They looked like Indy cars.... They sounded like Indy cars.....Everything about the 80th running of the Indy 500 seemed like good old Indy.
Yet, something was different.
It was like an episode of Dragnet where, "the names have been changed in order to protect the innocent." Except in this case, maybe it was supposed to be, "..protect the ignorant."
Still, Tony George did what he set out to do. The 1996 Indy 500 was run, with its replacement players, without a hitch. Of course in the USAC world "without a hitch" takes on a whole new meaning.
But in spite what you may think about the IRL and Tony George, this year's Indy 500 really wasn't that awful. In fact, it had some rather exciting moments.
The beginning festivities had an odd start. After the initial "..start your engines" command, they were ordered to turn them off while USAC finished inspecting the track.
The race itself got off to a typical IRL start, with the field spread out by the time they got to the start/finish line. This was probably a good thing though considering the near record number of rookies. It turned out to be a very clean start and Tony Stewart did what he said he would do - leading the field into turn 1.
Arie Luyendyk, starting from mid-pack, did a good job moving up through the field. "Veteran" Eliseo Salazar pulled a bonehead move and slammed into Arie while exiting the pits. I have no idea what Salazar was trying to do, but the result of his action took Arie out of the race.
After leading the majority of the early part of the race, Stewart finally fell victim to a "faulty" USAC pop-off valve. Stewart voiced his displeasure at USAC, which was quite surprising considering he has been the IRL "poster boy" for most of the month of May.
Along with Stewart, two of the remaining three Menard-cars ended up retiring before the 500 miles. Only Ongais, driving Brayton's car, was able to take a Menard the distance, finishing 3 laps off the pace.
The first major crash of the day came on lap 162 when Scott Harrington and Lyn St. James got together on the outside wall in the second turn. St. James suffered a broken left wrist while Harrington suffered a bruised right arm.
The late stages of the race turned into a battle between Davy Jones and Buddy Lazier. After a restart on lap 170, Jones attempted to pass our buddy Salazar, who was a lap down.
For an unknown reason, Salazar pinched Jones against the pit-side wall, forcing Jones into "scraping" his left-side tires into the wall.
This ended up throwing off the balance of Jones' car. Once again USAC ignored Salazar's actions and did not penalize him.
Jones still might of been able to make a charge at Lazier, but he was running short on fuel and had to slow up to conserve. Lazier was able to hold on to take the win by a mere 0.695 seconds ahead of Jones.
Rookie, Richie Hearn, crossed the "yard of bricks" 6.980 seconds later, taking third.
As Lazier took the checkered flag, Roberto Guerrero spun out and took himself, Alessandro Zampedri and Salazar out of the race.
Zampedri went for an extremely wild ride when his car hit the side of Guerrero's. This launched Zampedri up and over Guerrero's car and dangerously close to the top on the catch-fence.
The nose of Alessandro's car caught the fence and then all-hell broke loose!
Zampedri's car then flew over the top of Salazar, who instinctively ducked in an attempt to avoid having the bottom of the car whack him in the head.
Fortunately for Salazar, Alessandro's car was launched high enough that the actual contact between the two cars was minimal. After coming back down on the racing surface Zampedri flipped upside-down on the track and then finally came to rest, right-side-up, at the pit entrance.
Guerrero, in the meantime, had come back down to the inside wall at the pit entrance and spun a few "360's" well into the pit area.
Zampedri suffered broken bones in both legs. Salazar ended up with a bruised right knee while Guerrero escaped injury.
The win was the third closest finish in Indy 500 history. The average speed was 147.956 (compared to 153.616 last year) - not very close to the 1990 record of 185.981.
Compared to the two previous IRL races this one was definitely more exciting.
Was it as good as previous Indy 500 races?
Not quite, but it wasn't as awful as many people thought it could have been.
If the IRL continues and the new cars are at Indy next year, it will most definitely be different. But that's a year away, and as we know, many things can happen between now and then.