INDIANAPOLIS — It was a surreal setting, like a dream that includes a combination of elements that make no sense.
It was the wrong time of year and the world’s largest single-day sporting event was run without spectators.
Yet the 104th Indianapolis 500 was a triumph, simply for the reason it was held in the first place as the country continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead of the usual crowd of 300,000 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the race was run against the backdrop of gray aluminum seats. There were approximately 1,000 fans who lined 16th Street to hear the sound of the race and watch the contest on one of the big video boards near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.
There is a gap in the grandstands between turns one and two that allowed fans on the street to see the video screens clearly and many brought lawn chairs and grills to soak in the atmosphere.
The 104th Indianapolis 500 was a made-for-TV event, with NBC showing the race to millions of fans, including the longtime fans who were not allowed to attend because of the increasing numbers of COVID-19 in central Indiana.
It was also the beginning of the “Penske Era” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as it was the first Indy 500 since 1946 not under the direction of the Hulman-George Family since Penske Corp. bought the speedway last November.
The dream had a happy ending for Takuma Sato, who won his second Indy 500, and it had a familiar result for Scott Dixon, who finished second after dominating the race. It was the third second-place finish for Dixon, who won the race in 2008.
Dixon led 111 laps in his No. 9 PNC Bank Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, but in the end the best car in the race couldn’t catch the fastest car in the end. Sato’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda had the pace down the stretch to keep Dixon at bay.
It was almost fitting that the most unique Indy 500 ever came down to a battle of drivers in their 40s. Sato, 43, who previously won the race in 2017, was ahead of 40-year-old Dixon when the yellow flag waved with five laps remaining because of a crash involving Spencer Pigot. The race finished under the yellow flag.
Once considered too fast for his own good and a driver who created reckless situations, Sato has found that delicate balance between blazing speed and race craft to become a big-time winner late in his career.
“Olympic athletes have to be premium ages, 20s, maybe 30s, but in motor racing, as long as you’re fit enough to drive the car, why not?” Sato said. “My boss was driving in his late 40s, Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt were driving in their 50s. I know the car is different today, but 43 to me is just a number.”
Sato became the 20th driver to win the Indy 500 at least twice and the first new two-time winner since Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015. There are three drivers with four victories, seven with three wins and 10 with two Indy triumphs.
As for Dixon, the 111 laps in front of the field moved him to third on the list of Indianapolis 500 lap leaders, with 563 laps led. He trails only Al Unser (644) and Ralph DePalma (612).
Marco Andretti started from the pole but never led a lap when Dixon beat him into turn one. Andretti was the first Indy 500 pole winner to fail to lead a lap since Scott Sharp in 2001.
Once out front, Dixon appeared to be on a Sunday drive, but at the end of the race he was in the role of chaser and couldn’t catch Sato even with the help of lapped traffic.
Sato’s race pace was faster than Dixon’s and no matter how hard he tried, Dixon could not close the gap.
Pigot, who was also driving for Rahal Letterman Lanigan, suffered a massive crash exiting turn four, impacting the attenuator at the end of pit lane. As a result, the Indianapolis 500 finished under the yellow flag for the 17th time.
“I think there are always many turning points that you could have done a little bit different,” Dixon said. “Ultimately, if it had gone green all the way maybe he would have run out of fuel. It seems like from our point of view that was definitely possible.
“I definitely thought where they did lean out for a period, like maybe about a lap or three-quarters of a lap, that’s where we got the big run on them, that’s the pace they would have had to run until the end. I don’t know.
“I’m going to be bummed, I can tell you that. That’s a given.”
When Sato rejoined Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing after the 2017 season, he promised team owners Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Michael Lanigan that he owed them an Indy 500 victory from 2012, when Sato crashed while attempting to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead late in the race.
Eight years later, Sato redeemed himself and his teammate, Graham Rahal, finished third.
“I had to get it right for 2012. I had to fix it,” Sato said. “I messed up. Whatever there is, there is a lot of science behind why I can win, but there’s no point to talking about that. Now I know how to do it, right? I just wanted to have Bobby and Mike, of course David as well, that I just wanted to give them back what they have, and they felt on that particular moment. I disappointed them. I just wanted to fix it.
“It took eight years, to be honest,” Sato added. “I just simply wanted to appreciate the team owners’ commitment they showed by putting me in the No. 30 car. I know they wanted Graham Rahal to win so badly. I’m pleased today the team did 1-3.
“I’m sorry for Graham I won today. But I still feel this is the moment I completed the mission that I really wanted, waiting for eight years for my team owners to give it back.”