INDIANAPOLIS — Scott Dixon started on the pole for the Indianapolis 500 a year ago, quickly went to the front and led 95 laps, and there was every reason to believe he would finally kiss the bricks for the second time after 14 years of trying.
Then one of the greatest drivers of his generation was caught speeding on pit road — by 1 mph. The penalty shuffled Dixon to the back of the field, and he only managed to climb back to 21st, well behind teammate and race winner Marcus Ericsson.
Yet it wasn't that rare mistake that Dixon dwells on the most these days.
“I think it's always the ones that finish under caution. There's been three or four of those,” said Dixon, who qualified sixth for Sunday's 107th running of the Indy 500, and who was a popular voice at Thursday's annual media day. “You just can't be in the fight. Those are the tough ones. And some of those strategies, you knew the other cars couldn't make it.”
Dixon, who has led an Indy 500-record 665 career laps, trailed only Dario Franchitti in 2007, when a crash between Dan Wheldon and Marco Andretti brought out yellow. More rain began to fall and the race ended that way on Lap 166 of 200.
Five years later, the race ended under caution when Franchitto and Takuma Sato crashed on the last lap with Dixon in second.
And just three years ago, Dixon led a race-high 111 laps before a crash by Spencer Pigot with five to go brought out caution. That was how the race ended, with Sato the only one ahead of the six-time IndyCar Series champion.
“You can't change anything, so you just got to move on,” Dixon said. “I think they're all tough. Finishing second here, or having a close miss here, is horrible. There's only one happy person. The seconds under caution I think are hardest, to be honest.”
Katherine Legge and Graham Rahal were given a special 15-minute session Thursday to shake down their cars after she crashed in practice earlier in the week with Stefan Wilson, who was ruled out with a back injury and replaced by Rahal in his ride.
It turned out to be an important session for both of them.
Rahal is moving from a Honda car, which he failed to qualify for his Rahal Letterman Lanigan team, to a Chevrolet-powered car with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. That meant practicing pit stops with a new crew and dealing with some other details.
As for Legge, she experienced a “crunching” sound that Honda engineers were trying to diagnose before Friday's final practice.
“I said, ‘It sounds crunchy.’ I don't know, that's the best way to describe it,” Legge said. “The clutch was slipping a bit but I don't know what was causing it. ... Hopefully we can get it fixed and we can run as normal tomorrow.”
Tony Kanaan has thought a lot about what Sunday will be like, when the winner of the 2013 Indy 500 walks toward the starting grid for the final time. One of the most popular drivers ever to grace Gasoline Alley, Kanaan has talked about retiring many times over the years, but the tears that flowed during his final qualifying weekend underscored that this could be it.
He has a car to make it memorable. Kanaan put his Arrow McLaren ride on the outside of Row 3.
“It'll stop when I put my helmet on,” he said, "but up until then, I'm going to be a wreck for sure. From the green room to the driver's intro, I don't even want to think — it's one of the times I've enjoyed the most in the past, and I'm frightened by it. Because I just know, I mean, the nerves are up there. Every single driver in that green room, we're ready to go. The emotions are high.
“Then you're going to add it's the last one? I'm going to have to drink a couple of extra bottles of water," Kanaan said with his trademark smile, “because that's how much I'll be crying.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay is perfectly content with his lot in life: The 2012 Indy 500 winner is back at the Brickyard after a year away, which he spent primarily coaching his kids' sports teams and slowing down after a life in the fastest of fast lanes.
Hunter-Reay is in a one-off ride for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and will start 18th on Sunday. He has some sports car races and a few other events the rest of the year, but unlike others in Gasoline Alley, he's not auditioning for a full-time ride.
“I'm really enjoying the change-up I do throughout the year,” Hunter-Reay said. “Gaining some perspective on things has been important. It allowed me to step back and take a lot at some things and come back a bit re-energized.”
Regardless of how Sunday shakes out, Kyle Kirkwood and Benjamin Pedersen are already champions.
With the game of pickleball sweeping the nation, drivers have set up a temporary court amid their buses, and Kirkwood became the ring-leader in setting up a tournament among them. The buy-in was $100 but the bragging rights were worth so much more, and the pressure was even higher after Pedersen bought the duo some garish neon orange and yellow team outfits.
“It was a good idea,” Kirkwood said of the uniforms, “but we had to win wearing those things.”
Who didn't win? Romain Grosjean, whose bus was right next to the courts. He was kept awake by the floodlights.
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