Commentary

Indianapolis 500 roars back to life

Updated: May 31, 2011, 12:54 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- The long night is over.

Not that the sun is high again on the Indianapolis 500 as the world's greatest motor race. Not yet.

But the sky is pink and there's a glow on the horizon.

The multitudes are back. So are the agony and the ecstasy that have distinguished this race for 100 years now.

Sunday's crowd was easily the largest since 1995, the year before the great schism of the Indy car leagues, the Dozen Years War that sent this race to its knees in global prestige, thence into twilight and deep night even in the consciousness of the American public that had made it great in the first place.

Safe to say the world has seen its largest one-day crowd for a sporting event this year.

Sunday's 250,000-plus here was it. No place else on Earth will equal that, for anything.

Certainly not NASCAR here in July. Ticket sales are woefully off compared to last year, when the Brickyard 400 drew a paltry 100,000 or fewer.

No doubt Sunday's crowd was enhanced by the 100th anniversary. But that impact may well last. The action on the track was plenty to sustain the momentum.

The legions left simply drained by a simply astounding finish, after being electrified by the final 20 laps, after Danica Patrick took the lead and appeared to have a chance to win until she pitted with 10 laps to go.

[+] EnlargeIndy Crowd
AP Photo/Paul SancyaFans filled the grandstands at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a good sign for the grand ol' race.

I still say Michael Andretti should have left her out there and rolled the dice on ethanol. She probably wouldn't have made it, but if she had, the result of this race again would have flashed round the world and onto newscasts and front pages everywhere -- the way it's supposed to, and the way it did, for decades.

As it was, Indy's own Trevor Bayne-type drama arose when a rookie American driver -- that's far rarer and therefore dearer here than at Daytona -- took the lead with two laps left.

Then, just when you thought the drama couldn't soar higher, young J.R. Hildebrand did something no driver had ever done in the previous 94 runnings of this race since 1911. Nobody had ever crashed while leading on the last lap, let alone almost through Turn 4, let alone all by himself.

The crash, and Dan Wheldon's winning pass, occurred in such swift succession that there had to be a postrace review to make sure Wheldon had taken the lead before the caution came out.

Hildebrand had such momentum, even after the crash, that he made it to the finish line at perhaps 80 mph for a clear second-place finish at least.

But more, far more, importantly than the way they left here, Indy's returning legions arrived electrified.

They came in full Indy mood, the first time I've felt that since '95. They even cheered the invocation. They worked themselves into an enormous roar just in anticipation of Jim Nabors' first strains of "Back Home Again in Indiana."

Generally the final half-hour of prerace was a constant electric buzz, the way an enormous crowd can't be silent even when it tries to be.

They came early, because the start had returned to traditional time. Actually it was at noon instead of 11 a.m. as of yore. But that was only because Indiana, a state that for decades didn't want to confuse its dairy cows and stuck with standard time, has finally gone to daylight savings time.

They filled all but perhaps 25,000 seats. And in the most massive grandstands on the face of the earth, capacity 250,000-plus, that's quite a crowd.

In the infield, the area inside the third turn, rapidly gaining a reputation as "the new Snakepit," was teeming with revelers. The paddock was as lively with crowds milling about as I've seen it since the Formula One years here.

In the south stands outside Turns 1 and 2, there was only one visible little area of sparsely populated seats. There were a few more spots in the north stands off Turns 3 and 4, and the seats right at the end of the backstretch were somewhat barren.

Other than that, the stands were as packed as they've been since Jacques Villeneuve won what some purists consider the last great Indy, '95, because it was the last one before the CART-IRL split.

The Indy 500 isn't fully back yet, but the Daytona 500 might better start tuning that second fiddle, just in case.

Charlotte, of course, hyped as its 600 is, was never in the hunt for the title of world's greatest race in the first place.

At Le Mans next month, the organizers may claim a crowd similar to this one in the 24 Hours, but estimates there have always seemed blatantly inflated to me. And they're impossible to document, scattered as the spectators are through the forests of western France.

And Le Mans organizers had better hope for a spectacular event if they want to stay in the conversation about this notion of the world's greatest race.

As for Monaco, Sunday's Grand Prix there was blown away in sheer drama by the goings-on here. Besides, they can't squeeze more than about 50,000 people along the street course, up in the cliffs and on the hotel balconies.

For 16 years now, the motor racing world has been in limbo, night, confusion, without a clear greatest event.

But the sky is pink over Indiana. There's a glow on the horizon off toward Ohio, to the east.

The world is waiting for the sunrise.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.