Across Oceans And Series: Fernando Alonso At The Indianapolis 500
“Sometimes, when you know everything there is to know about something, you feel the need to be a beginner again! ”
I want in!
This was the extent of my eloquence in my frenetic text messages to my long-time editor-in-chief Laurence Foster that I’d dashed off the instant after the news broke like the thundering of an online avalanche; Formula One’s two-time world champion Fernando Alonso was to forgo racing in F1’s crown jewel event at the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix (which he has won twice before) in order to compete, attempt to qualify, and, if he made the show, race in the 101st running of the great American classic, the Indy 500.
Almost instantly, the world motorsport press began buzzing about the Alonso story like a swarm of bees pouring over fresh honeycomb. Even the New York Times—normally a bastion of sober reserve, and rarely ever mentioning Formula One or IndyCar—made note of it! It became clear that every publication, website, and local small town paper in the Western Hemisphere that had even the faintest interest in racing could now be seen storming the castle at the IMS (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) media center in order to get the hottest ticket in sports for the month of May, nay, perhaps the summer: a media pass for the 500!
If I wanted to get anywhere even remotely close to Fernando, it was time to pull out all the stops. My pre-production story begins with burning the midnight oil by looking at everything I could find that I had not yet consumed on the man. In the wee hours of the night, burrowing deep into the website for Alonso’s new fashion line, Kimoa, I discovered to my absolute astonishment that they had filmed the launch video less than a mile from my place in the hood; Venice, CA! It just seemed completely surreal to me that the Fernando Alonso, whom I had followed for a decade around the world at the most exotic destinations of grand prix races, was (clearly just moments before) right there in my own backyard. It’s a remarkably strange feeling, seeing one of the most famous athletes in the entire world casually on-location in my day-to-day reality.
Perhaps this was an auspicious sign…
For the last year and a half, I have been following Petrolicious as a passionate curatorial platform; in fact, what I noticed most often on my Facebook feed was the best of the obscure vintage F1 racing videos that kept coming Petrolicious like the slow meting out of a treasure trove. So, I took a long shot in the dark and reached out to an old friend in ALMS: winning driver and team owner, Tim Pappas, whom I recalled had been profiled on the site to see if I could get him to give me an introduction. Imagine my delight when we got the fateful reply from the Editorial Director Ted Gushue, who said to come down to chat over coffee. We came, we chatted, and, thank the racing gods, got the gig!
Everyone knows how competitive the Indy 500 is. But did you have any idea how fierce—dare I say cutthroat—the competition is behind the scenes amongst the anoraks, telephotos, pundits, and a few complete hacks competing for quotes, story angles, and the best photos on the one racing story everyone wanted this year? The reality is there is only so much Fernando to go around, and therefore, the man is protected by an entourage of minders like the security apparatus of a visiting head of state.
There we were, at the brickyard with all the usual suspects, acolytes, and heavy hitters. From TV network titans like CNN, NBC sports, ABC / ESPN, to the Japanese, Spanish, and Euro press all the way down row after row of cameras, mics, and laptops, to the old-timers and Hoosiers hangers-on. And then there was me. Before I even got the credentials draped around my neck or in my eager fist, I was told there would be no room for me to have a workspace in the media center because of the Fernando-mania that’d taken over the place.
When people say this is the biggest single-day sporting event in the world they are not just messing about with embellishment; Indy is bigger than any World Cup game, Wimbledon final, World Series decider, or even the Super Bowl. The plain fact remains, more people fill the grandstands (350,000+) around this 2.5-mile racetrack than any other sporting venue in the world. The sheer atmospheric voltage the race day crowd adding to the scene of machines remains truly one of those things where you have to be there in person to fully appreciate it.
It used to be in the late-1950s and 1960s that drivers from both the Grand Prix world of Formula One and Indy would crossover to compete in both series. An event called The Race of Two Worlds, also known as the 500 Miglia di Monza (500 Miles of Monza), held at the home of the Italian Grand Prix hosted an open head-on competition between the USAC-sanctioned Indy Cars of the day versus the F1 heroes on the same track. This is the historic touchstone of the 1958-59 season that is the source of the hashtag on the side of the Alonso McLaren Honda Andretti Autosport IndyCar, #RaceOfTwoWorlds.
