Last-Lap Drama Gives Indy To Franchitti

John Gilbert

Once again, the Indianapolis 500 exceeded expectations. For the second year in a row, and under nearly identical circumstances, a finish that might have been the most astounding in the race’s history wound up being crushed by a cruel twist, and this time Dario Franchitti was there to capture victory -- his third at Indy.

Last year, a young driver named JR Hildebrand had the race completely in hand on the last lap, and was about to finish off a stunning drive with what would have been a huge surprise, but as he came out of Turn 4 onto the main straightaway, with the checkered flag about to be unfurled, he got a little careless, and without any other racer even near him, he skidded up and smacked the outside wall. As Hildebrand’s disabled racer skidded and bounced along, Dan Wheldon came around Turn 4, passed the wrecked car, and won the race. Hildebrand’s momentum got to the finish line, and he was second. Tragically, Wheldon was killed in the final race of the year, at Las Vegas, last fall, leaving an entire field of grieving drivers. The popular Wheldon had tested the new Dallara car, which has bulging, rounded sides to prevent instant disaster when two cars touch side-to-side, and to protect drivers in the event of any wall-banging. Ironically, he was killed when his racer flipped up into an outer catch-fence.

This year, Franchitti and his Ganassi Racing partner, Scott Dixon, were already pulling off a major surprise -- at least to everyone who hadn’t read this column in last week’s Reader -- by taking a pair of Honda-powered cars that weren’t supposed to be fast enough up from the 15th and 16th qualifying spots to dominate the last half of the race. Early in the race, Franchitti had to come back from being bunted from behind into his pit, which caused him to drop to dead last during an early pit stop.  At the end, they had to contend with their good friend, Tony Kanaan, and a comparatively unknown 35-year-old Japanese driver named Takuma Sato.

Last week, I wrote about how new rules, possibly even concocted behind the scenes to favor a U.S. auto-builder, had led Chevrolet-powered cars to seem clearly superior. In preparing the new 2.2-liter V6 engine rule, Chevy powered cars won the first three races, and Chevys qualified for nine of the top 10 places on the grid, including the top six --  a sweep of the first two rows by three drivers each from the famed teams of Roger Penske and Michael Andretti. Powerful as they were, I suggested that special qualifying set-ups might not be applicable in the race, and to keep an eye on Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, a pair of Chip Ganassi teammates starting in Honda powered cars back in the fifth and sixth rows.

Sure enough, shortly after the 200 laps around the 2.5-mile oval began, it became apparent that the Honda power was capable of not only running with the Chevrolets, but ahead of them. After it was over, a Chevrolet driver was interviewed on television, and when asked why his Chevrolet-powered Dallara couldn’t catch the Hondas, he said, “They had more downforce than we did, but they were still faster on the straightaway.” Race crews set up their cars for lower downforce to attain higher speed on the straights, but then have less potential through the turns, or they can set up for more downforce and better handling through the slightly-banked corners but at the sacrifice of straightway speed. Somehow, Ganassi’s crew got their Dallara-Hondas to do both, and they swept to the lead.

At one point, the top six cars were all Hondas, including all four Ganassi cars, plus Sato, who stayed right amid them. In fact, if it weren’t for a couple of late crashes, which caused single-file caution slowdowns behind the pace car, Dixon and Franchitti,  would have pulled away to win quite handily, while swapping the lead with each other every couple of laps. But the cautions slowed the pace and bunched up the field, allowing Kanaan to move up into contention. With less than 13 laps left, the caution was lifted, and Kanaan jumped the leaders to go from seventh to first in a moment of high drama. Both Dixon and Franchitti got back around him, almost immediately, and so did Sato, setting up the captivating finish.

Dixon was in the lead, Franchitti right behind him, and Sato was on Franchitti’s tailpipes. Because aerodynamics are so important, a trailing car has a huge advantage and can run up in the suction of the leader’s slipstream and get a slingshot effect to pass. Nearing the end, Franchitti did that to dart around Dixon for the record 35th lead change of the race -- and Sato followed him, with enough draft to take second.

As they sailed down the main straight, the white flag signaled the start of the final lap and Sato used his momentum to make his bid. He got his nose up on the inside, got alongside Franchitti’s rear wheel, then almost exactly alongside him as they went into Turn 1. Franchitti knew exactly where Sato’s car was, and he said later he moved up slightly to give him room. But Sato still had his left tires down under the white line, where traction is lessened.

