INDIANAPOLIS, May 25, 2003 - Before today, everyone said this field for the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race was the most competitive ever. Upwards of 15 drivers could have won. But the race, as many times before, went to those whose tenet is to prepare for every contingency.
De Ferran, injured at Phoenix in March, changed to a #6 Panoz G Force/Toyota before MBNA Pole Day, started 10th in the race, led only 31 of 200 laps and won the Greatest Spectacle in Racing over teammate Helio Castroneves, by the third closest margin in this storied race's history: .2990 seconds. The Professor - whose talent is as studied as any teacher's - used the lapped car of A.J. Foyt IV to make a move on his teammate on the backstretch in the midst of lap 169 and never looked back.
"When I crossed the line there was a lot going on in my head," Gil said. "You never know how you're going to feel but right now, I have an unbelievable feeling of pride in belonging to this organization. I'm overcome with emotion because I always dreamed of winning this race. I couldn't allow myself to get carried away. I had to stay focused."
This was also the first victory for Toyota in the firm's inaugural visit to the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Toyota-powered cars led all but 31 laps for the day. Toyota earned six of the top seven positions on a day when 16 of 33 starters were still running at the close.
Honda teams led the balance of those 200 laps and carried Tony Kanaan to third place in his #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda, just 1.2475 seconds behind de Ferran. The Phoenix winner led only two laps today yet clung tenaciously to the top of the order intending to make his move as the race came to a close.
"We had the car but, unfortunately, it looked like nobody could pass anybody. We were all fast," Kanaan allowed, "but no, I don't think I could pass them. A month ago I had no idea if I'd be able to make this race, and the whole 7-Eleven team did a great job. They worked hard. The whole team worked as a family to put this thing together. We did have the car to do it, but I wasn't able to pass Gil and Helio. We'll take third."
No doubt Tomas Scheckter hoped to lead the final laps after recording the most laps led (63) in this tight contest that saw eight drivers pace the field. He brought the #10 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota home fourth. With his famous father Jody on hand to watch, Scheckter "led a bunch of laps and gave ourselves a chance to win today. When I was in the lead, we had a great car but it was difficult to pass if you were behind someone."
Rookie Tora Takagi earned fifth place in the #12 Pioneer Panoz G Force/Toyota from his seventh place starting slot. The former Formula Nippon champ was "very happy with this result in my first Indy 500 race. My car was always fast this month and while I wish I could have finished two places higher, I am happy with being the highest-finishing rookie in the race."
It was a smart move as the duo work well together and combined for a sixth place finish from their 25th starting spot. Barron was one of those in contention throughout the race. "Everyone in the Meijer family is pretty happy with our result, especially when you consider we had a totally flat left front tire for the last several laps. I was confident all along we could move to the front and we did."
Another rookie, Tony Renna earned seventh place in his first Indy 500 race, driving the third car in the Kelley Racing stable, the #32 Cure Autism Now/HomeMed Dallara/Toyota. Renna thought his finish was "very satisfying. Right there at the end we lost fifth gear, so it made it a little bit difficult to compete in traffic" on the final restart. "I'm really happy with the way things turned out. We just ran a consistent race and stayed out of trouble."
Greg Ray's eighth place finish was unlike any of his previous Indianapolis 500 Mile Race results. Now co-owning the #13 TrimSpa Panoz G Force/Honda he drives, Ray was content to drive a patient race today, not pushing for more than his car could give. Traffic was his downfall as, "We could do it all day on our own. We weren't running a heavy downforce setup and we didn't have a light downforce setup. We were right in between. In traffic it was just hard."
Al Unser Jr. spent most of the day in the top 12 and took ninth place at the close, hauling the #31 Corteco Dallara/Toyota up from 17th on the grid. While he admitted he's had better days at the Brickyard, this two-time Indy 500 champ credited his crew for the top-ten result. "They got me in and out of the pits really quickly, and we were able to work our way up through the field. What else can I say? We hung in there today."
Rookie Roger Yasukawa finished tenth in the #55 Panasonic ARTA Dallara/Honda for Super Aguri Fernandez Racing. "I'm happy to finish in the top 10 here. Unless you finish the race," Yasukawa said, "you can never say you've done the '500'. This is an intense race and you have to be focused all the time because it is very long. I want to be back here next year and improve myself even more."
As always, caution periods and attrition played a huge role in the running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race and it began near the start. Felipe Giaffone dropped out after five laps with electrical problems in the #21 Hollywood Panoz G Force. Billy Boat had an engine let go out of turn 2 on lap seven, causing the first caution as the safety crew cleaned the resulting droppings from his #98 Pedigo Chevrolet Dallara/Chevy.
