In The Orange Car, Indy Sees A Promising ‘Black Hat’

Like Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989 or Michael Andretti in 1992, The Greatest Spectacle in Racing needs a bad boy. Fernando Alonso is just the man suited for the position.

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Fernandomania!

That’s what everyone was already calling it—a little unoriginally, I thought, but it was clear right away that it was athing.”

I made my way out to the Speedway on that first Monday of the month with the same goal in mind as everyone else who’d skipped work to be there that day: to catch a glimpse of Fernando Alonso.

Fernando Alonso

Kate Shoup

I flashed my silver badge at a yellow shirt, stepped into the pits, and immediately spotted a crowd five rows deep, gathered underneath a Creamsicle-orange sign emblazoned with a dark-blue “”29.” There were seven other drivers out there that day, going through orientation and a refresher course, and as I made my way down to Alonso’s stall, I noticed there wasn’t a single fan behind any of their pits. I looked up into the stands—same thing. Nearly everyone who’d come out to the track that day—save for a group of field-tripping schoolchildren screaming and running up and down the bleachers off in their own section—was gathered directly behind Alonso’s pit, most with their phones out, snapping photos of the Formula One superstar sitting motionless in his car, surrounded by a throng of mechanics.

I couldn’t help but smile. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky, temps hovering in the low 80s, cars buzzing around the track, fans buzzing in the stands … The Month of May, baby, it was here, finally. I had to force myself to refocus, though, and wiped the smile from my face as I approached Alonso’s pit stall. I could bask in the glory of the track later, possibly shirtless, definitely with a tenderloin and a cold beer. First, however, I needed to do something. And it couldn’t be done with a big, happy grin on my face.

I was there to see Alonso, yes, but not to take a photo, not to gawk and giggle and get all flushed in the presence of his supposed greatness like everyone else. No, I was there for a very different reason. I wanted to catch a glimpse of his eyes. I wanted to find out something that couldn’t be determined by reading a driver bio, listening to an interview, or watching him complete practice laps. I wanted to catch his gaze, force him to hold it, look deep into his big brown eyes—the window into the soul, right?—and see if they revealed what I thought they would.

I needed to know if he was worthy.

….                              ….                              ….

I remember my first Indy 500 villain, the first driver I loved to hate, and the first guy I openly rooted against: Michael Andretti. People forget nowadays, but once upon a time, Michael was a young, brash, legacy kid who publicly talked about bolting for Formula One. 1992. One of the most memorable races in the 100-year history of the event, filled with all sorts of unforgettable moments: There was the bone-chilling cold, a wind chill in the 30s, Roberto Guerrero, the pole-sitter, wrecking out on the pace lap. It was Rick Mears’s last 500. A.J. Foyt’s last 500. And, of course, the final lap battle between Little Al and Scott Goodyear, resulting in the closest finish, at that time, in 500 history.

But you know what I remember most vividly from that race? Eleven laps to go, Michael with a 30-second lead, and Tom Carnegie’s voice coming over the P.A. system to inform everyone that “ANDRETTI IS SLOWING DOWN!” I can still hear the cheers, can still picture my dad high-fiving with the strangers next to him, still remember throwing off the blanket I’d been wrapped in and jumping up and down.

Michael Andretti

Photo by Kate Shoup

Nobody wanted to see Michael win that year, not after hearing him talk all month about his upcoming meetings with Formula One teams, his wish to depart for Europe at the end of the season. It insulted us fans that he would want to race anywhere but Indy. Even as a 9-year-old, I understood that. When his fuel pump blew with 189 laps complete, I knew that it was karma at work, a warning from the Speedway gods never to take the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for granted.

It’s funny, though—if I had known then, 25 years ago, how it would all play out for young Michael, that he would never win a 500, I might have responded differently. But that’s not what fandom is all about. It’s not about being fair and thinking reasonably—it’s about wearing your emotions on your sleeve, reacting in the moment, and picking sides based on completely arbitrary reasons. Michael Andretti understood the relationship completely.

“You want to be the guy that’s hated,” he told IndyCar.com last year. “In the early ’90s, I was really hated. I used to get booed everywhere. Then you get to the late ’90s and early 2000s, and all of a sudden, everybody is cheering for me.”

To be booed, hated, is to be respected. It means you win, a lot, usually in an aggressive, dominant fashion. A villain can’t be a back-marker, some also-ran with a surly personality, and it’s also true that a driver can go from a being booed to cheered, from villain to hero, over the arc of their career. I remember when I realized it had happened to Michael, that moment in 2006 when he took the lead with four to go, and how the crowd exploded—it was like ’92, only the exact opposite—hats were waving, Dad and I were both high-fiving strangers, everyone was hoping for the exact same thing: for Michael to finally get what he so badly deserved.

