Did you feel a bit melancholy last Thursday morning when you turned your calendar to June or noticed the date on your phone, watch or laptop read June 1?
Yeah, so did we.
Let’s face it: May is the most magical month of the year for auto racing fans. Three of the sport’s most prestigious events – the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, the Coca-Cola 600 for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the Monaco Grand Prix for Formula One – take place on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.
There’s nothing like May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Everyone connected to the Verizon IndyCar Series – driver, team, official, employee, fan – circles the Month of May. Heck, the race has spawned its own saying and Twitter hashtag: #IsItMayYet?
Now that May is gone, we can lament that we must wait another 11 months before we can answer that famous question, “Is it May yet?” Or we can look in the rear-view mirror and at the exciting road ahead in the windshield.
Take your pick. But I think you’ll like the latter better.
First, this May. Holy moly! What a month.
The INDYCAR Grand Prix was a fun, competitive event, as always. The victory by IndyCar King of the Road Will Power only reinforced Team Penske’s status as the group to beat in May on left and right turns at IMS.
Practice opened with an incredible week of weather after such a soggy spring in central Indiana. The rain unfortunately returned on Pole Day, but a thrilling Fast Nine Shootout resulted in popular Scott Dixon claiming the fastest pole for the Indianapolis 500 since 1996.
The big numbers were back at Indy.
But that was just an appetizer for one of the most breathtaking editions of the Indianapolis 500 in the 101-year history of the race.
No event on Earth builds anticipation quite like the Indianapolis 500, and this year was no exception. There was a red carpet full of stars. There were breathtaking renditions of “God Bless America” by Angela Brown, the national anthem by Bebe Rexha and “Back Home Again in Indiana” by Jim Cornelison. There was a B-52 flyover. Hollywood superstar Jake Gyllenhaal and Boston Marathon bombing hero Jeff Bauman were the first co-honorary starters in the history of the race.
And the race. Holy smokes: What. A. Race.
The final results showed there were 35 lead changes among a race-record 15 different lap leaders. That’s right: Nearly half of the 33-driver field led at least one lap.
Takuma Sato produced a redemptive victory by passing three-time winner Helio Castroneves with five laps remaining and holding him off by .2011 of a second, the sixth-closest margin of victory in the race’s history. The last time Taku entered Turn 1 on Lap 200 with a chance to win, in 2012, he ended up in the SAFER Barrier after colliding with Dario Franchitti.
So this victory was sweet. And it made history, as Sato became the first Japanese driver to drink the winner’s bottle of milk in a race that has featured winners from outside American shores since Frenchman Jules Goux won the third Indianapolis 500 in 1913.
And then there was that Fernando guy.
Two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso started the month with his very first laps in an Indy car and on an oval in a flawless test session May 3 that captured more than 2.5 million sets of eyeballs watching streaming video around the world.
That was when everyone realized that Alonso’s decision to skip the Monaco Grand Prix for his first attempt at the Indianapolis 500 would be big.
We had no idea how big.
Alonso captured headlines around the world with his rapid acclimatization to the Verizon IndyCar Series and oval racing. He qualified fifth and looked like a seasoned veteran. Yet he still asked questions of everyone, trying to learn more. He spent two hours every morning in a simulator before coming to the track to practice for real in his No. 29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda that featured the classic papaya orange paint scheme that Lone Star JR, Johnny Rutherford, drove to victory in 1974 and 1976 at Indianapolis for McLaren.
America always has had a mixed relationship with Formula One. We appreciate the glamour, technology and skill, but the closed, exclusive nature of the sport doesn’t sit well with the openness of American-based racing series and paddocks.
So we weren’t sure how Alonso would adapt to more media interview requests, more autograph requests and the closer presence of fans in one month than he had during his entire F1 career, which started in 2001.
He handled it perfectly. The only time he was seen without a smile on his face was when he was studying data or quizzing drivers from Andretti Autosport and other teams for more knowledge.
Otherwise, he signed every autograph. Fulfilled every media interview happily. Became friends with many IndyCar drivers and participated in the fun and games in the driver coach lot that help pass the time. He jumped on an airplane right after the final full day of practice May 22 and flew to New York for an all-day media tour. Heck, he rode a skateboard in Gasoline Alley!
Fans noticed that. They warmed to Alonso immediately. He became one of us, our guy.
