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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Just what IndyCar needed

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS -- Part of the excitement -- perhaps we should call it morbid curiosity -- of auto racing is the prospect of facing mortality.

It may not be a glowing look at the human psyche, but our interest as race fans is piqued by the fact that the competitors we watch could very well die doing what they are doing.

The trick is, though, that we race fans want to see death-defying acts from the drivers. As long as they are staring danger down and winning, we can feel comfortable from our safe distance.

Dan Wheldon's tragedy last October jerked a sport and its fans out of that comfort zone. The irony of the auto racing is that in staring down the mortality of the drivers, it sometimes has to stare down its own mortality as a sport.

Is it too dangerous? Are the cars too fast? Can we continue to put people in this kind of danger?

Of course, some of this was exaggeration, overreaction, getting caught up in the moment. IndyCar was ever in serious danger of shutting down in the wake of Wheldon's death.

However, the questions did come up.

We live in an era of kneejerk responses and increased sensitivity. If enough people are turned away by the violence and threat of death, then a sport is in danger. No fans equals no sport.

And so, what IndyCar got Sunday when Dario Franchitti crossed the Yard of Bricks was exactly the combination of things it needed, not just a great champion, but an amazing ride to get there.

The race was highly competitive, and the drivers made that part almost look easy.

The 35 lead changes among 10 drivers was a record, shattering the old mark of 29 changes.

The combination of setup and conditions made the lead driver a sitting duck down the stretch, no matter who it was. The drivers traded leads multiple times in a lap in some cases, rewarding the thrilled fans who braved the 91-degree temperatures.

And how about last lap drama? Sure, the race finished under caution, but that was because Takuma Sato -- a surprise at the front among heavyweights like Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan -- tried to pass at the wrong moment and ended up in the Turn 1 wall.

But the excitement of the competition never bordered on fright. Despite the crash of Sato, the dramatic collision of Will Power and Mike Conway on lap 80 and a number of other incidents, it was a safe race.

In the aftermath of Wheldon's death, this is certainly what IndyCar President Randy Bernard is most thankful for following the race.

Not only were there no serious injuries or deaths, everyone walked away from the accident without even a hint of injury. The Sato and Conway incidents looked serious, but it quickly became apparent the drivers were OK.

The absence of scary moments was a blessing.

And In the end, the series got a good storyline out of its winner. There was no shortage of possibilities -- the first Asian winner (Sato), a charismatic but star-crossed champion (Kanaan), a second victory for one of the best drivers in the series (Dixon).

The Franchitti storyline takes the cake, though. One of Wheldon's best friends suffers a spin in the pits, climbs back into contention, then bides his time for a while before mixing it up in the last quarter of the race.

Franchitti actually led on seven different occasions during the last 48 laps of the race.

Even more compelling moving forward, Franchitti joins some pretty rarified air with his third victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Only 10 men have won the race three times and the only one of those still active is Helio Castroneves.

That sets us up, God willing, for another fun race next year. Both Franchitti and Castroneves will have a shot at their record-tying fourth victory in 2013. The last race featuring multiple three-time winners was 1992, when the three four-timers A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears all donned their firesuits.

Will Dario or Helio join them next year? It isn't likely, but I'll certainly be watching to see.

After Sunday's exhibition, I suspect a lot of people will be.