INDIANAPOLIS — We made it. Under all the uncertainty of whether we’d even get to race during the 2020 calendar year, the NTT IndyCar Series not only found a way to race, but they did so during a pandemic and got to the finish line.
Scott Dixon won the delayed season opener at Texas back on June 6 and hoisted the Astor Cup championship trophy for the sixth time of his career in what was supposed to be the season opener in March but served as the season finale in October on the streets of St. Pete.
With that said, here are my top five moments in the 2020 season.
5. Herta Iowa Crash
The Aeroscreen debuted in 2020 and most wondered how it would fare. Well, we only got six races before we felt it’s impact.
The 46 pound Aeroscreen device potentially saved some lives in the opening race of the Iowa race weekend. First off, Will Power’s left front tire wasn’t tightened up on his pit stop and literally fell off following a crash in Turn 4. While sliding down the track after contact with the wall, the tire nearly hit Power’s cockpit.
Then, on the ensuing restart, Colton Herta didn’t know that it was actually waved off. He ran over the back of rookie Rinus Veekay’s car coming to the start/finish line and got airborne.
While the climb happened, he ran over VeeKay’s Aeroscreen and made some major air over the SAFER barrier.
“I’m very happy with the safety,” VeeKay would later say after being uninjured. “The Aeroscreen was destroyed. Very thankful for INDYCAR and their safety.”
Herta, says he never was told the restart was waved off.
“It happened so fast I didn’t really know what was going on,” Herta said. “I wasn’t told the restart was waved off. I was told green. I guess everyone else got the message.”
With debris flying everywhere, a piece hit Marcus Ericsson’s Aeroscreen.
In a few laps, the new safety device showed why its there. It potentially saved four lives.
4. Dixon vs. Sato (x2)
Scott Dixon dominated the 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500. He led a race-high 111 laps. But, it was Takuma Sato stealing the win over Dixon in the end when his No. 30 Honda passed Dixon’s No. 9 Honda on track following the final round of pit stops for each. Dixon, went into fuel saving mode thinking it would be tight whether he could make it to the end or not. He felt there was no way Sato could. Sato, knew fuel was tight but he and his team felt like they could definitely make it still.
We’d never find out which strategy worked.
Sato and Dixon were locked in a stirring duel and had just started their 196th lap when Pigot crashed hard in Turn 4, spinning and making contact with the SAFER Barrier on the outside and then slamming into the protective tire barrier at the head of the pit wall with the side of his No. 45 Hy-Vee/Embrace Pittsburgh Honda. The gap between Sato and Dixon rarely exceeded one second and was as close as three-tenths of a second after Sato inherited the lead on Lap 185 when Zach Veach pitted in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda. Sato appeared to be home free on Lap 191, building a lead of .9515 of a second. But he was approaching the cars of A.J. Foyt Racing teammates Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball, which let Dixon close the gap. On Lap 195, Sato cleared 2013 Indy 500 winner Kanaan while Dixon and Rahal remained behind the Brazilian. That expanded Sato’s gap to 1.173 seconds, but Dixon and Rahal lapped Kanaan just before Turn 1 on Lap 196, moments before Pigot’s race-ending crash.
Six days later, the duo were at it again. This time, Dixon prevailed and staved off Sato’s end of the race advances.
Dixon continued his winning ways in 2020 by holding off a hard-charging Sato, winning the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 Race 1 at World Wide Technology Raceway in the second-closest INDYCAR finish at the track. Dixon, who started third, drove the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda to his 50th career win and fourth in eight races this season with a .1404 margin of victory over Sato in the No. 30 ABeam Consulting Honda. That result turned the tables from the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge the previous Sunday, when
Sato held off Dixon for his second victory in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
During the final round of pit stops on Lap 163, Dixon pitted from second, directly behind leader O’Ward, and beat O’Ward off pit road. Dixon expanded his lead over O’Ward as the rest of the leaders cycled through green flag pit stops. Sato pitted from the lead with 25 laps to go as he attempted to undercut the leaders by staying out later than the rest of the field, handing the lead to Dixon for good on Lap 176.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing for Dixon. Sato, the defending winner at WWTR, merged back onto the 1.25-mile oval in third and started charging in his “no attack, no chance” style. Sato made a daring, outside pass of O’Ward for second in Turn 1 with 16 laps to go as he chased down Dixon. Sato quickly caught the “Ice Man,” with the gap to the bright orange-and-blue machine getting as low as three tenths of a second in the closing laps. But Sato was unable to challenge Dixon for the top spot.
3. Indy 500 Behind Closed Doors
What a weird moment Sunday, Aug. 23 was in Indianapolis. Memorial Day weekend came and went without the Indianapolis 500. The race was moved to August. First it would go off with half capacity, then 25 percent, then none.
The entire “Month of August” would go on behind closed doors. The massive facility saw 33 cars speeding around the 2.5-mile track at speeds well in excess of 225 mph but did so in front of those large gray aluminum grandstands around the place.