There is no certainty that if Sato had gotten past Franchitti he would have been able to hold off a counter-move by Franchitti, who would have calmly caught the draft off Sato’s car and might have executed exactly the same pass going down the backstretch. But we’ll never know. They were so close going into Turn 1, they might have lightly touched wheels, although neither seemed certain afterward. What was certain is that the rear end of Sato’s car lost traction, and he started to spin out, tail-first,shooting up the banking and into the outer wall. Franchitti’s momentum carried him clear, and Dixon stayed low as Sato spun helplessly to end his spectacular bid with a thud.

The caution lights came on, and for the second year in a row, a crash on the final lap took out the potential race leader, and the 500-mile race ended under a caution no-passing situation. Franchitti cruised down the middle, with Dixon, who was second, up on his left, and Kanaan, who was third, up on the right. All three were among Wheldon’s closest friends, and they finished in formation to end their day of tribute to their fallen friend.

But keep the name Takuma Sato in mind. No Japanese driver has ever won the Indianapolis 500, and not many have been good enough to try. Sato is not only good enough, he was an eyelash away from pushing his Dallara-Honda into victory circle on Sunday.

FORMULA 1 PARADE

At our house, we were able to get properly in the mood for the Indy 500 by getting up between 6:30 and 7 a.m. to watch the Monaco Grand Prix, live, on a Speedvision satellite broadcast. The tight streets of Monaco make a wonderfully scenic backdrop, but the narrow walls of Armco that flank both sides of the streets to keep the amazingly fast Grand Prix cars out of the casinos leave no room for passing. The result is that the Monaco Grand Prix invariably has the pole-sitter winning the race, unless he gets overtaken on pit stop exchanges.

This year’s Grand Prix circuit is remarkable, because five different drivers won the first five races. Michael Schumacher, seven-time World Champion, is not one of the winners, but he has made news by running into a couple of fellow-racers. He won the pole with the fastest qualifying time at Monaco, but was punished for his indiscretion at the previous GP of Spain, and had to start back in sixth.

Sebastian Vettel, defending World Champion and primary driver of the Red Bull tandem of Renault-powered cars, wasn’t near the front, either, but Mark Webber, his teammate, inherited the pole. In the previous Spanish Grand Prix, Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado won, holding off Fernando Alonso in a close-order finish ahead of Lotus teammates Kimi Raikanen and Romain Grosjean. That became significant, because when the cars did their drag-race start, and Webber claimed the all-important lead, Grosjean and Maldonado were side by side charging hard. Alonso, just behind them, made his bid to stay close to the lead by thrusting the nose of his Ferrari in between Grosjean on the left and Moldonado, on the right.

There was no room for three cars to get through the first turn together, but the most incredible scene of the whole race came right then. Michael Schumacher, seven-time World Champion, also charged up wider on the left, trying to pass someone from sixth. Apparently when you have a reputation as glowing as Schumacher from his glory days of the last decade, and you know there is no room for three-abreast racing, you might as well make it four-abreast. Grosjean and Alonso’s cars touched wheels, but Grosjean merely pulled a bit to the left. He had no way of knowing, in the chaos, that the right front wheel of Schumacher’s car was next to his car’s left rear. The rule of racing is that if you have gotten fully even with the car ahead, and the turn is going your way, you have the line; if you’re not fully next to him, you must yield. Schumacher wasn’t up next to Grosjean, the course was turning the other way, and he couldn’t possibly have fit.

Schumacher hit Grosjean, hard enough to send Grosjean’s Lotus hurtling into a spin that smacked Maldonado’s Williams, eliminating both the first and fourth place finishers from the previous race, with neither finishing a single lap. Schumacher kept going, and race stewards dismissed the crash as a “racing incident.” No reprimand, for what would have been considered a gross rookie mistake, had it been done by a rookie. Even The New York Times seemed to gauge Grosjean’s comparative unknown status, reporting that “the rear wheel of the Lotus struck the German’s Mercedes,” even though it was Schumacher, the German, who did the striking. Schumacher even had the audacity to say he was disappointed, because he thought he could finish on the podium, after he was sidelined with a mechanical issue.

