Danica Patrick storms down pit row in search of Ryan Briscoe s pit crew Sunday.
INDIANAPOLIS - During its more than decade-long internal split, open-wheel racing was often envious of the success of its distant stock car cousin, and was less than discreet about how it coveted NASCAR's fat TV ratings, its huge and passionate following, and the ability of the stock car folks to stage a real show, even when the racing is ho-hum.
While eventually patching things up between the IndyCar Series and Champ Car and bringing the family back together, the open-wheel clan studied marketing techniques, pored over fan survey data and sought out the secrets behind NASCAR's success.
It likely never dawned on the top brass in the Indy tower of power here, but what if they staged an IndyCar race and a NASCAR event broke out? Sunday, at the 92nd running of the prestigious Indianapolis 500, it almost did.
There was no signature Jerry Springer-esque event - like Jimmy Spencer reaching through the window opening to pop Kurt Busch in the schnozz a few years ago at Michigan International Speedway, or Kevin Harvick versus Juan Pablo Montoya in a wildly animated shouting and shoving match out on the track at Watkins Glen. But there was enough posturing and semi-civil trash talk to indicate fisticuffs could be on a future IndyCar Series fight card.
Danica Patrick, the crowd favorite who had finished no worse than eighth in three previous Indy 500s, pounded her fist on the steering wheel and hurriedly piled out of her car following a collision with Ryan Briscoe outside the pits late in the race. Her day abruptly ended, Patrick then stomped down pit road, making a beeline for Briscoe's pit area while the drama built.
No one was thinking of a classic 1979 Daytona 500 Allison-Yarborough slugfest redux, but as Danica got close, she was clearly bristling for a confrontation. She ripped off her gloves, so, the gloves were off.
IndyCar Series security officials intercepted Patrick before she could engage Briscoe, who had angled out of his pit stall and crunched the side of Patrick's car.
"It's probably best I didn't get down there," Patrick said later. "You know, I'm a little emotional."
Briscoe, the Australian who this season filled the Team Penske seat previously held by Indy 500 champion Sam Hornish Jr., had obviously not seen how NASCAR drivers settle these kinds of things.
"I'm not here to get in fights and rumbles," Briscoe said. "We can sort it out nice and quietly."
This year's Indy 500 had other NASCAR-like symptoms. There was enough side-by-side racing to keep the huge, sun-burned crowd interested, but not enough daring passes to provide a series of thrills and chills. Two-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves lamented the fact that changes in track position often took place in the pits, not on the track.
"We tried everything we could," said Castroneves, who finished fourth. "We were patient. Unfortunately, overall, it was very difficult to pass."
There were also the unfiltered displays of abject disappointment much more common on the stock car side. A.J. Foyt IV had his car catch fire in the pits, and then got doused with foam as the safety crew put the fire out. He limped in 21st, 20 laps down, and did not try to hide his despair, or filter out the double-negatives.
"It was terrible. It ruined our day," Foyt said. "It was just miserable. From there on, you're just out there riding around and trying to stay out of trouble, waiting to screw up. It was a terrible race, a miserable race. One of the worst of my life. You don't learn nothing trying to stay out of everybody's way, and that's the worst way in the world to race."
There were also complaints about the day's clothesline being filled with nothing but yellow flags, a not uncommon refrain at the various levels of stock car racing.
There were eight caution periods in the race, with 69 laps run under yellow, and veteran Darren Manning said it was a continuity killer.
"My car was real good at the end of all the long green flag runs, but we never got any," Manning said. "I was just cruising and picking them off, then the yellow would come out. I was really annoyed that so many yellow flags kept coming out."
Former Indy 500 champ Buddy Lazier briefly broke with open-wheel tradition and avoided talk about the honor of taking part in the great race, and let his competitive juices flow, ala NASCAR. He took little solace in just staying out on the track all day and finishing the race.
"That's something that people say when they don't have anything else good to say," Lazier said. "You say, 'Well, the wheels are still on it.' I'm disappointed, there's no doubt."
Tomas Scheckter, who was mounting a serious challenge for the lead with more than 150 laps in the books, had his drive shaft break as his car came down off the jack in the pits, ending his day.
Through his South African accent, Scheckter tried to rationalize the extremely bad luck.
"It happened. That is racing," he said.
Had this been a stock car event, his conclusion would have been similar, but worded slightly different.
"It's a racin' thing," Scheckter likely would have shrugged.
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