Indy 500 not ‘rigged’ or ‘fixed’, but red flag questions remain

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing, Indy 500, IndyCar - Mandatory Credit: Doug McSchooler-USA TODAY Sports
Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing, Indy 500, IndyCar - Mandatory Credit: Doug McSchooler-USA TODAY Sports /

Josef Newgarden made the third last lap pass for the win in Indy 500 history after a restart that coincided with the white flag, denying Marcus Ericsson a second straight Indy 500 win.

When the caution flag came out for a multi-car crash with four laps remaining in Sunday’s 107th running of the Indy 500 just moments after the race had gone back to green, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson, the reigning Indy 500 winner, was scored as the race leader.

Ericsson, who was running in second place under the red flag before that restart, had managed to pass Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden for the race lead just before the caution flag came back out. It wasn’t all that unexpected, given the clear disadvantage had by the “sitting duck” leader in that situation.

So with just four laps to go, it looked as though Ericsson would be on his way to becoming the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002. There didn’t appear to be enough laps remaining for the race to go green again.

Ericsson was poised to now have five career IndyCar wins, all in races which were red flagged.

But with two laps remaining, IndyCar threw the red flag for the third consecutive caution.

Still, the only possible way the race would finish under yellow is if IndyCar made the decision to go green on the lap immediately after the cars left the pits, thereby eliminating the full pace lap that is typically run after a red flag is put away for the yellow one.

That is exactly what happened, and while Ericsson held the lead through turns one and two of the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval on lap 200, Newgarden passed him into turn three.

Ericsson stayed close through turns three and four, but Newgarden was able to break the draft — by going all the way below the pit line — and hold him off by 0.0974 seconds to win the race, becoming the first American winner since Alexander Rossi in 2016.

While he offered congratulations to Newgarden, Ericsson was angry with the way the race ended, and understandably so. In fact, most of the individuals who are upset with the outcome are upset not at the fact that Newgarden won, but how the ending unfolded.

Ericsson argued that the call to restart the race was a call that hadn’t been made before and that it was not fair nor safe, given the fact that both of the previous two red flags — and all previous Indy 500 red flags, including last year’s — had preceded at least one full pace lap for drivers to warm their tires and get settled back in before the restart.

Had that pace lap happened on this occasion, the race simply would have ended under yellow, with Ericsson as the winner for the second year in a row.

As usual, when a call ultimately benefits a Team Penske driver — even if there are several others that certainly don’t and even amid uncertainty as to who, exactly, might be the beneficiary — fans jump on the “Penske ownership” bandwagon to imply that a call was made to benefit the team, since Roger Penske owns both the track and the series.

Just go on Twitter on look for yourself.

Calls such as these are held under a microscope for that reason. It happens every time, whether it was the third Indy 500 red flag, the selective timing on the caution at Barber Motorsports Park, or the penalty to Kyle Kirkwood in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course race.

All things considered, it’s a knee-jerk reaction with no true evidence to support it. IndyCar is not rigged, and the Indy 500 is not fixed.

But even completely throwing aside which drivers are in which cars and where they’re running on what lap, Sunday’s red flag procedure raised some serious questions.

The fact that the race was stopped with two laps to go and restarted the next lap tops the list. It is not something that the Indy 500 had seen in any of its previous red flags, much less ahead of a one-lap shootout to the checkered flag.

It produced several comments implying that IndyCar is “becoming NASCAR”. While IndyCar doesn’t add laps via an overtime procedure like NASCAR does, even a NASCAR green-white-checkered finish is a two-lap shootout.

Having said that, despite being uncommon, it has happened before. Still, IndyCar hasn’t generally been afraid to end races under caution, not even the Indy 500.

Fans have referred to two rules in particular in the IndyCar Rule Book when discussing the ending. The first of these is Rule, which states that “After the starter gives the ‘one (1) lap to go’ signal and prior to the restart, Cars must line up in single file formation with no gaps or lagging between Cars.”

On the surface, it would seem like this rule was broken. However, the starter did indeed give the “one (1) lap to go” signal while the cars were still in the pits, and there is nothing that prevents him from doing so. It doesn’t say that the signal must be given as the cars are circling the track.

Another one is Rule, which states that “Officials will make reasonable efforts to restart a Race stopped by the declaration of a Red Condition if the conditions warrant.”

IndyCar not only made a reasonable effort to get the race restarted; they got it restarted. While a pace lap is generally expected after the ending of a red flag, it is not actually a requirement like many seemed to believe.