The race strategy took center stage, because they were driving under constantly threatening skies, and reports of rain were imminent. Race teams can choose from hard tires, soft, or supersoft, plus rain tires and intermediates, that compromise for both on and off rain. Webber kept his lead, and when the cars all streamed into the pits, his Red Bull team maintained its reputation as the best -- swapping tires and all in 3.4 seconds. Vettel, however, stayed on the track and ran into the lead, getting remarkable wear out of his initial set of tires. When he finally did pit, however, Webber regained the lead, and held it to the extremely close, but still nose-to-tail, finish.

Nico Rosberg was second in a Mercedes, Alonzo third in a Ferrari, and Vettel fourth in the other Red Bull Renault. The top four finished in the span of 1.3 seconds, with Webber 0.6 seconds ahead of Rosberg, while Alonso was 0.9 seconds back, and Vettel 1.3.

SOFTBALL SURPRISE

It’s quite possible that area girls softball teams are tired of being beaten by Hermantown. But after winning 13 consecutive section titles, the Hawks had one of their finest seasons ended prematurely by Cloquet in a 7AA upset last week. Cloquet has a strong tradition on its own, but Hermantown was ranked No. 1 for much of the season and was in prime position to move toward another state tournament bid.

As often happens, it wasn’t the pain of the loss that will bother the Hawks as much as how it happened. Star pitcher Katie Thun had a no-hitter through five innings, while the Hawks broke the scoreless tie with a run in the last of the sixth. In the top of the seventh, Dalyce Gustafson singled for Cloquet’s second hit, and was sacrificed to second. Liz Jezierski singled, but Gustafson held second. But when Alyssa Michaelson hit a pop-up, foul, beyond first base, and Jo Carlson caught it, Gustafson took off for third. The throw glanced away, and when Gustafson jumped up and raced home, the throw to the plate also glanced away, and not only was Gustafson safe, but the alert Jezierski also raced home to score all the way from first.

Chandler Beaupre, a sophomore, finished a four-hitter by preventing the Hawks from any threat in the last of the seventh, and Cloquet (11-9) advanced to the round-robin part of the tournament -- in Cloquet. Hermantown (15-4) stays home.

The 7A tournament, where unbeaten Cherry had to overcome a strong Silver Bay challenge, also concluded in midweek, as did 7AAA, where Denfeld and Duluth East both reached the double-elimination part, when the even turned to Forest Lake, where No. 1 seeded Forest Lake went in as heavy favorite.

Denfeld brought a 16-3 mark to Forest Lake, after a tough battle against North Branch at Wade Field last week, in a game that was broken open after a bit of drama. Sarah Hendrickson, Denfeld’s right-hander, was doing her thing, while Nikki Logergren, the left-handed half of the Hunters pitching tandem, was out in right field. Logergren drove in a run with a sacrifice fly for a 1-0 lead in the last of the fourth and it stayed 1-0 into the top of the sixth. But this was going to be more than a Hendrickson-Logergren show.

In the top of the fifth, North Branch loaded the bases with three singles and only one out. Hendrickson induced a pop-up then got a strikeout to escape that one. In the top of the sixth, the Vikings got a runner to third with two outs, and they may have caught the Hunters by surprise with a two-out squeeze bunt attempt. Fortunately for the Hunters, third baseman Mikayla Haynes was wide awake. She raced in, scooped up the perfect bunt and shoveled the ball ahead to catcher Kara Warren, who blocked the plate as she made the tag for the inning-ending out.

“That’s the first one of those I’ve had to make this year,” said Warren, one of the Hunters prime power hitters. As it turned out, Haynes made the right play, because it appeared she had no chance at first base, on what would have scored the tying run.

That play seemed to relieve the pressure, and in the last of the sixth, Logergren removed more of it -- smacking a double to left-center to drive in Alexia Klaas for a 2-0 lead. In case that wasn’t enough, McKenzie Klaas did her sister one better by hammering a three-run home run over the center-field fence. Offense and defense coordinated, Hendrickson then finished off a 5-0 victory to earn the trip to Forest Lake.

Denfeld’s McKenzie Klaas reached the party at home plate after her 3-run, 6th-inning home run beat North Branch 5-0. -John Gilbert
Denfeld’s McKenzie Klaas reached the party at home plate after her 3-run, 6th-inning home run beat North Branch 5-0. -John Gilbert
Nikki Logergren connected for a sacrifice fly that gave Denfeld a 1-0 lead, her first of two RBIs. -John Gilbert
Nikki Logergren connected for a sacrifice fly that gave Denfeld a 1-0 lead, her first of two RBIs. -John Gilbert