What’s the big deal then about this cross pollination if its already been done?
Well, it’s been 25 years since a world champion driver has demurred from the pinnacle of the sport in his prime to mix it up with those on this side of the pond. It’s the stuff of great Hollywood movies to set a hero on his journey and to invite cultures to clash to see how the best of both worlds compare. Is it the well-heeled champagne-soaked jet-set of F1 prima donna drivers with their movie stars and royalty in Monaco? Or is it Joe six-pack and the snake pit squalor of the American IndyCar scene at races as rural and provincial as Alabama and Mid-Ohio, where the talent is less glitzy but every bit as adroit behind the wheel.
Planets had to align. Icons of industry, titans of sport, and team bosses were required to collude, conspire, and cooperate: imagine that for a disruption to the status quo of modern F1! The biggest thing in F1 and IndyCar in the last two decades began as a joke when Zak Brown, the newly installed American boss (and Indy insider), Executive Director of McLaren Technology Group, said to Alonso at the season opening Australian GP, “You know Fernando, one day we should go do Indy together.”
People presume incorrectly that the previous greatest crossover story was in 1993, with Englishman Nigel Mansell, who had just won the ’92 World Championship with the Williams GP. Team boss Frank Williams was of the imperious attitude that it was his cars that made the driver and not the other way around. Therefore, rather than grant a champion the type of raise in pay to be expected, he whiplashed Mansell with a massively underwhelming compensation offer. Mansell, being a proud champion bearing the nickname “Il Leone” (“The Lion”) by his adoring Italian fans from the epic days of Nigel as a Ferrari pilota was cut to the quick. Despite being offered a deus ex machina type of freedom at the last moment from Williams, he decided to leave F1 for Indy cars. Mansell’s new teammate for 1993 was a fellow named Mario Andretti.
To my way of thinking, this is not the seminal moment of our story though. Instead, we ought to be looking just past Mansell. Rather, it was the great Ayrton Senna, himself a perennial Mansell nemesis, who holds the key to unlocking the tumblers of our deeper understanding of Alonso and his bid for greatness in IndyCar. Only months after Mansell decided to bail on F1 did the legendary Brazilian and three-time F1 World Champion Ayrton Senna entertain a serious flirtation with going the same route. Tying it all together, Senna was in fact a young Fernando Alonso’s racing idol. This tapestry makes for the real emotional backdrop to our story. It was indeed Senna who was the role model inspiring Fernando to make this move, a man who in 2005 became the youngest F1 champion ever (at the time).
There is a little bit of truth in every joke ..
Few other than the deep insiders of the sport are aware that Senna took the unprecedented move of leveraging his contract negotiations against an entrenched McLaren team boss Ron Dennis by demonstrating his willingness to change series by following suit to Mansell and crossing the pond to IndyCars. Dennis, then the boss of the McLaren F1 team, was also holding out on negotiating Ayrton’s 1993 contract, which gave rise to the tantalizing test date. Just like Zak Brown began something big by kidding around with Fernando, Penske racing driver Emerson Fittipaldi rang his fellow Brazilian during the winter off season in ’92, and joked about how it might be good fun to share the front row at Indy, with Nigel in between them. Emmo was of course already a two-time world champ himself (1972 and ’74), and was well on his way to becoming a two-time Indy 500 champ too (1989 and 1993). Fittipaldi had kindly introduced Senna to F1 team bosses when he was just a youngster coming up through the ranks in British Formula 3, considering him a friend and a protégé.
History repeats itself… sometimes in amazing ways.
In 1993, the same year Senna had Mario’s son Michael Andretti as his teammate at McLaren, it is well documented that Michael suffered under the leadership style of Ron Dennis. Later, when Alonso first raced at McLaren in 2007, he too had an acrimonious time with the demanding Dennis, and ended up leaving the team with two years left on his contract. Michael himself was ostensibly pushed out from McLaren with three races left in the ’93 grand prix season.
