Empty feeling pervades at Indy
Sato wins under caution in first 500 without fans
INDIANAPOLIS — At an eerily empty Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, Takuma Sato snatched a second Indianapolis 500 victory in an odd and unsatisfying finish to “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Sato held off Scott Dixon and won under caution after teammate Spencer Pigot crashed with five laps remaining in a race held in front of empty grandstands for the first time in 104 runnings because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Pigot needed medical attention on the track, the crash scene was a massive debris field and the cleanup time would have been lengthy. There also wasn’t enough time to allow for a proper restart.
If it had been a NASCAR race, a stoppage would have been immediate to set up a final shootout. IndyCar tends to avoid gimmicks, and a late red flag in the 2014 Indy 500 incensed purists.
Dixon, the five-time IndyCar champion who had dominated the race, asked on his radio if IndyCar was going to give the drivers a final shootout.
“Are they going red?” Dixon said. “They’ve got to go red. There’s no way they can clean that up.”
The answer was no, turning the end of the race into a game of what-ifs.
“It is a little silly to predict what might have happened. The reality is Takuma won,” winning car owner Bobby Rahal said. “This isn’t the first 500 to be flagged under yellow, and there was a hell of a mess out there.”
IndyCar said in a statement after the finish “there were too few laps remaining to gather the field behind the pace car, issue a red flag and then restart for a green-flag finish.”
Dixon was visibly disappointed after leading 111 of the 200 laps in pursuit of his own second Indy win.
“Definitely a hard one to swallow, for sure. We had such a great day,” Dixon said. “First time I’ve seen them let it run out like that. I thought they’d throw a red.”
Dixon had figured he would ultimately run down Sato as Sato worked through lapped traffic, and he believed Sato’s team was cutting it close on fuel. Rahal said his driver had enough gas to get to the end.
None of it mattered in the end as Sato was able to coast around the speedway then ride the lift new track owner Roger Penske installed to take the winner to an elevated victory circle. Along for the ride were Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 winner, and David Letterman, his mask buried in an unruly gray beard as the longtime comedian and TV host greeted Sato.
“Let me just say, if someone said to me this morning at the end of the Indianapolis 500 that Takuma Sato and Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal would be racing for the lead, I would say that’s a dream, that’s a dream come true,” Letterman said. “And I woke up, and it turned out we won the Indianapolis 500.”
Sato became the first Japanese winner of the Indy 500 in 2017. Graham Rahal, Sato’s teammate at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, was third behind Dixon.
Sato knew Dixon was going to be tough to beat under green.
“I know Scott was coming right through, out of Turn 4, he was screaming coming,” Sato said. “I had to hold him off.”
The celebration was somewhat muted as the RLL team had a socially distanced winner’s circle. Penske was forced to host his first 500 as speedway owner without fans. The speedway typically draws more than 300,000 spectators on race day; Penske said there would be only 2,500 in attendance Sunday.
“It’s not a happy place,” Sato said. “It’s tough on everyone, not only for us.”
“It’s eerie. It’s weird. Nobody likes it,” Rahal said. “I feel bad. I hope our fans who watched it on TV really enjoyed the race. I know its not the same thing as being there, but I think everybody understands.”
Takuma Sato (middle) crosses the finish line Sunday to win his second Indianapolis 500. Scott Dixon (front) finished second and Graham Rahal third.