Tuesday, May 7, 2013

An Indianapolis 500 To Remember

By Doug Vehle, The Daily Bosco

"Shows what you know, and yes, you DID piss me off."

So ended a strident EMail from David Algie, the builder of the Algie Composite AIrcraft with a Corvette V8 engine and, more to the point, fabricator for Indycar Team Green and Andretti Green for more than a decade. I'd found his website after a brief mention at another website about his project. I might have gained a better response to my questions about his effort had I not started my EMail with a mention of something I didn't think should have been on his site.

Of course, even as I felt it needed to be said, I already knew what his response would be. Algie's resume lists in his time as fabricator for both the old CART/Champ Car World Series and for the Indy Racing lead such drivers as Champion Tony Kanaan and racing model Danica Patrick. His Indy 500 winners include Jacques Villeneuve, (1995) the late Dan Wheldon, (2005) Dario Franchitti, (2007) which rounds out that particular list. But his resume lists 4 years as winning, 1995, 2002, 2005, 2007.

No mention of working for Penske Racing or of driver Helio Castroneves. To make mention of this to him would be to dance in a minefield --- So you just KNOW I couldn't resist.

What is it about the 2002 race that makes it such a hot button topic?

First of all, it was an 'Us vs. Them' event, the 7th year of the CART/IRL split, at a time when the scales had tipped dramatically against the once powerful CART. The fledgling IRL wasn't offered much hope in 1996 but had managed some amazing growth, at the expense of their rival. Although the winning drivers of the last two 500's, Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves, had been visiting from CART, the then 24 year old organization had been suffering from the ongoing desertion of drivers. Castroneves in particular was in his first year as a fulltime IRL driver.

The controversy of the finish would be quite a bone for the fans to chew on if it was just a friendly race, but this was a grudge match; the sanctioning bodies had become political parties, each side wanted to see their man win. The result was much like the Presidential election two years earlier. So it was fitting that if there was to be an argument, there should be a driver from each body to argue about. As the race wound down, IRL driver Castroneves led the way, with 2nd place CART driver Felipe Giaffone needing to pass the lapped cars of Dario Franchitti and Al Unser Jr. to make a run for the lead. The more omnious presence would prove to be Franchitti's teammate Paul Tracy in 3rd place.

Castroneves needed to conserve fuel, his lap times began to suffer just a little as he lifted the throttle a bit early. Giaffone found his way around Unser to help him close the gap, Tracy gained the beneift of the unpredictable Eddie Cheever wobbling and ending the challenge to third place, the gap between the top 3 continued to close. Castroneves' crew warned him to slow a bit more with the assurance that he was so far out front that he should be safe the remaining seven laps, should his fuel last. Tracy's crew instead told him his fuel could last through a challenge for the win if he ran his engine full rich. 3 laps down, with no chance to advance positions, Team Green driver Franchitti chose to pass Castroneves, leaving no one between the 1st and 2nd place cars.

On lap 197, Giaffone made his move. Going into turn 3, Giaffone looked high to pass, but the suddenly fading Franchitti was in his path. As Giaffone fell off the pace of the leader, Team Green driver Tracy passed Giaffone and Franchitti was told by his team to get out of the way. Giaffone lost contact with the leaders, the matchup was now set for an appointment with destiny, but would the question of who kept that appointment be answered properly? The confusion would stem from the fact that, contrary to what was being told by television commentators, neither the IRL nor NASCAR for that matter had a clear policy to establish exactly at what point a yellow flag put a hold on the competiton.

The seat of the pants approach depended on a certain common sense view of what was happening, but common sense is often not all it's cracked up to be. Less than four miles before the checkered flag was to be waved Paul Tracy was making a run to pass Helio Castroneves. It was ironically fitting that the television coverage would cut away without showing if he was successful. The spectators in the stands were watching Tracy easily pass a slowing Castroneves. The viewers at home were seeing a wrecked car sliding sideways as they were told that Tracy had passed and would win the race under caution. Tracy's radio frequency was played on the air as he ranted incoherently, finishing with "Yeah, baby."

He crossed the start/finish line with the white and yellow flags displayed and an announcer saying "And Paul Tracy is going to get it." All that was left was a slow lap under caution, except the other announcer was saying "The scoring goes back to the previous lap." From there, so many different versions. It is argued that Castroneves led past the last scoring antenna at the entrance of turn 3 before the caution period, at the moment of the accident, as the officials ordered a caution on the radio, as the caution light is activated.

