The inaugural U.S. 500, with the self-proclaimed best drivers and best equipment in IndyCar racing, suffered a 12-car wreck before it got started Sunday.
After everything was sorted out during an hour-long delay, pole-sitter Jimmy Vasser - a principal in the pre-start drama - drove his backup car to an overwhelming victory, his fourth success in six PPG IndyCar World Series races this season.
But because this race resulted from a feud within IndyCar racing, what was going to make this event special was not who won, but how it went.
U.S. 500 officials had tried to devalue the venerable, but suddenly rookie-laden Indianapolis 500, so the pre-start wreck was especially significant.
The first relevant reaction, after it was apparent all the drivers were unhurt, came from a crew member in the ultimately victorious Chip Ganassi team as he watched a replay: “Is Indy gonna play this up or not?”
Sure enough, that volley from Indianapolis came swiftly and from an expected source - four-time Indy 500 champion A.J. Foyt, now an IndyCar owner.
“For the world’s greatest professional drivers, they sure have made a lot of mistakes,” he said. “I’m sick and tired of them running their mouths about how great they are. Almost every race they’ve had this year, there’s been an accident on the first lap - and it wasn’t the rookies. It didn’t surprise me at all.”
The before-the-start chaos, not unique to open-wheel competition, prompted Vasser to credit his entire team for his victory.
“The team really won this,” said Vasser, the driver of Ganassi’s primary car. “When I got back to the pit (after the car in which he qualified was destroyed) the backup was waiting.”
The race had nearly everything the crowd of 110,879 could have hoped for. Included was that pileup without anyone being seriously injured and a spectacular maneuver by Canadian rookie Greg Moore, who steered his car back into the race from the grassy infield after a four-revolution spin.
Also, the usual assortment of sweet and sour racing luck played a major part in Vasser’s victory. Brazilians Mauricio Gugelmin and Roberto Moreno were second and third, respectively.
Vasser, who earned more than $1.1 million, needed a yellow flag to catch up to the leaders - and got it when Bryan Herta coasted to a stop in turn two on the 208th of 250 laps.
Nine laps from the finish, Vasser sped past leader Andre Ribeiro just as Ribeiro’s car ran out of fuel.
The wreck happened as the 27-car field was entering the final turn before the green-flag start and began in row one. The left-front tire of the car in the middle, driven by Adrian Fernandez, touched the right rear tire of Vasser’s Reynard Honda.
Vasser’s car then whipped about 90 degrees to the right and smashed into Herta’s Mercades. Each driver behind them either maneuvered for position - or for his life.
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