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The Indy 500: A Race Where Legacies Are Forged, Forever

Written by Archie O’Reilly, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

Credit: Justin Casterline via Getty Images

The Indianapolis 500 is like nothing else - in motorsport, and frankly the entirety of sport. What other single sporting event entails the same levels of meticulous preparation? Or contains the same tumult of emotions?

It kicks off with what should be two six-hour days of open testing in April, albeit this year’s event saw one cancelled due to rain. Then, moving into the Month of May, a further four full afternoons of practice are scheduled - one not run this year due to weather - and three more full-field two-hour sessions.

Masses of effort are put into preparation. The teams spend days preparing their qualifying cars and their race cars, adapting to different conditions and making changes until perceived perfection is achieved. And adding to the full-time teams, you have one-off entries, who spend entire winters preparing their entries for this one race.

When all is said and done, it comes down to one 500-mile race. But by no means is it any ordinary race. It is aptly coined the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’.

If you win the Indy 500, your name will be etched in the motorsport’s history books. Forever. This is an event where legends are made. Legacies are built.

Credit: Justin Casterline via Getty Images

It really is a sporting event like no other. It is unrivalled in its attendance, with a single-day crowd of up to 300,000 people at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, equating to around one in every 1000 people in the USA attending the event, and the greatest gathering of fans for any one sporting event.

The notion that it is ‘just racing in circles’ couldn’t be more misleading, and the 2023 Month of May exemplified this in the most perfect of fashions.

The margins were so fine all month. The competition was so fierce. Unpredictability was rife. Throughout, even until the very last lap of the race, after the weeks of practice and two days of qualifying, it was impossible to call exactly who would reign supreme.

At one stage during Saturday’s qualifying session, Tony Kanaan delivered a four-lap average - across 10 miles - that tied Ed Carpenter’s speed to the 10-thousandth of a mile per hour, and levelled his four-lap time to two minutes 34.7591 seconds.

Come Sunday, the margin by which Alex Palou pipped Rinus VeeKay to pole position was a mere 0.006 miles per hour. And at the other end of the field, Jack Harvey edged Graham Rahal out by a slender margin of 0.007 miles per hour, equivalent to 0.0044 seconds, to bump his Rahal Letterman Lanigan teammate from the field.

It takes so much more skill than just driving in a circle. Precision is absolutely everything. Drivers are constantly looking for the most marginal of gains in the precise lines they take, and adjustments they make to their cars. Their teams’ efforts just as valuable, displaying that motorsport is much more of a team sport than many suggest.

Credit: James Gilbert via Getty Images

The speeds, quite frankly, are beyond unfathomable. It takes such guts and bravery for the drivers to put themselves on track and on the limit. And for fans, it is captivating like nothing else, including on television, where even hours upon hours of practice don’t become remotely tedious.

This year, the event saw 231 miles per hour too little to automatically make it into the field on Saturday. Some of the fastest ever practice times were set, as well as a record pole position time, and the fastest front row in history. To run at such speeds, rising up to and above 243 miles per hour on some parts of the track with the engines turned up, takes inexplicable amounts of concentration to keep the car away from the walls.

Throughout the month, it is an emotional rollercoaster. Qualifying Sunday, be it Last Chance Qualifying or the Fast Six, is mentally draining to simply view as a fan, with the most intense of emotions at either end of the spectrum.

Harvey knocking Rahal out of the race showed how crushing yet beautiful motorsport can be, all at once, an against-the-odds run with his engine boiling that saw the Brit edge ahead of his American teammate. For Harvey, it was elation, even if he felt pain for his teammate; simultaneously, Rahal was dejected, and broke into tears when interviewed.

As more evidence of the slightly preposterous storylines that can be generated at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Rahal would get a second chance after a further gutting tale of woe. Rahal would fill in for Stefan Wilson at Dreyer & Reinbold, following a collision with Katherine Legge on Monday practice, one that saw Wilson fracture a vertebrae, necessitating surgery.

Credit: Marshall Pruett via RACER

Throughout the field, all month, it was a haven of storylines. Such is the time and effort that goes in, everyone has a tale to tell. Be it Callum Ilott qualifying after having a chassis change the night before. Or first-time IndyCar entry Abel Motorsports making the field comfortably with RC Enerson. Or Legge becoming the fastest woman in Indy 500 history, beating all her full-time RLL teammates in qualifying.

And come race day, which is marked at daybreak by a cannon being fired at the Speedway, the volume of narratives only ramp up further - somewhat uncontrollably, such is the action associated with the Indy 500.

The pre-race rituals are fitting of the amount of effort that goes into making the race such a prestigious event in the sporting world. The ovations are spectacular from packed grandstands during driver intros. Then the goosebumps of the national anthem and rousing rendition of ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’.

