Iracingone Replay:/I Indy 500
December 28, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
People were talking about the Indianapolis 500 again, as they always have, but this year was a little different.
For the first time since the Indy Racing League-CART FedEx Championship Series split of 1995, Indy attracted what most people consider to be the best collection of teams open-wheel racing has to offer.
Roger Penske’s CART operation was there with Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran. Barry Green hooked up with the IRL’s Panther Racing team to field a car for Michael Andretti. Arie Luyendyk returned from a one-year layoff to drive for Treadway Racing. NASCAR Winston Cup star Tony Stewart jumped into a Chip Ganassi-owned car, as did former CART champ Jimmy Vasser. Scott Goodyear took another shot at an elusive win with Eddie Cheever Jr.’s team.
IRL regular Hemelgarn Racing was there, of course, with former Indy and IRL champion Buddy Lazier. Eventual IRL title winner Sam Hornish Jr. competed with Panther. Two-time Indy 500 champ Al Unser Jr. and Galles Racing participated, along with former CART driver Robby Gordon.
Yes, the big names were back. So was the anticipation and excitement that always surrounds Indy, but this year it was at a fever pitch.
When the action got under way, there was no letdown. Unless you consider pole winner Scott Sharp spinning out on the first lap a letdown. Other than that, there was no letdown, except for that Sarah Fisher-Scott Goodyear accident on Lap 7. That was it, though, until Lap 16 when the Juniors, Sam and Al, spun in Turn 4, putting Al out of the race and Sam out of contention. Oh yeah, Greg Ray had his usual Indy letdown while leading on Lap 103, when he brushed the wall trying to hold off a charging Andretti. Then, there’s Robbie Buhl spinning while trying to catch Castroneves on Lap 165. That was it for the letdowns, though.
In fact, the only letdown was that the collection of aforementioned IRL regulars weren’t around at the end to challenge the CART regulars for the Indy win. Castroneves eventually cruised to the victory with little excitement during the final 30 laps or so. He won his first Indianapolis 500 in his first start by 1.7373 seconds over teammate de Ferran.
CART drivers and team occupied the next four positions, too, with Andretti finishing third, Vasser fourth, Bruno Junqueira fifth and Stewart sixth in Ganassi’s car.
Eliseo Salazar was the highest finishing IRL regular in seventh. He was a lap down. Airton Dare, Billy Boat and rookie Felipe Giaffone rounded out the Top 10.
Although the finish was less than thrilling, the first two two-thirds of the race lived up to its exciting buildup.
Before Lap 140 rolled around, seven drivers had led the race. Robby Gordon, driving for A.J. Foyt and Richard Childress, led the first 22 laps before Ray chased him down. Ray was out front until Lap 45, then Stewart, Luyendyk and Andretti divided up the next seven laps.
Mark Dismore, Sharp’s teammate at Kelley Racing, took over the lead on Lap 53 and appeared to be the man to beat. He build up a lead of almost 10 seconds and was turning in some of the fastest laps of the race. He lost the lead during pit stops but came back to the front on Lap 85 after turning over the lead to Ray and Andretti. Dismore, a native of nearby Greenfield, Ind., saw his dream of winning the Indy 500 end when he slowed on Lap 93.
“I guess today in a lot of ways, we were lucky, but I don't feel very lucky,” he said.
Ray retook the lead but lost it when Andretti pressured him into a mistake just past the halfway point. Ray lost the lead in a similar fashion in 2000 when he crashed on Lap 66.
"Driving race cars, period, is fun, but winning is a lot more fun,” Ray said. “I've got mixed emotions.”
Andretti led immediately after Ray’s departure, but de Ferran took the lead for the first time on Lap 110. Stewart put himself at the point again on Lap 137, but he lost it to Castroneves when he pitted on Lap 148. Castroneves was never challenged again.
“This is a fantastic team effort,” Castroneves said. “It’s unbelievable. I’m just so happy to win it.”
The race featured 13 lead changes among eight drivers and eight caution flags consuming 56 laps, including two separate rain delays.