INDIANAPOLIS – Crowds and cell phone cameras surrounded the celebrity couple as their fairy tale resumed. Ashley Judd had just gone for another famous Brickyard run, not in the whipping rain this time, but barefoot on a 130-degree track under the scalding Indiana sun. Her shoulders glistened with sweat while Dario Franchitti's eyes glistened with pride. He swigged his milk and she smiled her perfect smile. The camera phones clicked. Franchitti's forgettable stint on the stockcar circuit could be wiped away like so much sweat on a champion's brow. Happily ever after was back again.
Crowds and camera phones surrounded a pile of shards by a garage. "Wow," said one. "Holy," another muttered. A tire here. A chunk of a tail fin there. A frayed wire over here. The camera phones clicked. These were the remains of Mike Conway's car – destroyed in a horrific crash in the race's final moments. The driver himself had a compound fracture in his left leg. Only that much was known. "He's in a lot of pain," said Keith Hedinger, the CEO of Dad's Root Beer, which sponsors Conway. "It was a scary few minutes." As he spoke, a blue blanket was placed over the heap of shrapnel.
The last laps of Franchitti's race were brilliant. He had built a huge lead and had barely enough fuel to hold back the oncoming pack. "Up until 10 laps to go," he said, "I was pretty relaxed. Then all hell broke loose." Franchitti somehow made it happen, slowing from more than 220 mph to 205 mph and finding a way to "manage the gap." Tony Kanaan, who had improbably raced from the last row to the first, ran out of gas. So did defending champion Helio Castroneves. A yellow flag came at the exact right time, and Franchitti rolled across the finish line with 1.6 gallons of fuel left. Relief set in.
The owner of Conway's team, Dennis Reinbold, stood outside his garage, his face drawn and his eyes darkened. During the race's final moments, he noticed the top speeds were dropping quickly. Just when the contenders needed to press the gas, the driver at the front had all but slammed on the brakes. It was like coming up on a car with its hazards flashing in the left lane of a four-lane highway. But there was only one lane. And there were no hazard lights – no lights at all. This was trouble, and Reinbold knew it. He started to tell Conway to be careful to give himself plenty of room between turns 3 and 4. But he never got the words out. "I heard yellow," Reinbold says. "I didn't realize it was Mike. Then his car didn't come by."
Chip Ganassi sat on the podium, grinning underneath the brim of his cap. But he wasn't grinning when his mind spun with the possibilities of the end of a race his driver led for almost three hours. If Franchitti slows, Ganassi thought, and another driver sneaks by even for a moment, and then if the yellow flag comes out, this could all go away. "It was a little dicey there at the end," Ganassi said, only hinting at the worry he must have felt. But, oh, how it worked out perfectly. Now Ganassi is the first owner to win the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 in the same season. "I didn't drive any cars," he said. "I didn't change any tires. I didn't put fuel in any of the cars. I'm very, very lucky is what it comes down to. I'm very lucky."
Mike Conway didn't have any time to react. He came up on Ryan Hunter-Reay's tire and suddenly he was airborne and upside down, careening into the trackside fence. "It was awful," said Reinbold. The steady din of the day, the beautiful squeal of engines and scream of fans, went away. "It was quiet," said Reinbold. "Silent." Medics got Conway's helmet off – a good sign. Conway waved – another good sign. Fear slowly turned to relief. And then to anger.
Had Franchitti lost, well, the questions would have swarmed. The doubts about his move to NASCAR would have company in the form of doubts about how he let redemption slip away. Franchitti would have raced wide-open all afternoon, only to come from ahead at the last possible second. That would be the kind of outcome that gets in a man's head and stays there. Every little decision – every ounce of pressure on the gas pedal – would have been mulled repeatedly. But now no one can question Franchitti's ability to win the world's biggest IndyCar race. He has done it twice. So there was no eyebrow raising when he hinted that racing is racing, whether at Indy or Daytona: "Strategy is part of racing," Franchitti said, "whether it's IndyCar racing, stockcar racing, sports car racing. You have to find the best way to get to the finish line."
There is plenty of second-guessing in the Conway camp Sunday night, but all of it is directed outward. "It's kinda silly to allow a guy to run 203 in the groove," said Conway's manager, Larry Curry. "It makes for a dangerous situation on a deteriorating racetrack." So does that mean a black flag should have been waved on Franchitti? "If you're running that slow in Indy," Curry said, "then yes. He's not in this crash if that happens." Reinbold, the team owner, wasn't as upset: "Normally officials would intervene," he said. "There wasn't time." But that doesn't lessen the sting of a terrifying accident and a destroyed car. Conway led the race late. He had plenty of fuel. Who knows what could have happened? One member of Conway's crew said, "They didn't want to let anyone else win this race."
Sunday night, Chip Ganassi decided to go to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600. Why not? "I think I'm going to go," he said. "Feeling pretty good about racing today. I have a new burst of energy." So he went, while Dario and Ashley got ready to go home. Maybe a $20 million bonus awaits them. Maybe even a third 500 win someday. But there is no more worry for Dario. He tied his heroes Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart, with two Indy victories. He can watch NASCAR without a shred of regret. He's back.
Mike Conway was airlifted to Methodist Hospital Sunday night. It's not known when he will race again.
- Dario Franchitti
- Mike Conway