Castroneves takes `checked' flag

Tracy's pass under caution delays Indy result 5 hours

protest to be heard today

May 27, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- As the 86th Indianapolis 500 ended yesterday, two men crossed the finish line screaming.

Paul Tracy, who at 33 has never won this race, could be heard on his team's radio yelling at the top of his lungs, "Yeeaahhhh, ba-by! Yeeeeeaaahhh!"

Yards behind him, Helio Castroneves, 27, was also screeching at his crew, "He passed me under yellow! He passed me under yellow!"

When Castroneves looked up, he saw the yellow and checkered flags waving over his head and began to cry in jubilation, little realizing that result was about to set off the biggest controversy over a race finish at the storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1981.

That year, it took four months and a lawsuit to settle the outcome of the race. Yesterday, it took five hours, 40 minutes for the official result to be posted declaring Castroneves the winner, making him the first back-to-back champion in 31 years. But even now that victory is not totally assured.

Team Green, owner of Tracy's car, filed an official protest within 40 minutes of seeing the results, and Brian Barnhart, Indy Racing League vice president of operations, said a hearing on the protest will be held at 1 p.m. EDT today atin the IRL offices.

In 1981, Bobby Unser woke up the morning after what he thought was his third 500 victory to find a protest by Mario Andretti -- who claimed Unser passed cars illegally under a yellow caution flag -- had been upheld, and Andretti had been declared the "official" winner. Unser went to court to get the victory restored.

Yesterday's race was over by only minutes when Castroneves, the sport's Spider-Man, his Penske teammates and owner Roger Penske, 65, sprinted across the track and climbed the wire fence at the start-finish line in celebration.

As their party continued in Victory Lane, second-place finisher Tracy was insisting he, not Castroneves, had won.

The stage for debate was set on the final lap when Buddy Lazier and Laurent Redon crashed coming out of Turn 2, bringing out a caution flag. Ahead of them, Tracy was closing on Castroneves. By the time the two emerged from the fourth turn, Tracy was in the lead.

According to IRL rules, "racing ceases immediately upon display of the yellow flag and/or light." The question to be answered: When did the yellow light come on, and who was leading at the time?

Barnhart, serving as chief steward for the 500, reviewed the race tape, met with Barry Green, owner of Tracy's Dallara/ Chevrolet, and told him he believed Castroneves had won. Green then asked for more information, and posting of the official results were delayed while Barnhart and his staff continued to search for definitive proof of victory.

"We did an exhaustive search of all data, video and otherwise to find out as best we could," Barnhart said. "Clearly, based on video, the 3 car [Castroneves] is in front of the 26 [Tracy] ... when the yellow is called for and clearly in front at the last timeline check into Turn 3, well after the yellow was called. Based on all that, we have put the 3 in front of the 26 at the end of the race."

But Barnhart said the outcome "is very close. It is too hard to tell" which car had its nose in front when the yellow light actually came on.

"There simply isn't any evidence to overturn our original decision," he said.

Clearly, Tracy saw it differently.

"I swept around Helio in the third turn, and then the yellow came out," he said. "If you're in the lead when the yellow comes out, you should win."

But it was Castroneves who went to Victory Lane, and he didn't flinch when asked if he was sure of his win.

"These cars in the IRL, they have a yellow light on the dash or the steering wheel that comes on immediately when the caution comes on the racetrack," said Castroneves. "I saw the light at the apex of Turn 3. I yelled, `Yellow, yellow, yellow!' I was so happy, because if it stayed green, I do not know if the fuel would last.

"I let up on the gas, and then Tracy passed me so fast and I started screaming, `He passed me under yellow!' I was worried, because I didn't know if the system would work."

Tracy said he didn't know if the system would work either. Castroneves is an IRL driver. Tracy drives for a team in the competing Championship Auto Racing Teams.

"I think there will be a lot of politics, but I don't want to dig too deep into that," said Tracy. "All I can do is pray and hope. My interpretation is that if you're ahead of somebody when the yellow comes out, you stay there. This track has timing lines all the way around the track, and when the yellow light comes out, they know exactly where everybody is. I feel we were ahead. If it's not to be, I congratulate Helio and Penske on a great day for them."

The fact that these are the two men in this debate is in itself a surprise, as both realized early that they did not have the fastest race cars and that passing would be difficult.

But both remained patient, letting the race come to them. And, in the end, it came to both of them. Castroneves had the chance to stretch his fuel mileage over 42 laps to take the lead and, perhaps, the victory. And Tracy had worked his way to third to be in position to take advantage of a mistake by eventual third-place finisher Felipe Giaffone, which propelled him onto Castroneves' bumper for the disputed finish.

500 times 2

Pending the result of a protest, Helio Castroneves became the fifth driver to win the Indy 500 in consecutive years:

Helio Castroneves 2001, 2002

Al Unser 1970, 1971

Bill Vukovich 1953, 1954

Mauri Rose 1947, 1948

Wilbur Shaw 1939, 1940

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