INDIANAPOLIS — Not 30 minutes had passed since the hair-raising finish to the Indy 500 and already things were back to normal.
The crazies who cherish the 500 but spend large chunks of their lives telling you everything that’s wrong with it had gotten over Scott Dixon’s heartache, Marcus Ericsson’s understated joy and every other genuine emotion attached to the day.
“It bugs me,” said a guy standing next to me on a media-center balcony overlooking victory lane, “that they didn’t do the balloon release. That’s tradition.”
Balloons. He wanted to talk about the speedway’s two-year-old decision, taken out of environmental concerns, not to release thousands of helium balloons during pre-race ceremonies. I had no idea if he’d wandered over from an adjoining suite or snuck up from the crowd below, but he picked an odd time to air a grievance as small as that one.
A few dozen yards away, winner Ericsson was posing for photographers.
Off to one side was Ericsson’s boss, Chip Ganassi, working out all he’d just been through. His five entries gave him five kinds of heartburn. What could have been a 1-2 sweep by dominant Ganassi men Dixon and Alex Palou fell apart in the pit lane.
An ill-timed yellow flag on lap 70 meant that Palou had to either stop for fuel with the pits closed or have his tank run dry. His team chose the former, of course, but the penalty sent Palou to the back of the pack, and his chance at glory was gone.
Then Dixon — who makes a mistake as often as Halley’s Comet appears — got nabbed for speeding on pit road on his final stop, and his hopes, too, were dashed.
But here came Ericsson, vaulting past a couple of McLaren cars and into the lead, only to have Jimmie Johnson crash hard in a fourth Ganassi entry. A red flag brought the McLarens back into play for a two-lap run for the checkers, but it all worked out for Chip: Ericsson outbraved runner-up Pato O’Ward, and a surging Tony Kanaan gave Ganassi first and third.
I couldn’t recall a team owner going through so much drama in one Indy 500, so there I was on that balcony, observing Chip Ganassi. And yet I had this dimwit beside me, complaining about the loss of something he saw as a precious part of race day.
I know his type all too well.
They live and breathe the Indy 500 and they can slay you with trivia and lore about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Yet they reinforce something pop music taught us long ago, which is that you always hurt the one you love.
The energy in their outrage can be astounding.
I wonder: Is it nostalgia, or simply the get-off-my-lawn indignation that can come with advancing age?
How does someone sit through the pre-race party favors that an Indy 500 provides — the ceremonial gridding of the cars, the marching bands, the salutes to the military, the playing of “Taps,” the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” — only to gripe about a relatively insignificant one that is no longer there?
At least this guy stopped at balloons and didn’t veer off into the usual list of topics these folks turn into sermons.
For instance, this year’s revised “shootout” qualifying had many of them hurling social-media grenades. Never mind that the final day of time trials had the crowd on edge — don’t you dare shove positive news in the faces of these doom-and-gloomers.
And if you really want to kill off any joy in your life, listen to these people preach that what the 500 really needs is a more liberal rule book. Bring back innovation, they cry.
They’ll declare that life was grand in the ’70s, when a Grant King or a Bill Finley could eyeball the hottest car, get busy with aluminum and pop rivets and put together a cheap copy that was reasonably competitive.
But they’ll ignore the fact that had this year’s 500 field consisted of such cars, five or six drivers may have gone to sleep that night in the Methodist Hospital fracture ward.
Racing seldom takes a backward step when it comes to safety. So, unless your favorite shade tree mechanic owns an autoclave for curing carbon fiber, he won’t be building an Indy car in his backyard garage, as Finley did.
As for engines, these dreamers talk as if loosening the rules might lure the ghost of Smokey Yunick, his oddball car carrying a stock-block Chevy with mysterious plumbing. Get real. The last two men to exploit loopholes in Indy’s engine rules were the owners with the deepest pockets in Gasoline Alley, John Menard and Roger Penske.
Menard’s turbo Buicks and Penske’s pushrod Mercedes proved that if any horsepower lurked in the gray areas, it would henceforth be found by paid engineers, not old-school racers.
Back to May 29, 2022, and the aftermath of the 106th Indianapolis 500. Balloon-brain prattled on awhile about changing times, but I wasn’t really listening. I had just watched an amazing race and now I was focused on Marcus Ericsson and Chip Ganassi, who were grinning like winners do.
Is the Indy 500 perfect? No. But some days, if you let go of the past and live in the moment, it can feel like it is.