By Patrick Reynolds
Indianapolis, IN- The spirit of Dan Wheldon was alive and well at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.The day began with pre-race Wheldon tributes, continued with thrilling action from a new chassis that Wheldon helped develop, and ended
with good friend Dario Franchitti winning his third Indy 500.
The new DW-12 chassis, named after the late 2011 race winner, punched a large hole in the air and allowed for dramatic drafting and passing, contributing to an event-record 34 lead changes.
The exciting contest turned into a dramatic finish after a restart with just six laps to go as Franchitti and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, and another good friend of Wheldon’s, Scott Dixon battling for the lead. The final time Franchitti took the point from Dixon, third running Takuma Sato followed Franchitti through to second place with just under two laps to go.
Sato closed on Franchitti and made his move for the lead to the inside as the last lap began. Sato spun and crashed into the turn one wall, the yellow flag waved, and Franchitti cruised through the final three-quarters of a lap to victory.
“Takuma got a good run and was coming to my inside,” Franchitti said. “I moved over a bit and I saw him coming. This is well before the corner. We turned into the corner and I give him a little room and I think (with) that tight line, he just lost the rear.”
Franchitti said, “I heard my spotter say he’s got a run, he’s coming up. Start to look inside. And I was moving over and I look in the mirror and I see exactly where he was and I started moving back. You are allowed to leave a car width and an inch. I wanted to make sure I left more than that.”
“He hit us and I kept my foot in it and just happened to catch it. Hell of a finish,” said Franchitti.”
“On the very last lap, (I received a) good tow from Dario. (I) Felt good entering turn one on inside. It looks like he didn’t give me enough room to go there. I was well below the white line and just got into a slide,” said Sato who was scored 17th.
Franchitti had a tough start to the day by spinning on pit road during the first round of stops following getting hit from behind by E.J. Viso. The car’s nose cone was damaged and was quickly replaced by the pit crew.
Said Franchitti, “Getting spun in the first pit stop there and having to fight our way from the back to the front, that was tough, but it also gave me a lot of confidence because I knew how good the Target car was at that point.”
The 500 featured some exciting side-by-side racing with the new Indycar chassis. A car that Wheldon helped test and develop during 2011.
“Dan had to sign an agreement saying he wouldn’t talk to anybody about anything to do with that,” Franchitti said. “We sweated him. He gave me that look. Dan had a certain look. He was always joking around, but he had a look when he was trying to get a point across.”
“He just would not discuss it. He worked bloody hard on it. I know that. He was the right man for the job,” said Franchitti.
Third place finisher Tony Kanaan was also a good friend of Wheldon.
Said Kanaan,” Wherever he is right now, he is definitely making fun Sato, I can tell you that. And he is giving Dario a tap on the back for sure. And he was going to call me a ‘Wanker’ that I didn’t win. I’m glad that this is over. I hope now, we can all move on and just remember Dan the way Dan was, a happy guy. And a wonderful friend.”
In one final tribute to Wheldon that was unplanned, Dan’s wife Susie Wheldon rode in the pace car with Franchitti on his Victory Lap.
Franchitti said, “Suse came over to say ‘well done’. I’ll tell you what; she’s a stronger person than I am to come here. She knows better than anybody how much Dan loved Indy and how much Indy loved Dan. But to be here, to go through all those emotions…”
“My favorite memory of the race last year was Dan was going out on his parade lap afterwards and I had this crazy notion in my head that I was going to carjack him. I’m disappointed but at the same time I’m happy for my friend. And I see his face. And he is just sobbing. It meant so much to him. Everything that had happened to him. Not having a regular drive. All the stuff with his Mom, Alzheimer’s. I couldn’t do it. I just gave him a big hug and told him how proud I was of him. It meant a lot that Suse was able to come around with us today,” said Franchitti, as he became emotional while recalling the moment.
Dixon, Kanaan, Oriol Servia, who overcame an early-race flat tire, and pole winner Ryan Briscoe rounded out the top five.
Franchitti summed up the day by describing the late race battle among the three Wheldon friends. “As hard as I was concentrating I thought ‘I bet Dan is laughing his ass off right now.’”