Empty seats watch thrilling Indy 500, spectacular wrecks

The only drawback that Takuma Sato could find in winning the Indianapolis 500 was the absence of fans.

The coronavirus pandemic that forced the race to be delayed from its typical Memorial Day weekend date also caused it to be run without fans for the first time in 104 editions. It created an eerie scene as Sato took the checkered flag under caution with runner-up Scott Dixon and teammate Graham Rahal flanking him along with thousands of empty seats.

“Of course we missed the fans. We’re just so fortunate to perform as a sport so that millions of people watching on TV at home could have some energy,” Sato said. “I’m very glad to be part of that.”

His team owner, Bobby Rahal, admitted that it was a bit strange driving into Indianapolis Motor Speedway without the typical gridlock on the nearby roads. But the 1986 race winner also said that he was so focused on what was shaping up to be a thrilling duel between Sato and Dixon to even notice the complete lack of crowd noise.

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“In all seriousness, we’ve said this time and time again, it’s eerie. It’s weird. Nobody likes it,” Rahal said. “I hope our fans who watched it on TV really enjoyed the race. I know it’s not the same thing as being there but I think everybody understands the situation that exists and we have to make the most of it.”

The speedway, now owned by Roger Penske, tried to make it up to fans throughout the week. Drivers delivered gifts to some longtime ticket-holders, and there was a special flyover Sunday by the Air Force’s famed Thunderbirds.

DEMOLITION DERBY

There were plenty of wrecks during the race. James Davison brought out the first caution when he hit wall and his car caught fire. Dalton Kellett hit the wall hard a bit later and, when the race went green, Conor Daly and Oliver Askew were involved in a heavy crash. Alexander Rossi hit the wall late in the race after a penalty.

The biggest wreck, though, involved Spencer Pigot. He slapped the outside wall in the closing laps to bring out the caution that effectively ended the race, then slid back across the track and hammered the safety tires guarding the entrance to pit road. His car finally came to a rest with debris thrown all over the front stretch.

Pigot was taken to IU Health Methodist Hospital but was alert and expected to be fine.

“He hit a ton,” Bobby Rahal said. “Seems OK, but that was my first concern.”

ROSSI RUES THE PITS

The winner of the 100th edition of the Indy 500, Rossi was jockeying for the lead with Dixon through the middle stages of the race when a couple of miscues on pit road cost him dearly.

On the first, some radio miscommunication caused him to get the signal late to enter the pits, and Rossi wound up losing speed and missing pit road that lap. On the second, Rossi was let go from his stop by a crew member and wound up bumping into Sato as they exited the pits, and stewards penalized him to the back of the pack.

“We were never planning on being that far back,” Rossi said. “I thought we had the car to win. I don’t even want to talk about the penalty right now. I’m going to have a long conversation with somebody about that.”

ROOKIE REWARDS

The top finishing rookie was Pato O’Ward, who wound up sixth and trailed only fifth-place finisher Josef Newgarden as the top Chevy in the field. O’Ward failed to qualify last year, started 15th this year and steered clear of trouble all day.

“I mean, honestly, last year never really brought down my confidence,” he said. “This year I had a very capable car, a car that deserved to be in the show, deserved to be up front, and I was just doing what I am paid to do.”

Other rookies weren’t as fortunate. Rinus VeeKay had some pit problems that left him a lap down, and Kellett and Askew were joined by Alex Palou in crashing out of their Indianapolis 500 debuts.

“It’s awesome. I had lots of fun,” Palou said after leaving the infield care center. “At the beginning my time was not so good, and I started to gain confidence, and I had lots of fun. I’m sad now, but hopefully it will be better.”

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