INDIANAPOLIS — Richard Petty once said, “I can’t recall so much about the 200 races that I won, but I can tell you every single little detail about the 1,000 races that I lost. That’s how all us racers are. It’s sick , isn’t it?”
The King wasn’t driving in the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, but as race winner Marcus Ericsson climbed from the cockpit of his Honda in Victory Lane, Petty’s shared illness was on display down below Ericsson’s perch, visible from one end of pit road to the other.
Scott Dixon, who started from the pole position and led nearly half the laps run only to see his day undone by a pit road speeding penalty to finish 21st, rubbed his reddened face with his hands and choked back tears as his wife looked on and wept on his behalf.
“You do all you can do and hope that the breaks go your way, and sometimes they don’t,” the always-composed six-time IndyCar champion said. The 41-year-old driver mustered a grin when reporters rattled off questions laced with, “You were going to win, what happened?” and “You’ve still only won this race once,” and peppering him with career stats like 1-for-20 at Indy. “Today, the breaks went our way … until they didn’t,” he said.
Helio Castronenves, the defending champion who expected an excruciating twelve years between his third and fourth Indy wins, free soloed his way from the 27th to the seventh but saw his ascent stopped by a series of late cautions. He his postrace time slowly walking the length of the pit lane, waving to the fans who still spent from the original green flag attendance of more than 300,000. “I wanted to say thank you,” the 47-year-old racer explained. “And I also wanted to take my mind off me not being able to close the deal today.”
Tony Kanaan was behind the wheel of a one-off ride but was the fastest car in the field when the “laps to go” counter entered single digits. Yet he ran out of steam and had to settle for third. His head drenched in sweat, the 47-year-old 2013 Indy 500 winner fended off postrace questions about retirement (“I have a year to figure that out”) and talked at length about race strategy (“We were all playing chess out there “) before leaning into his elbows atop the pit box, shaking his head and exhaustedly saying, “I left it all out there. That’s all I can do.”
Pato O’Ward, who ran literally wheel-to-wheel with Ericsson with one lap remaining, was asked point-blank, does it suck to be second? “Second is a very respectable result. It is hard pill to swallow, but it is a great day,” he replied. Moments later, as he walked away from the microphones and cameras to leave the press box, he said to the people following him to the elevator, “To be clear, though, yes, second, it sucks.”
It does. At any race. But the sting of coming up short at Indianapolis is a like a Taser. It hurts. And it takes a long time to shake that pain — if it goes away at all. The Indianapolis 500 is one of 17 races on the IndyCar Series schedule. There are lots of trophies and paychecks to be won throughout the year. There is a season championship to win. But there is only one of the 365 days on an IndyCar racer’s calendar that is a potential gateway to immortality.
They don’t commission an artist to sculpt your face from silver to be placed on a 6-foot-tall art deco trophy alongside the likenesses of AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti when you win the Music City Grand Prix or the Hy-Vee Salute to Farmers 300. There’s only one Borg-Warner Trophy. It will now be adorned by the faces of 106 winners. Meanwhile, the mugs of the nearly 3,500 losers can be found in the pits, in Gasoline Alley, home on the couch or in the grave, all in a mood that is far from sterling silver.
Indy is Indy. A place so enchanting that even winning the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” isn’t enough somehow.
“This is the one place where if you win it once, it only makes you that much more desperate to win it again,” explained Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 champion, who finished fifth on Sunday. In seven career starts, he has finished seventh or better five times, including a runner-up effort in 2019. He looked off into the distance as he talked, replaying the final laps of the race in his mind and sounding like a man in a dentist’s chair with no Novocain: “When the leader is right there, where you can see him, and you know that the checkered flag is coming out soon, but you can’t catch them. There’s nothing you can do. But they are right there. It’s the most helpless feeling. All you can do is hope you are that close again, but now you have to wait a year to see if that happens.”
Ericsson, that leader whom Rossi could see but not catch, wasn’t yet into the “much more desperate to win it again” stage of his new life as an Indy 500 champion after he finished his traditional victory lap ride atop a pace car adorned with a wreath and milk mustache. But he confessed that falling into Indy anguish was on his mind before that victory became official.
The 31-year-old Swedish racer came to IndyCar from Formula One in 2019 with an admitted fear of racing on ovals. His two career series wins came on road courses, in Detroit and Nashville, and his average finish over 13 oval starts was 14th, with a best Indy 500 effort of 11th. He appeared to be streaking to a win with only six laps remaining when Indy 500 rookie Jimmie Johnson hit the wall to bring out the red flag.
“As I sat there under the red flag running through all of the scenarios and thinking about the guys who would be attacking on the restart, I thought about a conversation I had with [three-time Indy 500 winner and mentor] Dario Franchitti,” Ericsson recalled. “We actually talked about what I should do if I was in the lead late. Playing defense. Keeping them behind me. Making them work, make a mistake, just make sure that I did not.”
During a furious two-lap shootout, Ericsson held off all challengers, including that battle with O’Ward as they dove into Turn 1 to bring fans in the grandstands to their collective feet. Moments later, Ericsson flashed under the checkered flag.
As the sun rose over Indianapolis Motor Speedway, many believed this would be the day when Ericsson’s boss, four-time Indy 500-winning team owner Chip Ganassi, would finally snap his puzzling 10-year drought, a decade pained by that winner’s hunger. Only they believed that victory would come via one of Ericsson’s four higher-profile teammates: Dixon, Kanaan, defending series champion Alex Palou or even Johnson.
In Monaco, where media and fans watched the action from Indy on TV after the just-completed Monaco Grand Prix, it was widely believed that a driver from the 2018 roster of the team formerly known as Sauber F1 would earn a victory in one of Earth’s most prestigious races. Only they thought it would be Charles Leclerc (now driving for Ferrari) right there in Monaco, not Ericsson. Leclerc finished fourth.
So, all of their predictions came true. They just had the racers and places all wrong. It was Ericsson, the 0-for-his-career F1 racer who hated ovals who won the day by claiming racing’s coveted event. And handing out a big ol’ helping of racing’s least coveted feeling. That ailment for which there is no cure — and the only treatment is a jug of milk that is prescribed to only one person once a year.
“Our goal as racing drivers is to win, no matter what it takes,” Ericsson added before heading into the Indianapolis evening to celebrate with his family. He recalled that when he won the Detroit Grand Prix in June 2021, it was his first victory of any kind since 2013. Eight years of losing. “What it takes to get here is a lot of heartbreak. So much heartbreak.”
Then the newest Indy smiled immortal.
“But today, right now, it’s worth it.”