Indianapolis 500

The start and first lap of the 98th Indianapolis 500 ...

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Ben Smith

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Indianapolis 500

... and the finish.

Associated Press
Ryan Hunter-Reay celebrates with the traditional bottle of milk after winning the Indy 500.

This race was worthy of all the roars

– So here came the American, and the roar followed.

It chased him out of the last corner.

It fled with him down the last desperate half-mile.

It spiraled up and up into the perfect blue sky of a perfect American afternoon, swelling to a monster howl as he bone-rattled over the yard of the brick and the checkers dipped and his gloved fist came up, the 200 mph turbulence ruffling his yellow sleeve.

“A dream has come true today,” Ryan Hunter-Reay shouted a few minutes later, spilling cold milk down his gullet and hugging his wife and his little boy and his car owner, and even his buddy Graham Rahal.

And then: “I’m a proud American boy, that’s for sure.”

And then the roar again, and for sure, there was a smidge of nationalistic chest-pounding in all of that. This was, after all, the first American since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 to win what has always been the most international of races. So, yeah, roar away.

But roar, mostly, for the pure joy of what you saw here, the joy of watching a man who drives race cars for a living winning the biggest deal in his sport with the sort of finish that incites roars. Roar for the joy of watching Ryan Hunter-Reay win the Indianapolis 500 on a pass for the lead as the white flag flew, and then hold off a three-time winner in the last 200 yards in the second-closest finish in the 98-year history of the event.

“Great fight,” said the three-time winner, Helio Castroneves, who himself had passed Hunter-Reay for the lead a lap earlier. “He did everything he could, I did everything I could to stop him. Unbelievable.”

“It was all in,” Hunter-Reay said. “Everything at the end was all in.”

Know what was special about that?

It could have been nothing in.

It could have been the fourth straight Indianapolis 500 to finish under caution after Townsend Bell scattered his ride all over the Turn 2 exit with eight laps to run. It could have been Hunter-Reay waving languidly from a parade float for those last eight laps, instead of a fierce duel in the sun.

But race officials threw a red flag, only the third non-weather-related red flag in Indy history. It smacked of manipulation, of all those NASCAR competition yellows. But it was the absolute right call, because the thing was setting up as a cliff’s-edge struggle between Hunter-Reay and Castroneves, and everyone wanted to see it play out to the end.

It did, with four passes for the lead in the last five laps.

“The right decision,” Castroneves said of stopping a race that, ironically, didn’t see a caution for 149 laps, a race record.

No argument from Hunter-Reay, obviously.

“This is the history of auto racing. This is the greatest race in the world,” he said Sunday afternoon, after the milk and the hugs and the ritual kissing of the yard of brick. “This is where drivers were made, this is where history is made. That was the top right there.

“Winning it under green like that with just a fantastic finish … I think that was a fantastic race.”

The roar seconds him.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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