How perfectly full circle is it that Fernando is going to race in the McLaren-Honda as one of six entries under Andretti Autosport, run by the same Michael Andretti, the former teammate to his hero Ayrton Senna! Michael’s team has won the last three out of four years at Indy, and could provide a winning car for the first time in years to Fernando.
But, why would Alonso do this this year in particular?
For one, things this season could not be worse for a man considered to have no apparent weakness as a driver. But of course, drivers do not alone win championships. Alonso finds his F1 team McLaren is in the doldrums with five DNFs in five races, due largely to failures of the engines provided by Honda. Also, what if he falls on his famous face at Indy? Or, worse yet, he could be seriously injured just as three-time world champ Nelson Piquet was in ’92 when he had a career-ending crash at Turn Four practicing at Indy, badly breaking his legs. Indy, like the sport itself, can create both soaring epic moments of emotion in racing history, or, in the blink of an eye, it can also by dark turns be a cruel mistress who ends careers with a the wrong kind of bang.
Alonso cited the ambition of the so-called triple crown of racing: winning the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500, and 24 Hours of Le Mans. This is a feat achieved by only one driver in history, Graham Hill, who was able to produce this remarkable trifecta of victories in the 1960s. If pride is a virtue, then I am convinced by my observations that Alonso has it in spades. It is precisely because of his sense of pride that he aspires to something greater than what the current results show. If statistics were the ultimate measure of a man then all we would need are the numbers to demonstrate who is the best. History shows Michael Schumacher won seven world titles, more than Fangio’s five, more than Senna’s three, and yes, more than Alonso’s two, yet recently, when the current field of modern F1 drivers were polled, who do you think they listed as the greatest of all time? Senna, of course. What do these F1 drivers know that the accountants do not?
This is by no means an attempt to diminish the absolute dominance of Schumacher, but perhaps there is something more to a man than his winning percentage stats? How does one measure a racer’s heart for instance? Grit? Persistence? Me thinks it’s the man in full—in and out of the car—that weighed on the drivers minds when overwhelmingly citing Senna as the GOAT.
Pole Day at the Indianapolis 500, Final Qualifying
Fernando Alonso, having made a career of driving faster than many of the fastest drivers on the planet behind a wheel of grand prix car, is now about to go out and drive the next four laps of Indy 500 qualifying literally and figuratively faster than he has ever driven in his professional life. With all the delight of a man buoyed with the possibility of winning on merit again for the first time in years, Alonso took to the track in his No. 29 period-piece-painted orange McLaren-Honda with every fiber of his supremely talented being undistracted from his present purpose. This was a seriously cool feeling to be this close. To be even the smallest part of it, to be a witness to this.
To appreciate the increase in magnitude of this physical and mental challenge for the drivers, consider F1’s most famous corners taken flat out in top gear: include the beautifully vaulting Eau Rouge at Spa, the 130R at Suzuka, and Monza’s Parabolica. For the way it separates the men from the boys, only the 130R navigated at 190mph and 3.4g could even approach the pucker-factor of Turn One at Indy: 232mph and 4.3g of force. Not a typo. But consider this, the 130R is but one corner of Suzuka’s 3.6-mile, 17-turn circuit, wherein the lap record is around 1:31:00. This means one has an entire minute or so to collect bearings, prepare, and then wind up the mental fortitude for the next bout with the infamous corner.
At Indy, you are essentially doing above and beyond the 130R, and with only 10 seconds or less between these epic moments of truth with time for only a few sharp breaths before the next complex, as Indy’s first corner and short shoot into Turn Two amounts to one long extremely committed double-apex long corner which is akin to not so much like walking a tight-rope, but rather sprinting like Usain Bolt on one.
Take popular former F1 driver and ultra-successful IndyCar driver Sébastien Bourdais, whom was just positively on it in his four-lap qualifying run after Alonso’d set the time to beat for provisional pole @231.300mph (four-lap average). I was standing right next to Fernando, who was doing the ritual merry-go-round of the PR interviews in post-qualifying when it happened: Alonso stopped mid-sentence of his usual thoughtful cadence when on the big screen over the shoulder of the reporter he was speaking to came the violence of a live shot of Bourdais at frightening terminal velocity in a massive accident. It is a brutal silence when the note of the IndyCar engine howling is cut off by the hollow impact of a distant shunt.
