Empty feel­ing per­vades at Indy

Sato wins un­der cau­tion in first 500 with­out fans

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - BY JENNA FRYER

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.”

AP, GETTY IMAGES (INSET)

Takuma Sato (mid­dle) crosses the fin­ish line Sun­day to win his sec­ond In­di­anapo­lis 500. Scott Dixon (front) fin­ished sec­ond and Gra­ham Ra­hal third.

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