Sarah Fisher tested the turn 3 wall on lap 15 and retired the #23 AOL/GMAC/Raybestos Dallara/Chevrolet, which suffered engine failure. Robbie Buhl brought out the third caution when he spun at pit exit on lap 53; Buhl would eventually retire the #24 Purex/Aventis Dallara/Chevrolet with engine failure on lap 148. Richie Hearn ended a storybook week when he clouted the turn 2 wall in his #99 Contour Hardening Panoz G Force/Toyota on lap 61. He claimed he'd been pushed into the gray area.
Jimmy Vasser's run for Team Rahal in the #19 Argent Mortgage Dallara/Honda went up in gearbox smoke on lap 102, causing caution #5. Airton Dare, who had run in the top three with a late first stop for fuel after starting the #41 Conseco Panoz G Force/Toyota, hit the turn 2 wall for caution #6 on lap 125 and said his final set of Firestone Firehawk tires wasn't giving him the grip he needed.
Robby Gordon made an early exit for Lowe's Motor Speedway today, when gearbox failure sidelined his #27 Alpine/Archipelago/Motorola Dallara/Honda. "We got behind early, tried some different strategy and that hurt us. I drove conservatively, and that hurt us, too," the front- row starter said. He exited the contest on lap 169. The next caution - of nine total - came for Scott Sharp, who pranged the turn 4 wall and then spun the #8 Delphi Dallara/Toyota in turn 1 on lap 181.
In an aerobatic display similar to that of Mario Andretti earlier this month, but not nearly as dramatic, Dan Wheldon walked away after rolling the #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda in turn 4 on lap 187. The rookie walked away from the horrific looking accident after lurking in the top 10 most of the day and looking set for a good finish. "I had a bit too much understeer behind Takagi and [Sam] Hornish got a run on me. I defended, I was low and I turned in a little too hard and it got loose on me. I think the accident looks more spectacular than it really is."
Scott Dixon, warming up his tires for the restart after Wheldon's incident had his own, warming his Firestones into the front straight pit wall and then spinning to mid track in the #9 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota. Dixon had run in the top 10 all day, despite a fuel pickup problem. "If we didn't have that problem, I think that we could have walked away with it."
Sam Hornish Jr. was the final retirement after completing lap 195 in the #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet. The two-time Indy Racing League champion had been running in sixth place after the final restart on lap 194 and looking good, but Sam's Chevy engine gave up one lap later, relegating him to 15th place. "Something in the drivetrain let go, but it feels good, though. I know we had a good race car all month and I just wish we could have finished those last laps. It was a heck of a battle all day long."
This was Michael Andretti's final try to win the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. He led 28 laps and looked to have the race well in hand before downshifting while lapping another car, only to have the throttle linkage on his #7 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda pack up. "I actually fell back behind the two Penske cars, saving fuel," Andretti noted. "I was passing a car, downshifted, went back on the throttle and, all of a sudden, I just didn't have any power. It ended up being a freak deal, another freak deal for me. The throttle linkage broke inside the engine, one of the butterflies broke and that was it."
At that point, Andretti had to change his focus to that of team owner for Andretti Green Racing. At the time, on lap 94, Wheldon and Kanaan were running in the top 10. Andretti's legacy at the Speedway remains the same as he retires from active competition. He has led more laps than any driver not to win the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Andretti came in with 389 laps led; he departed this afternoon with 426 laps led and still, no victory.
"What can I say? It's meant to happen. It's meant to happen. For whatever reason, it wasn't meant to happen. Having said that," Michael continued, "I have no regrets about anything. I am proud of what I have been able to do. I know I could have won this race many times. I just wasn't supposed to." Getting out of the car for the final time, Andretti admitted, "It was a numb feeling. I think I was feeling like a bunch of things, then I went numb. I don't think it will really sink in until probably tomorrow. Wow, that was my last race!
"We had a car that could have won, so it was disappointing, but yet I was happy because that's the way I wanted to retire. I wanted to retire knowing that I can win that last race and I had myself in the position that I could win that last race. From that standpoint, I am happy."
Foyt "definitely had a long day. We had radio problems the whole day and ended up having to run these old-style ear things and tape them in." Anthony learned a lot by completing the event and "I'm happy we finished."
This was a typical Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Filled with pathos, humor and great emotion throughout the 33-car field, it ended after 200 laps with a change in the point chase as the IndyCar Series heads for Texas Motor Speedway in less than two weeks.
Kenny Brack, who lost first gear on his initial pit stop in the #15 Miller Lite/Pioneer Dallara/Honda and finished 16th today owns fifth place (103) and Unser Jr. lies sixth with 101 points. It's a tight chase, and like those that came before, likely won't be decided until the final date at Texas Motor Speedway on October 12th.