So with all things considered, what happened on Sunday was actually within the rules and regulations. It’s not something that Ericsson and Chip Ganassi Racing are going to be taking to court, per se.

The question is how much flexibility IndyCar has when it comes to applying those rules and regulations, because there is still a gray area surrounding when and how certain calls are made.

Spencer Pigot wrecked on lap 195 in the 2020 Indy 500, and the race finished under caution. Why was that race not red flagged? After all, Sunday’s race was restarted twice in the final four laps.

This was a major talking point at the time, and IndyCar was criticized for not at least trying to have that race end under green.

First things first, it goes without saying that you’re never going to be able to please everybody.

Based on the fact that Sunday’s race was restarted twice with between one and four laps remaining, and the fact that the usual pace lap — albeit not required pace lap — was abandoned before the white flag, it seems that IndyCar is now doing everything they can do to end a race under green flag conditions.

Yet it is that very desire which is driving much of the criticism the series now faces. So how is the series supposed to make improvements?

It’s simple. Moving forward, there simply needs to be consistency. There needs to be a standard. The precedent needs to have been set.

This is something that has been talked about for years, even going back to 2013. Michael Andretti questioned the late red flag in the 2014 race, given the fact that there wasn’t one the year before. Fortunately for him, his driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay, benefited the second time around.

And that was long before Penske owned the series. That’s why it’s silly to jump on that bandwagon and instead focus on the actual on-track product.

As long as there is more than one lap for racing — “we only need one racing lap” — then a late caution flag should lead to a red flag from now on, just as it did on Sunday. As long as the cars are sitting in the pits with two or more laps remaining, a restart should coincide with the white flag.

Just be consistent. When it comes to officiating, be predictable.

Should that be the case for all IndyCar races, though, or just the Indy 500? Should there be different rules for the Indy 500?

That’s debatable. Yes, it’s an equal points-paying race on the IndyCar schedule, but it’s also the Indy 500. I can understand making certain exceptions for this race alone.

But make the same exceptions in the same circumstances, and make those exceptions known beforehand.

It is also worth pointing out that, while many fans do still like to jump on the “Penske favoritism” hype train on social media, don’t forget the second word in “Penske Entertainment”.

As much as fans resent the idea of “entertainment” being prioritized over sport, that element is very much a factor, and in front of a crowd of 350,000 people, it stands to reason. It’s silly to argue that sport is not a form of entertainment. People want to be entertained by racing. You can’t not be entertained by IndyCar.

Again, be consistent.

That brings to the forefront another question that needs to be asked. At what point in the race is it right to start throwing the red flag when a caution comes out? How many laps need to be remaining? How much cleanup needs to be required?

IndyCar obviously isn’t going to throw one for a single-car opening lap spin, but at some point, the line needs to be drawn. Where is the balance between entertainment and sport?

For instance, Sunday’s first red flag saw the cars sitting in the pits with 14 laps remaining. And not to beat a dead horse regarding the point about restarting a race with one lap left after a red flag, but six laps (five before the waived off restart) were run under caution before the ensuing restart with eight laps remaining.

So in this case, IndyCar effectively threw the red flag with the hope of getting nine racing laps in. Should similar decisions be made in the future?

At the end of the day, it is important to remember IndyCar was indeed operating within the scope of the rules in Sunday’s Indy 500.

While many understandably disagreed with the call, IndyCar officiating doesn’t need the Twitter comments section to tell them they’re not doing their jobs properly or “making up the rules as they go”, and it is completely disrespectful to insinuate that Josef Newgarden didn’t deserve to win the Indy 500.

In fact, given how late even the second of the three red flags flew, and the fact that the ensuing restart on which he lost the lead to Ericsson barely happened, you could have argued he would have been robbed if he didn’t win.

But there needs to be some sort of standard procedure regarding how these red flags are handled, especially when you’re talking about three in such a short span of time during the greatest sporting event on the planet.

For example, a rule could be added that all caution flags within (x) amount of laps remaining are to result in a red flag, with (x) amount of yellow laps to be run before the restart.

They could even make it a range of laps, since no two situations are alike. Maybe the range for the latter even includes zero! They could make it different for different races, since not all tracks and race lengths are the same.

It may seem silly to get too specific, but the IndyCar Rule Book is more than 100 pages long for a reason. Clarity is key. Transparency is valued.

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There is simply no point in needless controversy. All it does it leaves a sour taste in the mouths of fans and paints a completely deserving winner underserving — undeservedly so. And that is something that nobody — Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, Roger Penske, or the fans — deserves when it comes to the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”.