Frozen moment: The crash heard around the IRL
By Chris Corbellini, ABC Sports Online INDIANAPOLIS -- The fickle wind at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the whitewashed concrete wall on Turn 2 act like a magnet. It pulled Greg Ray toward disaster, like it was the only route he wanted to take all along.
Al Unser Jr. was just in the unlucky position of being nearly magnetized to Ray's rear wing at the time.
The first crash of the 84th running of the Indianapolis 500 proved to be nightmarish for the Indy Racing Northern Light Series. Both drivers involved -- Ray, the pole-sitter, and native son Unser Jr. -- were expected to challenge 1999 CART champion Juan Montoya. Instead, Ray's collision during the 67th lap ended both their days prematurely, and in ho-hum fashion.
Little Al gave the crowd one final wave Sunday after an early exit.
Montoya -- with teammate Jimmy Vasser protecting his back and Buddy Lazier unable to challenge due to traffic at the end -- cruised to a decisive victory at the Brickyard. Montoya's Team Target -- run by Chip Ganassi -- stole the keys to the Speedway.
"The wind just caught me out of Turn 2," Ray said dejectedly as he walked to Gasoline Alley's garage B-23. "And that was just it."
"Well, it was a shame," Unser Jr. said. "I tried to get back out there."
With Ray and Montoya battling for the lead during the first 20 laps of the race, pulling away from third-place driver Eliseo Salazar, it looked like the IRL-CART rivalry would be a blow-by-blow affair until the checkered flag. The 1999 IRL champion was the early leader in his green No. 1 Dallara-Aurora for Team Menard before Montoya, who has a reputation of making risky passes, cut under Ray on lap 27 to take his first lead of the day.
"Ray wasn't going flat out, so no one could get a run on him," Montoya recalled. "When you go low, people give you room."
Those early exchanges for the lead may have made Ray a little desperate to keep the Borg-Warner trophy in the IRL. Then, on that dreaded lap 67, while struggling to keep up in seventh place, he seemed to lose control. He slid up the banking without the slightest hint of turning. The wind, Ray said, was a factor because of the delicate car's set-up. Indeed, the crazed Indianapolis weather of the day -- which had pouring rain one moment, 85-degree sunshine the next -- did gust up on occasion.
His front right tire suffered the heaviest damage, twisting so the front of the tire faced the front wing. He drove with that tire jutting out awkwardly into pit lane.
"We just couldn't pull the gears in traffic," Ray said. "We could run fast in by ourselves, but not in traffic. We tried to take some downforce out of the car, but we took too much out I think. With the tailwinds blowing, it just pushed me into the wall the first time."
Unser Jr., the Indy winner in 1992 and '94 who reunited with Galles ECR Racing this season, would then suffer the worst race luck of the afternoon. A few pieces of debris from Ray's vehicle skittered out on the Speedway asphalt, and struck the bottom of Unser's No. 3 car. One of those pieces ruptured his radiator, and just like that the favorite son of the Speedway was rumbling into pit lane. He was moving up through the field at the time. A top-15 contender waiting until the final 100 miles that always decide the race.
Montoya, meanwhile, joked with Team Target owner Chip Ganassi that his car's set-up was perfect. Other than a near miss with Lyn St. James on lap 74, the 24-year-old Colombian had a clean trip throughout.
Ray and Unser Jr. pushed their vehicles into Gasoline Alley and assessed the damage. Ray needed to replace the whole right side of the car. Unser Jr.'s crew fixed the radiator in just under 14 minutes -- a lifetime at Indy. The Texan finally got back on the track while Montoya was cruising on lap 140.
Both wanted to run some consolation laps and gain a few points in the IRL standings. And the crowd perked up a little too. Still, neither accomplished their goal.
Unable to do anything but let the front-runners buzz by him, Unser Jr. gracefully bowed out of the race. His voice cracked as he walked from pit row back to Gasoline Alley for the final time.
"Oh yeah, we will be back for sure," Unser said. "We will be back with vengeance. This is the greatest place in the world, what can I say.
"It was just great to be back."
While Little Al exited Indy without incident, Ray's second go-around was not quite as pretty.
Ray promptly slammed into Turn 2 again on lap 144. That damn magnet again. His car was totaled and one of his tires bobbled up and down on the track. Another caution.
"Maybe we shouldn't have gone back out," Ray admitted to his team after his aborted attempt.
"God gives everybody instincts, and I probably should have listened to mine when I climbed back in that car," Ray added. "It just didn't turn very well. When I got through Turn 1, it just didn't turn. I was just trying to get back in with a group of guys behind me. But my car wouldn't turn at all, so something broke."
It was an unceremonious exit during an ugly day for IRL racing.