Scott Dixon was going to win the Indianapolis 500. Then Takuma Sato was going to win the Indianapolis 500. Then, with the “laps to go” counter down to single digits and Dixon crafting his plan to make a run at Sato, while second-generation racer Graham Rahal waited to pounce on them both from third, we had no idea who was going to win the Indianapolis 500. In that moment, we all seemed destined to win the day, three months of patience and irritation and compromise finally paying off with the gift of an all-time classic finish.
But in the end, the true winner of the 104th edition of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing was the same undefeated champion that of late has dominated every aspect of our lives.
After two weeks of traveling at some of the fastest speeds in Indy 500 history, the month of May-turned-month of August was led to the checkered flag by Sato as he cruised down the frontstretch at well less than half the velocity he used to earn his starting spot in the field one week earlier. His Honda-powered Dallara puttered along behind the pace car as a yellow flag waved next to those checkers, all happening at a slow-motion pace that ensured the empty grandstands we’d all been able to ignore for 3 hours, 10 minutes received plenty of television air time.
“I can’t change that. It is what it is,” Dixon said after being denied his shot at a second Indy win, finishing second after a dominant day, leading 111 of 200 laps. “I think it would have been interesting to see how that played out. But we’ll never know, will we?”
No, we won’t. With five laps remaining and the duel seemingly imminent, Sato and Rahal’s teammate Spencer Pigot crashed hard in Turn 4. Pigot was rattled and being attended to by safety personnel. The debris field was large. There was no way it could be cleaned up in time to restart the race, so IndyCar Race Control had to decide: Should it pause it all under a red flag so that the track could be cleared for a restart dash to the finish? Or should it let those safety crews do their jobs and end the event under caution? Dixon exclaimed over the radio, verbalizing the thoughts of millions of race fans, none of whom was attending the race in person. “Are they going red?! They have to go red!”
It wasn’t the wrong call. But it was a frustrating call. It left us unsatisfied. It left us uneasy. It left us sitting in our living rooms alone to sift through all the what-ifs produced by the empty hole created by what we had just been denied.
Feel free to copy and paste that sentence into every conversation you have about everything that has happened — or more accurately, hasn’t happened — during this virus-steered year.
“I don’t know,” said Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 champion, co-owner of Sato’s team and father to third-place finisher Graham Rahal. “Have a restart at the end of the race, who knows who’s got the advantage? Second-place guy, fourth-place guy, third-place guy? I think it’s silly to sit there and try to predict what might have happened. The reality is Takuma won. This isn’t the first 500 that’s been flagged under yellow. It was a hell of a mess out there.”
Since 1940, a total of 16 Indianapolis 500s have ended under caution, including a streak of four straight from 2010 to 2013. So, the letdown of finishing the 500 at speeds that you and I drive on the interstate is certainly nothing new. But this year’s anticlimax was more difficult to digest because nearly every finish since that last yellow flag ending in 2013 was a thrill ride, two of those involving Sato himself. And none of those other races was being run atop the thin, emotional ice of this one, the always-present cracks of life inside a pandemic.
Sato, only moments after becoming the 20th multiple-time Indy 500 champion, talked about the fan-free setting of the race, describing it as “not a happy place, of course not.”
He recalled Saturday, when instead of participating in the traditional downtown Indianapolis parade, the racers went onto Main Street of Speedway, Indiana, to deliver souvenirs to longtime Indy ticket holders who were having their attendance streaks broken by COVID-19.
“A guy, [in] 1964, he said he came here simply because he wanted the address of Speedway and Indianapolis in his life,” Sato said. “He said today, he will pull the chair out into the garden and watch the TV, and actually physically he can hear [the race] from Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He’s happy. Of course, he wanted to come, but he’s happy. It’s great to see that. Therefore, even we don’t have a fan here physically, we know their heart is here.”
From the fan in his garden to the hundreds who parked around the racetrack on Sunday — strategically setting up across from the gaps in the grandstands where they could hear the cars and see the infield video boards — to the millions watching the race on TV from home, all their hearts were there. Even if they were broken a little by that damned yellow flag.
“Nobody in the stands, we all know the reason for that, we’re all sorry about that, we wish it could be otherwise,” David Letterman said. The late-night TV legend and Indianapolis native is Rahal’s team ownership partner. “I hope in some small way the joy that we’re experiencing here can be shared by people who were able to watch this race in the United States and around the world. It’s a small contribution, but maybe it’s meaningful.”
It is meaningful. No one doubts that. Just as no one, including Scott Dixon, wasn’t happy for Takuma Sato, one of Gasoline Alley’s most likable characters. But years from now, when we look back on the 104th Indianapolis 500, we aren’t likely to remember what we had, what Sato did or how meaningful the experience was.
No, we’ll always recall first and foremost what we were denied. That’s why 2020 has won yet again.