Bourdais suffered a painfully fractured pelvis, but survived a 227mph near-head-on crash. It must have occurred to Fernando that it could just as easily been him or his car in that situation. If it did, he never showed any trepidation or hesitation about what he still had to do in order to go out and do everything he could to try to win this third of the dream jewel that is motorsport’s Triple Crown.
In the lead up to the big show there were the traditions of the downtown parade in the city of Indianapolis, a public driver’s meeting, and like it or not, a massive autograph session with all the drivers. In F1, the drivers are ensconced and insulated from the public to the utmost degree, and things like an autograph session are unheard of. Fernando soaked it all in. Seated at tables by how they qualified, Fernando was sandwiched between the eventual Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato, and J.R. Hildebrand, who was one corner away from winning the race as a rookie in 2011. I knew Sato thanks to our mutual friend in F1, my photo mentor Paul-Henri Cahier, and chatted him up a bit while looking for a good Alonso shot. On the other side of the table I kneeled quietly next to J.R., whom I have known for years, having worked to help him secure his first full-time ride in IndyCar. I could not help but notice that J.R. had a pile of autograph cards already signed in front of him, but not many takers, as the line for the table was seemingly only focused on Alonso. In a fit of empathy, I asked my old friend to personalize a card for my 9-year-old boy, and promptly got kicked out of the media side (behind the drivers tables) for my faux pas. No good deed goes unpunished apparently!
Look, we all know what transpired in the race this year: Takuma Sato, who qualified next to Alonso, won the race. The Spaniard was in the mix though, having remained in the top ten and looking to be there at the end, only to have his Honda engine sadly give up the ghost only 20 laps from the finish. It was an ignominious end for a proud champion whom by all accounts had lived up to the massive hype and even arguably exceeded it.
Alonso was leading when Scott Dixon had one of the most spectacularly violent crashes ever seen at Indy, calling out the red flag and stopping the race while they cleared the track of what looked like a debris field scattered from an airline crash. He walked up pit row from the grass at the Turn One entry where his McLaren Honda sat silently, and fans rushed the fence between the pits and the stands, reaching their arms in as far as they could through the gap in the fencing in hopes of just touching their hero for one moment. My privilege and honor was to be exactly there where they all wanted to be—on the inside.
Speaking seriously, I could feel Fernando coming even before I could see the man, as every head in the vicinity followed his movement in the way that prey recognizes the arc of its predator: with a slight alarm and the rising instinct to run! Then he was there in front of me, Fernando walking with his flat black helmet still strapped on, perhaps to mask his emotions? Just as he had done behind the wheel all his life, he chose exactly the line where he could touch the limit, in this case, the line of fans, without being pulled in too close.
This was it. This was the closest I would ever be to Fernando on this assignment. It’s the moment of truth. Now, now …. NOW!!! (SFX: insert sound here of the precision movement of a Leica M shutter release).
Alonso is a lion too. Despite not winning that day, he may have won more fans all the same for how they loved him as a wounded champ. Proud. Steadfast. In his acceptance speech for the Rookie of the Year award, he won the audience over by admitting he had brought note cards to this once or twice in a lifetime chance to ensure he would get it right.
“We came with the aim of linking two worlds of motorsport, and I think we have achieved that… It has been a privilege and an honor to take part in such a great event. I want to thank you, all the drivers, I am so glad I have found great people and some new friends; you guys are super talented! I can say I have learned so much from each one of you and it has made me a better driver.”
Yes, indeed he touched the fans, but me thinks the Indy 500 touched him too. I shudder in giddy anticipation to think of Fernando Alonso at Indy again, no longer a first-timer rookie. How much better could he be with more experience here? The hashtag that is the company slogan at Alonso’s pet fashion project may hold a clue for us in that it reads simply: #neversurrender