….                              ….                              ….

There are two sides to the Alonso Comes to Indianapolis story, and they need to be kept separate when deciding which color hat to assign him. On the one hand, there’s the undeniable fact that Alonso’s appearance here is fantastic marketing for IndyCar in the short term, and could serve to strengthen the reputation of the Indianapolis 500 long-term. As a passionate supporter of both entities, I find the idea that eyes from all over the world that have never witnessed the 500 before will be on Indianapolis this year—over 2 million people streamed Alonso’s Indy test alone—makes my chest swell with pride.

There’s also word coming out of the garage that, by all accounts, Alonso isn’t a, um … a prick, I guess is the word I’m looking for, that’s the term typically associated, fairly or not, with so many of the Formula One exports. He wants to be here. I’ve heard that line over and over, from fans and media alike. He wants to learn, he’s staying humble, interacting with teammates, signing autographs. He appreciates this opportunity.

And I believe it. I totally buy that Alonso would much rather be racing at Indy instead of Monaco this year, and in the brief interviews I’ve heard him give, he’s been candid about his inexperience at Superspeedways, and very grateful for the help of his teammates. He even “wrote” an article in The Players’ Tribune, defending his decision to race here:

“The Indy 500 is one of the greatest events in the sport,” he said. “Drivers all over the world know this. I belong there. Because I’m a racer. I always have been, and I always will be.”

A view of Alonso’s retro helmet and orange McLaren Honda Andretti car.

Chris Owens/IMS Photo

Which brings us to the other side of the story. Alonso wants to be here so badly, this year, because things are so miserable at home right now. It’s almost like he’s a married businessman having an affair on an international trip, sleeping with Indy because his Formula One team isn’t putting out sufficient RPMs back home.

If Alonso had a chance to podium at Monaco this weekend, I keep asking myself, would he be here at Indy? And the answer I keep returning to is … NO. He wouldn’t. There’s no way Alonso would have convinced McLaren to give him a hall pass if he were competitive in Formula One—and he wouldn’t have even asked. That’s not me speculating, either. Alonso said so himself when the announcement was made:

“To be honest, if we (his F1 McLaren team) are fighting for the world championship (this year), we can’t afford to lose 25 points of possibilities.”

Also, while we’re talking motivating factors: am I the only one who was a little put off by Alonso’s statement that he wants to win Indy as part of the “Triple Crown of Racing?” As if the Indy 500 is the PGA Championship, or The Belmont Stakes or something. I’m sure Alonso meant it as a compliment, but I couldn’t help but feel a little defensive, offended even, at the suggestion.

As an Indianapolis sports fan, a myopic one, admittedly—I mean, aren’t we all?—there are three irrefutable truths in this world: 1) Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback to ever live, 2) Reggie Miller is the greatest clutch shooter in the history of basketball, and 3) The Indianapolis 500 is the single greatest auto-racing event on the planet.

It’s not “one of the greatest,” as Alonso has said, and implied, multiple times. You don’t win Indy as part of something greater—the Indianapolis 500 is The Greater. It’s the ultimate goal, the one event men return to over and over until they can no longer do it physically, and then, if they have enough money, they start their own team, and try to taste the milk vicariously. It is the end-all-be-all of racing events, and if a driver doesn’t get that, if he thinks of Indy as just another Big Event, well, then, we’re going to have a problem come Sunday.

….                              ….                              ….

The sun was high above the pagoda, and the crowd around Alonso was growing. I pushed my way past a dad and his 9-year old son, overheard the kid ask what the big deal was, smiled, and squirmed my way up to the pit wall, where I finally had an unobstructed view of Alonso’s helmeted head.

He was facing straight ahead as the mechanics tinkered with the nose cone. One guy, sweating profusely in dress pants and earmuffs, held a black umbrella over his head. I looked to my left, where a beautiful woman was scrolling through her phone on the back of Alonso’s golf cart (a thorough internet search would later confirm this to be Linda Morselli, his Italian fashion-model girlfriend), and then to my right, over my shoulder, where probably 40 fans were holding their phones high, calling out Alonso’s name.

There have been others, of course, other Indy villains during my lifetime, names that evoked boos at various times, for various reasons. Some of them—Danica Patrick and Tomas Scheckter, for instance—I didn’t find villainous at all. Like the people here to see Alonso, I was on the bandwagon from Day 1. While others—Nigel Mansell, Paul Tracy—I may or may not have created tiny voodoo dolls of, and stuck pins in them throughout the month.