It was an eerie sight on race day to drive in just a few hours before the race started. Normally, I’d be there as the sun was coming up. This time, it was a leisurely drive with a quite place before the engines fired.
It was a race that will definitely go down in history.
2. The Passes
There were too many good ones to separate this out so we will highlight a few that stood out to me. How about the end of the race battle between Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist at the end of the second race at Road America?
Rosenqvist completed a stirring comeback to pass O’Ward on the second-to-last of the 55 laps of the race, pulling away to win by 2.8699 seconds at the checkered flag. His previous-best finish was second last year at Mid-Ohio and Portland. O’Ward dominated the day in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, winning the NTT P1 Award for pole in qualifying this morning and leading 43 of the 55 laps. But as the end of the race neared, O’Ward’s used Firestone red tires, the alternate compound option, began to fall off and allowed Rosenqvist to close the gap quickly.
Then you have several daring passes in the Indy 500, most notably Sato’s final pass of Dixon for the win. A week later, you had Sato making a wild pass on Pato O’Ward on the outside of Turn 1 at World Wide Technology Raceway. A day later, Rinus VeeKay did that in Turn 3 to Colton Herta.
VeeKay and Herta would dazzle us with daring passes all race in the opening race of the Harvest Grand Prix too to give us plenty of action to talk about.
1. The Poles
It’s not sexy to be talking about poles being my top moment of 2020, but it’s hard to ignore an Andretti on the pole for the Indianapolis 500. Here’s what I said that pole day.
Andretti is here. In Indianapolis. He’s strapping himself into the cockpit of the No. 98 Honda about to make a daring run for supremacy. He’s going to endure the toughest 2 1/2-minutes he’s had in a while. But, if he can prevail, the glory will be his.
His dad, is on a pit box yards away. His grandfather, hours away at his home in Pennsylvania watching the NBC broadcast.
But, it was words that Mario Andretti spoke to Marco Andretti in the past, well that’s why, well that’s part why, an Andretti is on the pole in Indianapolis for the first time since 1987.
The pressure was on. An Andretti hasn’t won the Indianapolis 500 in 51 years now. Their last pole here was 33 years ago. Michael Andretti had never won an Indy 500 pole in his career. He never won a race as a driver here either.
If anything could go wrong for the Andretti family here, it did. Hence, the name “Andretti Curse.”
Fast forward to Sunday. Marco Andretti, third generation driver, has the fastest car in Gasoline Alley. That comes with pressure in itself.
“I was joking with dad. I’m like, This is probably like my third legitimate shot as far as just outright pace in 15 years,” Andretti said on Sunday. “When I lost the 500 in 2006, you saw me mad because I knew that it is possible that 15 years later I’m talking to you guys and I haven’t won one yet. That’s why I was so mad.
“It’s a tough place. Last year I had the worst race of my career. Here we are, we can win it. We’re going to take it one race at a time. The INDYCAR Series is so competitive. Drivers and the teams, everybody is so close. It’s easy to go from last to first if you just find that little bit.”
Andretti is right. That 2006 race seemed to be maybe it was the youngest Andretti to exercise those damn demons. Marco, passed his dad Michael, for the race lead with three laps-to-go. But, Sam Hornish Jr. chased Marco down and passed him on the front stretch on the last lap and beat him by just .0635-seconds. The second closest finish in Indy 500 history at the time and third closest now.
Andretti, has been close since then, but not close enough to win and in the days that he had a car capable of winning, something of a fluke kept him from drinking the milk in victory lane like his grandpa did 51 years ago now.
So, for a driver that hasn’t won a race since 2011. Has one pole since 2014. The curse hanging over his head. The fastest car in the field. That’s a lot of weight on the 33 year olds shoulders. If he didn’t win the pole, it would come down to him.
Andretti, showed what he’s made of on Sunday and beat arguably one of best to ever race an Indy Car to the pole for next Sunday’s 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). The conditions on Sunday were worse than they’ve been all month. Graham Rahal said after his qualifying run that “it’s terrible. It’s not easy. Not a good day to be a race car driver.”
Andretti, still held it wide open and won the pole. He can thank of advise given to him from his grandpa on why. Instead of being uptight over the last couple of days, Andretti had faith.
“Wind will scare you but it won’t crash you,” Andretti said on what his grandfather Mario has said to him in the past. “He was right today. I don’t know if he’s right totally. We were able to keep it going the right way today.
“He has a lot of quotes in-house. As soon as I came out of the motorhome today, we were expecting winds. That’s when I kind of had a laugh, too.”
Andretti, also said that while he had three other teammates in the Fast Nine and could rely on advise from them on how track conditions are, it was Mario in his head again allowing him to just stay calm.
“My grandfather, good advice yesterday,” Andretti said. “Let them beat you, don’t dial yourself out. You already know what you have, do it again. Let them try to dial themselves out chasing, right? Good advice.”
That wasn’t the only feel good pole of the season. The other came when Conor Daly won the pole for Race 1 at Iowa. The joy and jubilation could be felt eight hours away at my home in Indianapolis. It was fun to see his reaction and deserving NTT P1 Pole Award.