Dan, Not Danica

INDIANAPOLIS, May 31, 2005 – Reports of a dying or dead Indianapolis 500 Mile Race are, to be blunt, premature. It’s baaack!!!

The crowd count was up, the competition level went skyward and media coverage of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing rose in 2005 to the highest level in, well, ten years.

With 27 lead changes between seven drivers the action never seemed to cease. Yes, there were way too many cautions (eight) and yes, two drivers were injured in on-track skirmishes and were consigned to hospital, but neither Bruno Junqueira nor Larry Foyt will be out of action long, if they have anything to say about it.

Credit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, owner Tony George and the Indy Racing League for safety measures such as the SAFER barrier that will help both Junqueira and Foyt return to action sooner than later.

That one of two Green brothers stood in Victory Lane as winning co-owner seemed appropriate at the close of 200 laps of organized mayhem. In 1995, it was Barry and Kim Green’s driver Jacques Villeneuve drinking milk. This year Kim Green, Kevin Savoree and Michael Andretti’s youngest driver Dan Wheldon swirled the sweet white liquid.

Wheldon prevailed over media darling Danica Patrick, who proved that great drivers can come from anywhere and can be of any sex, race, creed or color.

Despite her own rookie mistakes Patrick drove a good, hard race and, while she did manage to cause a wee bit of mayhem with a spin on an aborted lap 156 restart after stalling in the pits on her second pit stop it all worked out for her. Patrick earned JP Morgan Chase Rookie of the Year on Monday evening.

Wheldon, the third year Andretti Green Racing driver who bobbled and twirled his way out of a sure finish in the top five during his own rookie year, has calmed down and is now the meteor who lights the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series sky.

He has contributed an awful lot over the past two-plus seasons since taking over the team formerly led by Andretti prior to his driving retirement here at Indy in 2003. How can you take over for a legend? Wheldon has shown it can be done, and well.

After testing for Andretti Green Racing and Honda Performance Development prior to their 2003 IRL entry, Wheldon gave AGR a Rookie of the Year award in his first, protracted year of IRL racing and in 2004 he brought Honda the win at Twin Ring Motegi in 2004 that broke a streak of losing performances on the engine maker’s home track.

Wheldon finished second to teammate Tony Kanaan in the 2004 points chase, giving the Brazilian a run to the season finale.

On Sunday Wheldon gave Michael Andretti something the second-generation driver never achieved on the Brickyard track in his own 14 tries, an Indianapolis 500 victory. The joy Andretti and co-owners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree felt was palpable. And visible. On Sunday Dan Wheldon finally broke the Andretti Indy “curse”.

This is Green’s second Indy win – if you don’t count Paul Tracy in 2002 – and the second for longtime team sponsor Rick Klein, who were both onboard for Jacques Villeneuve’s 1995 triumph from nearly two laps down.

People have said that was the last true Indy 500, but this year’s competition fully dispelled that fallacy. At this point in time the overnight TV numbers are higher than NASCAR’s and, while it usually takes a couple of days to get the full listing, the overnight tally looked way good.

The 2005 Indy 500 marks the first time the Indy Racing League’s IndyCar Series has beaten NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 in viewer numbers since the League’s 1996 inception. Granted, Danica Fever had a lot to do with that, but an exciting, action-filled contest with far fewer than the 22 cautions at Lowe’s Motor Speedway sure helped.

Monday’s CBS Evening News had a piece on Indy; the race had coverage from somewhat unusual media outlets like People magazine, which usually limits itself to covering the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity race. Even publicity-shy actor Russell Crowe stopped in to witness the world’s largest single day sporting event en route to a PR junket in New York City.

Despite ending the race against the wall, Champ Car World Series titleholder Sebastien Bourdais wants to come back. No doubt most in that other open wheel series would prefer to join the Frenchman and compete on these hallowed grounds where racing reputations are made.

The indefatigable four-time winner A.J. Foyt Jr once remarked that the Indianapolis 500 made him who he is, rather than his career making Indy successful. Respecting this racetrack, its history and its ability to snare an unaware driver makes the Indy 500 race so special. Lacking respect for the four walls can give a driver some pretty hard knocks.

Now the month of May – or as mechanics call it, the year of May – is complete. Dan Wheldon is on his magical mystery tour to celebrate the biggest victory of his life. Flush from “crying in my helmet” for the first time in a very, very successful career to this point, the 26-year-old Briton has to keep it all in perspective.

After all there is still a championship to be won – with 12 races remaining – and that won’t happen without consistency, which Wheldon and his AGR team have polished to perfection.

Credit for the success has to go to chemistry – and pie throwing. Wheldon was rewarded for his Indy win by teammates Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta with a cream pie in the face after accepting more than $1.5 million for his Memorial Day Classic drive.

The team that plays together stays together and wins together. That’s what Andretti Green Racing has done over the past two-plus seasons and will continue to do, even when they become a five-car squad with young Marco Andretti taking over as the baby of the team.

While the media attention continues to focus on the petite woman who changed the face of open wheel racing this weekend with her gritty and determined drive to fourth place, let’s not forget that it was Dan, not Danica who won the biggest race in the world.

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