There were always choices, polarizing figures who offered valid reasons to arbitrarily align against. But ever since Dario Franchitti called it quits, there’s only been one guy who looks even remotely comfortable in black: Juan Pablo Montoya. Everyone else, all the major competitors, is either too personable (Castroneves, Newgarden, Kanaan, Hinchcliffe), too nice (Kimball, Hildebrand, Pagenaud), too reserved (Rossi, Hunter-Reay), or legacy kids who’ve more than paid their dues (Andretti, Carpenter, Rahal).

I tried to force it with Scott Dixon, thinking he’d be easy to root against because of his success, and that he’s with Ganassi, but the guy is just too respectful of the Speedway, the 500, and the fans who make it all so special to generate any authentic hostility. Will Power seemed capable, he’s got the prickly demeanor down, and he is with Penske, but he’s been around so long—this is his 10th 500—and has been so close so many times (five Top 10 finishes), that he’s to the point of becoming a sympathetic figure, a good guy, a driver everyone pulls for more and more as the winless appearances mount.

It’s not that I’m complaining that IndyCar is filled with a bunch of likable, relatable people, drivers who I will happily root for come race day. Things are just a little more fun when there are a few guys to root against.

At this point, it’s like, what happens if Montoya’s car fails to fire off the starting grid? Who will be there to intensify the drama? Who will be left to create a little conflict over the course of 500 miles?

It was at that moment, as I was lost in thoughts of villains past, that it happened. Alonso’s hand came up to his visor, he raised it halfway, and turned his head in my direction. I’m sure he was looking for his girlfriend, but she was distracted with Instagram or whatever, and his eyes caught mine instead. I was prepared, and held his gaze. There we were, him, squinting from the glare of the sun; me, staring lasers, probably creeping him out.

I’m not sure what I expected. It’s not that I thought Alonso’s eyes would be wide with wonder, lit up and dancing, amazed to see so many adoring fans. And I certainly didn’t expect them to be misty-eyed and emotional at finally having made it to Indianapolis. But I wasn’t prepared for how locked-in he was. Even sitting there in the pits, engine dead, nothing happening, his eyes were filled with a sharp determination, a razor’s edge of focus that glinted in the sun and nearly blinded me. He was annoyed, too, I could see that clearly, ticked off that he was sitting in the pits with a guy holding an umbrella over his head, and not out on the track, turning laps.

And then, just like that, it was over, Alonso’s visor snapped shut. He looked so sinister with it closed, Darth Vadian almost. He turned his head back toward the mechanics, who were now snapping his nose cone on.

Fernando Alonso

Chris Owens/IMS Photo

As brief as it was, the moment was long enough for me to project onto him what I had already suspected. Alonso is not just here to experience the thrill of competing in the Indianapolis 500, like he so nobly claims. He’s not here to get a feel for the place, in preparation of multiple attempts. I don’t think he ever plans on coming back, to be honest. He’s here to win, this year. He’s here to dominate our race, drink our milk, get his face engraved on our trophy, and then jet off back to his $30 million-a-year Formula One salary with his model girlfriend.

And we can’t have that. We can’t have the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500 being staged with the previous year’s winner off driving in some other race. It’s great that he’s here, wonderful that he’s not a prick, but this guy is a racer, remember, he wants trophies on the mantel, titles for the record book. He wants to be known as the greatest driver to ever race, and if he wins Indy on his first try, that’ll be it for him here at the Speedway. He’ll be off to Le Mans, or Daytona, or whatever other challenge there is for him out there, and all those new eyes watching overseas will tune out, reinforced in their belief that the world’s best drivers compete in Formula One.

I’ll tell you what I’d like to see happen instead, the outcome that would truly be best for everyone involved, and that’s for Alonso to get a taste of what this race can offer, not the whole pie, just a slice. Let him lead a bunch of laps, dominate the race even, and then slow to a stop in the north chute 11 laps short of victory. Forget this one-off B.S.—Alonso, and by extension, McLaren, should be here every year, as addicted to crossing the line of bricks first as Penske and Ganassi and Andretti and all the others who truly recognize that Indianapolis isn’t just a special place, but the most special place. We don’t want Alonso to simply want to be here because that’s what racers like him do. We want him to need to be here. The desire to drive at Indy must trump all others.

That’s what this place, this race, we fans, demand.

Alonso’s engine fired up, snapping me back into the moment, and the man with the black umbrella stepped away. The smile returned to my face as he shot off down the pit lane in a peel of smoke and rubber, and I backed out of the crowd and headed for the concessions, thirsty for a beer, ready for my first tenderloin of the month.

Yeah, he’s worthy.

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