INDIANAPOLIS — The rain came quickly in the gathering darkness, so quickly the winner got soaked as he took a victory lap Everyone knew it was coming, because the 91st Indianapolis 500 was always as much a race against the weather as it was for the checkered flag.
On this gray day, knowing how to read a Doppler was more important than knowing how to adjust a wing. Guessing right about when the inevitable rain was going to come was just as crucial as knowing when to change tires.
The country’s most famous race is usually won by a daring driver piloting a well-oiled machine. Dario Franchitti won this one by praying for rain and playing his cards like a riverboat gambler.
Marco Andretti’s spectacular upside-down wreck gave Franchitti the last yellow flag he would need Sunday — the heavens did the rest. They were still towing the battered wreckage of Andretti’s car off the track when the second big storm of the day sent fans scurrying for shelter and sent Franchitti’s team into jubilation.
“That’s the Indianapolis 500,” third-place finisher Helio Castroneves said. “You bet it all.”
Officially, Franchitti goes into the record books as the winner of the Indianapolis 500. He has to, because there’s not much cachet to winning the Indianapolis 415, which is all they managed to get in on this dreary day.
Actually, a case could be made that it was the Indianapolis 282 1/2 and the Indianapolis 132 1/2. This was two races separated by three hours, and the only thing they had in common was that rain was almost guaranteed to end both early.
Those who stuck around to watch both got a wet, but patience had its reward. They saw the youngest Andretti go airborne at 220 mph and walk away unhurt, and they saw some pedal to the metal racing as the leaders battled as though each lap would be the last.
“It was going to come down to a dog fight,” Franchitti said. “That dog fight was going to be hard, so I was hoping for the rain.”
So what if the ending was as anticlimactic as it can get, with the field puttering around the brickyard under a yellow flag and the rain pouring down? It almost ended on an even more anticlimactic note, when the clouds opened up on another yellow flag and the cars were parked under tarps with Tony Kanaan leading after 113 laps.
Kanaan could have guzzled the celebratory bottle of milk right then and there, and there wouldn’t have been a huge outcry. In earlier times, he probably would have been declared the winner and everyone would have went home happy they completed the 101 laps needed to make the race official.
But technology today means more than just being able to burn corn for fuel. It means having trucks ready with blowers to dry off the track. It also allows Doppler radar to show enough of an opening between storms to allow track officials to decide to see how many more laps they might finish before darkness or rainended the race.
The blowers whined for almost two hours, while drivers waited impatiently to see if the track would dry and the clouds would stay away. All but Kanaan were eager to get back out, and no one could blame him because only he had something to lose.
Kanaan said he wasn’t mad about having to race some more,but he’ll have to live with the knowledge his Indy 500 might have been stolen by improvements in weather forecasting.
“My big disappointment will be if we knew we weren’t going to finish 200 laps, why would we continue?” Kanaan said.
Franchitti, a Scot who was both the fastest and most overlooked member of a five-driver Andretti Green Racing team, had no such disappointments. He ran near the front of the field all day before finally taking the lead when the other leaders pitted for fuel 10 laps before the race ended.
Franchitti’s team knew he didn’t have enough ethanol to race much longer,but they also knew rain wasimminent, so close they had pinpointed the location.
They radioed their driver to hang tight— help was on its way.
“The one thing that sticks in my mind is (crew chief) John Anderson saying on the radio that the rain was eight blocks away,” Franchitti said.
Around this part of the country, rain can move almost as fast as the vehicles speeding around the speedway. The only question was if it would come before the race came out of the caution caused by Andretti’s wreck.
It was no contest.
The sky darkened, and the rainfell. It didn’t matter that it ended almost as quickly as it began, because the race was over by the time the first raindrops hit.
On a day when three Andrettis couldn’t win, it was fitting that an Andretti team member did. They had the strongest cars and the best drivers, from Michael and Marco Andretti to Danica Patrick, Franchitti and Kanaan.
In the end, though, they had something just as important.
They had the best weatherman.