An attempted photo opportunity almost went terribly wrong on the opening lap of Indianapolis 500 practice when Colton Herta crashed into both Scott McLaughlin and the wall, oblivious at more than 200 mph to the Instagram moment ahead.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan had its three drivers slowly fan across the Indianapolis Motor Speedway frontstretch at the start of Thursday's practice for a planned picture. IndyCar said it was unaware of a Rahal photo shoot and so the track was "hot" for the entire field.
McLaughlin and Simona De Silvestro saw the three Rahal cars ahead as they sped through the Turn 4 corner and both immediately slowed to roughly 170 mph. Herta could not see the Rahal cars, and it was too late when he noticed McLaughlin and De Silvestro had slowed.
REPLAY: Early contact between @ColtonHerta and @smclaughlin93.— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) May 20, 2021
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Herta was barreling through at 220 mph, and at the closing rate it was impossible for him to not run over McLaughlin. Herta instead had to quickly try to miss McLaughlin alongside the wall to avoid a full collision. Both Herta and McLaughlin then had to pit for repairs.
IndyCar at the end of the session announced Takuma Sato, Graham Rahal and Santino Ferrucci will all be parked for the first 30 minutes of Friday's critical practice, when the engine power is boosted and teams get their first true look at their speeds ahead of qualifying.
"We were several hundred yards ahead of some other cars. It was a pit stop session and it was the first lap," team owner Bob Rahal said. "I think maybe some people shouldn't be in such a rush and the spotters maybe should have done a better job. It's disappointing something that happened a quarter-mile behind us or thereabouts and we've got to pay a price for it."
Rahal also complained that the four Team Penske cars had done their own photo shoot on Tuesday, the opening day of Indy 500 preparations. But track owner Roger Penske's cars took the photo during a five-minute period when the track was specified on the schedule as open only for noncompetitive installation laps.
"We're going to miss 30 minutes of practice, you mean for what Roger did the day before, or Roger's team I should say?" Rahal said. "We were at the start-finish line when it all happened, and from what I understand, the Penske guys were going slower, so they didn't have a problem with it. I'm disappointed with it and I'll talk to IndyCar about it."
It was a double blow for the Rahal group: Ferrucci late Thursday spun on his own and hit hard into the wall. He couldn't put weight on his left leg, so he was carried to an emergency vehicle.
IndyCar's medical staff sent Ferrucci to a hospital for precautionary tests. He was released later Thursday but will have to be cleared by IndyCar before he can practice.
Herta ultimately missed about an hour of practice and said he was grateful his speedway car was not significantly damaged despite two hits. The young American also marched down to the Rahal pits, where he said he voiced his displeasure over the photo, and found the penalty assessed to the team appropriate.
"I was angry. I thought it was irresponsible that they were doing something like that going that slow," Herta said.
McLaughlin made his feelings known on social media. The rookie Penske driver from New Zealand told the Rahal team he hoped the photo turned out well while tweeting a replay of the incident.
It made for the first true excitement over three days of practice ahead of this weekend's qualifying. No one driver has stood out in the crowd; no team has been consistently dominant.
Talk still centers on the changing of the guard in IndyCar, which has had three first-time winners in five races leading into the May 30 Indy 500. Four of IndyCar's winners this year are 24 or younger, among them Herta, Pato O'Ward and Rinus VeeKay, the 20-year-old winner on Indy's road course last weekend.
The three were considered the top stories at the speedway Thursday after practice, and their youth and fearlessness made for a refreshing perspective. None had been involved in any sort of commemorative photo shoot like Penske accomplished and Rahal tried, but the idea seemed rad.
"It looks cool," O'Ward admitted. "I think they got the idea, the first day when everybody went out, I think the Penske guys did it. It looked pretty cool."
Yet the youth of the series have a professionalism about them in that they respect racing as a business. All the IndyCar young stars have backgrounds racing in Europe or Japan, as is the case of 24-year-old winner Alex Palou, and all believe they belong in the series right now.
"There's enough experience from these young guys, they're quick enough, that I wouldn't be surprised if one of us won the Indy 500," Herta said.
At the end of the day, it was Tony Kanaan atop the leaderboard. The 2013 race winner is the oldest driver in the field at 46, and he's racing only a partial schedule -- the ovals that Jimmie Johnson didn't want after his move from NASCAR.
But Kanaan went 225.341 mph Thursday and Chip Ganassi Racing appears to be strong. All four of its cars have been fast, but Kanaan said there's work to be done ahead of Sunday's pole-deciding time trials.
"You are never happy," Kanaan said. "I won't be able to sleep tonight. Tomorrow night will be even worse. If I didn't have this feeling, I shouldn't be doing this."
"I don't think IndyCar has ever been this competitive with so many different ranges of age," O'Ward said. "Like you've got guys that are less than 24 years old that are winning races, being competitive. This series is stacked. I feel like it's never been as competitive."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.