race. “It’s the last race of every year” where things go awry, he indicated. But all of that is the end of the story, and none of it would be told that way had Hunter-Reay not eventually finished at least fifth. But watching him through the evening, you’d swear that he was trying to give it back to Power by ending up in the wall himself. While Power’s car was being fixed and coming out for his slow laps, his rival was dicing, up in third, with Castroneves, before slipping back to fifth. Lap 101 came and went at 7:07pm. That meant that only 40 percent of the race had been run, and with the warning of Power’s accident fresh in his mind, Hunter-Reay was still willing to take risks. Sliding back to eighth after lap 101, Hunter-Reay took seventh, then seemed incapable of closing the gap up to sixth. But he wasn’t cautious. He diced and passed with Tagliani, a driver with a reputation for doing what he wants, regardless of what happens to others as a result. Was the radio telling Hunter-Reay to settle down? No way to tell watching live. All you could do was grip the armrests of your seat a little harder and wonder at his nerve. “I was nervous in the car. You definitely have to talk yourself down all the time,” he offered after the race. Most fans would probably answer, “That makes two of us.” Just past halfway, Hunter-Reay was eighth, with the ninth-place car, Simon Pagenaud, five seconds back of him. By lap 180, he was seventh and the last car on the lead lap. Power was well out of it by this point, and Hunter-Reay was sure to have known that. After a caution and restart, he was sixth, but not close to fifth. In front of him, Sato and Tagliani tangled for that spot with Carpenter and Dixon fighting for first and Franchitti sitting third, well out of trouble. There were 12 cars on the lead lap with all the pitting shaken out, and three were starting to challenge Hunter-Reay for that sixth spot. In any event, his current position of sixth would have done him no good. At lap 200, then, say it like this: Power was still the potential champion. It was past 8pm. The air temperature was still registering 89 degrees. Hunter-Reay was three seconds back of fifth by lap 204. Not much time? That’s a tenth of a 35-second lap. He was clear of 7th by two seconds. Lap 227 saw everyone up front complete a final pit stop, and still he was sixth. Then Tagliani blew up. This put Hunter-Reay in solid fifth with 20 laps to go. And he cruised around, waving to the crowd and gaining the title. Is that what you’d do? Well, that wasn’t his approach. Not on your life. In fact, he seemed to do everything he could to lose it by risking putting himself into the wall as the laps wound down. He went high to the wall with Dario underneath him. Then he went three wide going through turn two. He climbed to 4th spot, then third on lap 236, but on 237, he was once again taking a dangerously high line above Takuma Sato. He did the same thing on lap 240 and cleared the Japanese driver, who would crash going into turn two on the final lap and end the day for everyone. Before that crash, Kanaan stuffed it and brought out the red flag. Hunter-Reay’s car started to heat up in the pits, and fans were used to cool it. His car owner told him that when he went back out, he’d have no help around him. What did he do? Went up near the wall again with Franchitti low coming out of turn two. Whether it was this that slowed him or not, the cars in fourth, fifth, and sixth places (Dixon, Sato, and Marco Andretti) were right together behind him, and one slip would have let them go by, or crashed him. First Dixon passed him, gaining third at the stripe on lap 240. Then Sato gained the advantage and passed Hunter-Reay for fourth, and so the latter went way high in two again, on lap 249, to regain the spot. He didn’t need it, remember; fifth was good enough. Sato ended up spinning and the race ended under caution, with Carpenter winning and Hunter-Reay in fourth, a position ahead of where he needed to be. After the race, Hunter-Reay explained his night by saying, “It feels like we really earned this. We worked for it.” You did. Too hard. Why the apparent death-wish, rather than a safe ride-around to the title? He justified it, in part, referencing his dice with Sato. “If we have two cars side by side, a car behind is going to have trouble getting up there.” OK, but what about the lesson of Power wrecking? Nobody dared to ask that question. So the sport has an American champion, and true to form, he put this into context that probably is more true of him than it would have been of Power: “This is what I’ve wanted since I was six years old,” he said as he expounded on his feelings. “I’m running out of ways to describe it.” He did say that his next goal is racing’s biggest prize: “I’ve definitely got my sights set on Indy,” he said. To add to the point about how hard it was, he said, “We were struggling this whole week. I didn’t want to say it (in the media), so everyone would know how bad we struggled.” Their solution, he indicated, was to “put together the best bits from all three team cars. I learned a lot about the car as the night went on.” He summed up his night in part by saying, “That was the most pressure I’ve had in my life, the last 20 laps of that race,” but he went into the restarts “just going for broke, just like in Baltimore.” No fear, just what the American hero myth demands. “Just never give up, that’s how it’s always been for me, both on and off the track,” he expressed it. Maybe Power’s final say on things should be this, a response to a question from the press after the race: “Tonight, I definitely could have prevented that one. Racing’s tough.” Tougher than he is, at least Saturday, but not too tough for the Izod IndyCar 2012 season’s champ, Ryan Hunter-Reay. Please follow me on twitter @growinguphockey Read Brian Kennedy's MAVTV 500 2012: The results Read Brian Kennedy's Culture Club: When does car culture equal IndyCar culture? For more information about Auto Club Speedway events, go to autoclubspeedway.com For more information about the 2012 Izod IndyCar schedule, click here