While the first two are very clear, the rest is a bit sketchy. Television proved unable to call up a replay showing any light at the moment of the pass. There was no visible confirmation of Team Green's contention that the yellow light did not appear until after the pass. While I find several versions of the Television finish online, somehow it doesn't look nearly so confused and chaotic as I remember it, I suppose this is edited. Castroneves is shown leading Tracy across start/finish to take the checkered flag, Tracy is immediately interviewed in the pits as he says he's sure he won the race.

Just to illustrate the significance of the disagreement, compare to an interception controversy in the 2006 NFL playoffs when Troy Palamalu was deemed in the replay to have not controlled the ball as he landed, giving the Indianapolis Colts another chance to score in the final seconds of a game they ultimately lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Overturning the interception of the pass didn't mean anything, the Steelers still went on to win the Superbowl. To Paul Tracy and his team, not keeping that particular pass was everything. The difference in prize money between 1st and 2nd was over a million dollars.

The difference in one's life can't be measured.

Michael Andretti retired from driving at the end of that season, bought half of Team Green and took them out of CART, leaving Tracy behind to win 30 races and the 2003 championship in CART, mostly as the better drivers and teams moved to the IRL. In 2008 both CART and the team Tracy was driving for folded, leaving him struggling to drive regularly ever since. The biggest argument made by those contending that Tracy had won was that the IRL had seen their drivers beaten by CART the previous two seasons and were not going to sit still for a third.

While that argument is silly, it certainly deepened the divide among the fans. The two racing series had split the fan base, not many wished to follow both before but this meant there was a real feud going. Even the Indy 500 was suffering reduced attendance until CART and the IRL reunited. At that some fans were left bitter, many wanted to see the Panoz DP01 racecar of CART competing against the Dallara of the IRL. Instead the CART teams were given used Dallaras and some small support to help them find their way.

While former CART drivers from the time of the merger have won races, only Will Power as emerged as a true front runner. Helio Castroneves had won the Indy 500 both of his first two starts, his six CART wins were followed by 20 in the IRL, so far. Each is followed by his trademark climbing of the fence in front of the fans. He would win his 3rd time at Indy in dramatic fashion, shortly after being acquitted of tax evasion charges in federal court.

The trial was sandwiched by the Indy win and his prior win on 'Dancing with the Stars.' Had Tracy been declared the winner for 2002, might HE have appeared on 'Dancing with the Stars?' Could it have been easier for him to secure a place with a competitive team in the 4 1/2 years since his last regular team folded along with CART?

While I don't really know David Algie, I doubt he'd have been defensive about the argument had Tracy been given the win. Probably when someone said "Your boy didn't REALLY win" he'd have chuckled and told them they're welcome to their opinion. Yet I find his possessiveness toward the 2002 race a bit much for someone who did at least get to win three other times. I suggested that on his resume posted to his website to help promote his plane he should rest on the laurels that are not in dispute, while many would take claiming that 4th win as disreputable.

Not so much because I really thought he needed to hear that as because I knew how much fun his response would be. ". . . . Paul Tracy was a full car length ahead of Helio castro fence climber . . . my claim still stands and always will, even if the record books show it as something different. I was one of three guys on that Indy project and am damm proud of what we did with so little time and personnel."

Racing, you see, is a great example of the old saying 'It's all over but the shouting.' Why do any of it if you don't care about I? Why let it go? I sure can't think of a better way to go on loving what you do. David Algie secretly loves Helio Castroneves as a brother, but he'll certainly never admit that. Nor would he ever admit he had fun venting his spleen in his response to my EMail, although it starts off almost giddy, beginning with "Hi, Just a quick reply this morning. . . ." He certainly took advantage of the opportunity to let loose on ". . . . the sham that it was. . . ," ". . . .Team Green was a CART team and there was no way in hell that we would be allowed to actually win it. . . ."

Not a whole lot said about the plane. In fact, he said more about me, wrapping it up with "Shows what you know, and yes, you DID piss me off." Yeah, a few more EMails and he'll wind up loving me like a brother too. Not that he'd ever admit it.

I wonder what sort of fun Indy will produce this year?

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