Before you know it, it is time for green, as the cars fan three-wide and Leigh Diffey in the NBC booth utters the iconic line: “This is, and always will be, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing!”

And that spectacle never lets you down. The tales of extreme highs and ultimate lows - often both for some drivers - are only exacerbated during those 200 laps. It can start off attritional, as strategies unfold and fuel is saved, but beyond that, heart rate is never given any chance to drop.

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You can never take your eyes off the race for one moment, whether in attendance or your eyes fixed on a screen of some sort. You are constantly on edge: At any moment, someone could build themselves as a hero, or a crash could crush their dreams for the year. The race can quickly fall away for any driver through even the slightest of errors.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway can punish you in an instant, a fact learned in stark fashion this time around. It started from Sting Ray Robb becoming the victim of the first crash, after an initially clean start. It was evidence of the jeopardy associated with the Indy 500 - something that adds so much to the spectacle - especially late in stints.

From there, the action never stopped. Rinus VeeKay lighting up his rear tyres in the pitlane saw him half-spin into Alex Palou, putting the pair, who had been leading in the early stages, down to the rear of the pack. It showed the swings that can happen, involving anyone in the field at any given time.

You can expect the unexpected in the Indy 500, shown as Ilott led the field after the first restart, having stopped shortly before the caution came out.

The competition is relentlessly fierce and the action consequently unrivalled, especially on restarts, where the field often spread four-wide. And it can come back to bite that drivers are so on the limit, as it did for Romain Grosjean, whose race ended with a crash at turn two for the second year in succession.

Credit: Justin Casterline via Getty Images

The swings that can occur through the pack were shown starkly through Felix Rosenqvist, who was in contention to win, running ever so slightly up high and getting into the wall, breaking his steering and collecting Kyle Kirkwood, whose car flipped and hit the safer barrier. A minor misjudgement proved ruinous for two drivers.

There is such peril. Danger is always one wrong move away.

Pato O’Ward also experienced this in similar fashion, gunning to overtake Marcus Ericsson but spinning into the wall instead. There was a hint of desperation, but that is what this race does to drivers. They will put everything on the line to win the Indy 500.

Even further back in the field, Simon Pagenaud and Agustin Canapino were victims of crashes. Benjamin Pedersen, Ed Carpenter and Rahal were also involved in incidents. Three red flags were brought out through the race, resulting in a one-lap shootout at the climax, and evidencing the drama this race causes, right until the Yard of Bricks are crossed for the final time.

The race may be 500 miles long, but it almost always finds a way to come down to the death. Nobody is out of contention until the chequered flag.

Palou recovered from near the rear of the field to take fourth, after a colossus of a drive. Colton Herta recovered from almost a lap down after contact with teammate Grosjean in the pits for ninth, and VeeKay too came back to finish 10th.

Credit: James Gilbert via Getty Images

It takes such persistence to win this race. And eventual winner Josef Newgarden epitomises this better than anyone else. He tried and failed to win the race 11 times prior, with a number of close calls. But he never gave in.

Often, it won’t be the favourite who drinks the milk, such is the rollercoaster that the Indy 500 has proven to be. Newgarden’s race car always looked excellent, and you could never count him out, but he impressively made his way up from a more unfavourable 17th-place starting position in prompt fashion, to take his maiden win.

Whether leading or not, he navigated a number of restarts supremely, including on the final lap, when he passed Ericsson with only two corners remaining. It felt like nobody deserved it more than Newgarden. With two championships already in the bank, victory at the Indy 500 was the final conquest to complete Newgarden’s racing resume.

You could see how much it meant to him. Tears and embraces followed, be it with team members, fellow drivers and family. Foremost, Newgarden - very much a man of the people - headed straight through the fence on the front straight to celebrate among the fans.

This was the day Newgarden cemented his legacy as a great of IndyCar. Such is the prestige of the Indy 500, failing to win the race at any point may have altered the way the Nashville-born racer would have been perceived, come the end of his career.

Credit - James Gilbert/Getty Images

Another year of the Indy 500 has now concluded. And it is safe to say, the novelty of the event will never wear off. Words cannot do justice to the emotions it elicits, and simply how incredible the whole process leading up to the race, and then the race itself, is.

You’re elated. You’re devastated. You’re exhausted. Adrenaline never stops flowing.

The anticipation is massive, yet it always finds a way to live up to the build-up. It is motorsport’s Advent and Christmas Day. And when it is over, you get that come-down feeling after an intense two weeks of pure IndyCar focus.

But need not worry. The circus is off to Detroit in a few days’ time. Hopefully, off the back of the Indy 500, more people can be brought into IndyCar again. The racing product is unrivalled, and the personalities unmatched.

You can feel genuinely connected to the series - no time more so than during the Month of May. What a beautiful few weeks of motorsport.


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