"This has been, well, weird, hasn't it?"
Simon Pagenaud, just a few days ahead of his fourth Indianapolis 500 start, was treading carefully as he approached the topic. But after judging the eyes of the semicircle of conversationalists, he realized that he wasn't alone and forged ahead.
"There are certainty a lot of people in this room who have a lot more experience at Indianapolis than I do," the 31-year-old Frenchman said, acknowledging the ballroom filled with his teammates and crew members of Penske Racing."But everyone seems to agree with me. It has been weird."
He was speaking of this year's edition of the Month of May at The Speedway, that page of the motorsports calendar considered so precious that everything about it demands to be capitalized. From airborne race cars to last-second aerodynamic overhauls to a final row of racers who never actually qualified for the race, the 99th Indianapolis 500 has already secured a spot among the strangest ever.
And the green flag won't be waved until Sunday.
"Some Mays have different vibes than others," explained Indy 500 champion-turned-team owner Bobby Rahal."This year certainly has something unique going on, but in the end, if Sunday is a good show, people will forget about that other stuff."
That list of "other stuff" began more than a week ago, when three-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves spun in practice and saw his Penske-prepared Chevy sail into the air. The next day, Josef Newgarden also flipped his Chevy. A frightening crash by Pippa Mann ended up becoming a testament to the success of soft wall safety systems, but it still left Gasoline Alley on edge because it so closely resembled some of the worst wrecks in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history, as Mann collided with the end of the wall that separates pit road from the front stretch.
Sunday's Pole Day started with another horrible looking accident, this time involving annual pole favorite Ed Carpenter. That final straw incident prompted unprecedented last minute scrambling. IndyCar officials ultimately elected to reduce horsepower and simplify the still-new speedway aero kits.
But as they met behind closed doors with teams and manufacturers, the grandstand crowd sat in silence for hours, with little or no clue.
See? Totally weird.
The next day, a parts failure resulted in yet another frightening accident and a suspension rod going through the legs of James Hinchcliffe. The quick work of IMS safety crews saved his life, but the worst crash of the month coming after Sunday's changes re-tweaked the paddock's collective blood pressure.
"Part of what makes this race so special is the intensity of the month. Part of that is that everything that happens also becomes very magnified," explained Roger Penske, the race's' all-time winningest car owner. Then The Captain cocks his head a little."But yes, this has been one of the stranger months that I can remember. And I've been coming here for a while now."
Earlier this week, IndyCar flew drivers to every corner of the United States to promote Sunday's race. Each driver knew questions about the airborne cars and wonky qualifying were going to come up. And they did. Those drivers handled the topics well. They quickly wrote off the practice accidents to the cars being in qualifying trim, saying that the more conservative race setups wouldn't be as twitchy. They even attempted to joke about it all, particularly Castroneves, who peppered a Thursday night Penske media dinner with cracks flying, speculating that his sponsor, Shell V-Power Nitro Plus gasoline, might actually be jet fuel. The laughter that followed felt cautious, if not downright weary.
As Friday's Carburation Day final practice session wrapped up, the drivers pointed to an incident-free hour as proof that everyone was ready to go for the 500."See, you guys," Scott Dixon joked after finishing the session with the second-fastest speed. "We can do this without drama!"
But that day had started with one more curveball, when it was announced that inner ear issues had forced driver Carlos Huerta from his Coyne Racing machine, replaced by Tristan Vautier. The 25-year-old Frenchman will start on Row 11 alongside Ryan Briscoe, who replaced Hinchcliffe, and James Davison, who is in the race despite missing qualifying for a sports car race. Who drove his car so it could make it into the field? Tristan Vautier.
That's like, weird.
As Sunday approached, those who make their living -- or simply live for -- The Greatest Spectacle in Racing began to point to the other crown jewel of American motorsports, the Daytona 500. The week and a half leading into this year's edition of NASCAR's premiere event was more bizarre than even the most ancient of old timers could recall.
Daytona had big crashes. It had a qualifying snafu. Like Hinchcliffe, Kyle Busch suffered dual leg injuries that left him hospitalized and sidelined for a significant chunk of the season. Florida even had the same unseasonably cold weather (highs barely cracked the 50's in Speedway, Indiana, earlier this week). On race morning, more than one driver admitted live on SportsCenter that there was a feeling in the paddock of just wanting to get the Daytona 500 over and get back home.
But in the end, the big show on Sunday was one of the best in recent memory, with a frantic final stanza of lead-swapping laps and an unexpected, emotional winner.
"Yeah, at the end of it all we saw a tremendous race and one of our drivers won that race," said Penske, referring to driver Joey Logano, who also happens to be sponsored by Shell Pennzoil. "Let's hope that this unusual May has the same outcome as that unusual February. All the way down to the team that wins."