So when Alonso’s first Indianapolis 500 – it better not be your last, man! – ended with smoke trailing from his car while contending on Lap 180, Alonso received a standing ovation from many of the throng of fans around the massive Speedway. He slapped hands with fans lined along the pit fence as he returned to the Andretti pit stall, disappointed.
Alonso was gracious in defeat, reaching under the press conference podium to drink a small carton of milk after the race and also giving a heartfelt, memorable speech at the Victory Celebration after being named Sunoco Rookie of the Year for the race.
Whenever I heard the word “Fernando” before this month, I always thought of the cheesy classic pop song from the 1970s of the same name by ABBA. No more. I’ll think of Fernando Alonso and his humanity during the Month of May in 2017.
Not everything was perfect during the Month of May. It never is, as the Indianapolis 500 often is a microcosm for the ups and downs of life.
We all gasped when Sebastien Bourdais crashed violently during the first day of qualifying Saturday while on the run of his life in Dale Coyne’s Honda. But we also were grateful for the incredible safety advances that protected Seb, who suffered hip and pelvis fractures, returned to the track on Race Day and could be back in an Indy car by the season finale in September in Sonoma.
Many of us at IMS shed a tear or 10 when we learned 2006 MotoGP World Champion Nicky Hayden passed away May 22 from injuries suffered in a cycling accident May 17 in Italy. Nicky was the nicest guy you could ever meet and had a passion for IMS, its people and events matched only by his love for his family and his incredible talent on a motorcycle.
Putting Nicky’s name and famous star-spangled No. 69 on the Scoring Pylon all night May 22 and until sunrise May 23 was our small way of paying tribute to “The Kentucky Kid.”
And we were relieved when both Jay Howard and Scott Dixon were OK after a hellacious crash just past the quarter point of the race Sunday, May 28.
But otherwise, how could you not have been captivated by this May at IMS? It truly was the Greatest Month in Racing.
But it also was just the beginning. There’s so much more to come this year at IMS.
More than 500 vintage race cars and motorcycles will compete June 16-18 during the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational at IMS, with 33 Indianapolis 500 veterans and legends racing bad-ass American muscle cars Saturday, June 17.
The Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational is a festival of speed. There’s something for everyone to see and do, and you can get incredibly close to these incredible machines and the stars who drove them, even by IMS standards.
It’s also Father’s Day weekend. There’s a very good chance your father or grandfather introduced you to the magic of motorsports, so there’s no better way to thank your old man than sharing a day of shared passion at the vintage race.
July features the return of NASCAR for the Brickyard 400/Lilly Diabetes 250 weekend on July 21-23 on the oval. Both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race and the NASCAR XFINITY Series race will feature the new stage-racing format, which increases the sense of urgency throughout the race and adds more strategic elements.
The Brickyard 400 also will be the last time legendary fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. will race a stock car in Cup competition at IMS, as Junior is retiring after this season. How cool would it be for Dale Jr. to finish his Brickyard career with his first victory in one of NASCAR’s most prestigious races, joining his late, great father as an IMS winner?
Another big attraction during the Brickyard 400 weekend is the new 400 Fest, a two-night concert event Friday, July 21 and Saturday, July 22 at IMS featuring an incredible lineup of music superstars led by The Chainsmokers and Major Lazer.
Elite professional golf returns to Brickyard Crossing Golf Course for the inaugural Indy Women in Tech Championship presented by Guggenheim on Sept. 7-9. Some of the top female golfers in the world will play in this Ladies Professional Golf Association tournament, the first pro event at Brickyard Crossing since 2000.
America’s top amateur motorsports event comes to IMS on Sept. 28-Oct. 1 with the 54th SCCA National Championship Runoffs. Several hundred drivers will compete for national titles in 28 different classes, showcasing an incredible array of road-racing machines.
The Red Bull Air Race returns to IMS on Oct. 14-15 to close the competition season at the Racing Capital of the World.
This is a very cool event with a different vibe than a car race. But the spirit of competition that encircles all at IMS flows freely in the skies above IMS during this race, too.
And that competition will be even more fierce this year, as the Indianapolis event will serve as the World Championships for the series.
So, yeah, May is gone. Not going to lie: The turn of the calendar to June always is a bit bittersweet.
But when you look at all of the exciting events that are going on this summer and fall at IMS, maybe we can coin a new phrase: #IsItTimeToGoToIMSYet?