IRL: 86th Annual Indy 500 in the books

It all came down in an eyeblink: A gutsy pass for the lead, a nearly empty fuel tank, a heavy crash, a glowing yellow light, the end of the race.

Helio Castroneves takes the victory at the Indy 500 under caution.
Photo by Greg Gage.
The sequence of those events, and how they impacted the outcome of the 86th Indianapolis 500, will be fodder for countless arguments in the ensuing decades. The wild finish that capped a nail-biting battle for victory sent Helio Castroneves to his second consecutive 500 win - albeit under the yellow - and Paul Tracy's team to the Indy Racing League, crying foul.

Tracy's Team Kool Green crew, invading the 500 from CART this year, immediately filed a protest. At issue was the timing of a yellow flag for a tangle between Buddy Lazier and rookie Laurent Redon with two laps remaining. At that moment, Tracy was pulling the trigger on a pass of Castroneves, who had been feathering his car to save fuel, having stayed on the track after Tomas Scheckter crashed while leading on lap 173, ending a stellar rookie run.

That put Castroneves out front, but Tracy began charging on the lap 180 restart and dispatched Alex Barron and Felipe Giaffone to grab second. At lap 195, he had virtually erased Castroneves' nearly four-second lead in just four laps. Three laps later, his nose was at Castroneves' gearbox as they charged down the backstraight. Then the crash came in turn two.

Paul Tracy.
Photo by Greg Gage.
When Tracy was ahead of Castroneves, the yellow light was already on. The IRL reverted back to the running order on the last completed lap per its rule, negating the pass.

"I was screaming, `he passed me under the yellow, he passed me under the yellow,'" Castroneves said.

Castroneves was placed at the front of the line and took the yellow and checkered together.

TKG CEO Barry Green immediately protested.

"As far as we're concerned, he passed (Castroneves) before the yellow came out," Green said.

After the race, Tracy insisted the lead should have been his.

"My interpretation of the rule is that when you are ahead of somebody when the yellow comes out, then that's your position," he said. "I know this track, a lot of times in CART, a lot of the tracks we go to do not have timing lines and they don't know where the car is all the time, so you have to rely on spotters and track marshals to figure out a lot of times where the cars are."

Regardless of viewpoint, the wild finish was an amazing stroke of luck for Penske Racing, which stretched its record skein of 500 wins to 12. Speculation was rampant that Castroneves' tank was nearly dry, and the Penske crew had already made a rare miscue, sending his teammate Gil de Ferran out from the pits with a loose left-rear wheel that fell off.

Castroneves throws himself into the crowd.
Photo by Greg Gage.

The Penske victory capped an unpredictable race that saw rookies Scheckter and Tony Kanaan both crash out of the lead. The 21-year-old Scheckter, driving for Eddie Cheever Jr., was on rails, led more laps than anyone (85), and seemed a lock to replace 1952 winner Troy Ruttman as the youngest 500 winner when he cannoned into Indy's new fourth-turn soft wall.

"I don't want to say anything broke because I'm not certain," he said. "It just went straight. The thing is, we could have won that."

Kanaan enjoyed an impressive Indy debut for Mo Nunn Racing, but came to grief when polesitter Bruno Junqueira grenaded an engine ahead of him on lap 90 and he pirouetted into the wall.

"I guess that's the price you pay for being in first, because you're the first one to get to the oil," he said.

The win by Castroneves made his the first back-to-back 500 winner since Al Unser Sr. in 1970 and 1971. He is also the first driver in Indy history to win in his first two attempts.

Penske later defended the IRL call on the yellow, and said TKG wasn't being jobbed for being CART, not IRL, regulars.

"I'm willing to stand up and let the (IRL) chief steward make the decision and then go along with it," he said.

He also said he and team manager Tim Cindric decided to gamble on fuel because of practice tests and fuel-pickup modifications to the Penske cars during the month. Data telemetry indicated Castroneves was averaging an amazingly good 2.5 mpg under race conditions and more than double that under the yellow.

The winner grinned when ask how much was left in the tanks post-race.

"Enough to finish," he said. "You have to keep the faith, and I just asked to give me a chance, and it happened."

Robby Gordon completed the first half of his Indy-Charlotte double in eighth. He never recovered from a pit accident that saw his Menards-Childress-Cingular team's main fuel tank explode and catch fire during a pit stop. Nobody was hurt, but Gordon was forced to use the pit and tank of Greg Ray, who crashed early and finished last.

Sarah Fisher struggled all day with handling problems that dropped her to 23rd in the standings.

"We chased the car all day and finally got it close at the end, which was too late," she said.

The unofficial top five, pending TKG's expected protest, was Castroneves, Tracy, Giaffone, Barron and Cheever. There were 22 lead changes among 10 drivers. The race average was 166.499 mph.