Coming off Turn 4 of the final lap of the Firestone Freedom 100, Carlos Munoz, Sage Karam and Gabby Chaves were three abreast on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, urging their cars and being cheered by tens of thousands of spectators on their feet.
Suddenly, Peter Dempsey found a seam close to the outside wall on the 50-foot-wide frontstretch. A bobble and the No. 5 Belardi Auto Racing car crashes before completing the 40-lap race. But spotter Stefan Wilson told him to go for it, Dempsey kept it straight and surged even with Chaves' No. 7 Schmidt Peterson with Curb-Agajanian car 200 yards from the checkered flag at 185 mph.
In a blink it was over, and the 27-year-old native of Ashbourne, Ireland, immediately knew he had won the marquee race of the Firestone Indy Lights season, raising his left hand off the steering wheel, though it was a photo finish. The margin of victory was .0026 of a second -- the closest on an oval in the 100-plus-year history of the Speedway.
That equals 8.47 inches. One hundred miles of racing and the winner is decided by a nose.
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Al Unser Jr. beat Scott Goodyear to the line by .043 of a second in the 1992 Indianapolis 500, and none of the NASCAR races at the Brickyard come close. There was a closer margin of victory in Firestone Indy Lights, though, at Chicagoland Speedway in 2007 (.0005 of a second by Logan Gomez over Alex Lloyd).
Chaves was second and pole sitter Sage Karam was .0280 of a second behind the winner in third. Carlos Munoz, who led Laps 13-39, was .0443 of a second off the winner.
"Beers are on me tonight," said Dempsey, who earned his first Firestone Indy Lights victory in his 20th start and moved to second in series standings. "I said it before the race, it’s 40 laps and you go around in circles, but there’s no better place to do that than in Indianapolis Motor Speedway."
"It literally took my breath away," team owner Brian Belardi said. "He did such a great job just holding station. We knew it was going to be a shootout with those three cars in the front and they just poked a massive hole and he was able to sneak in there and just drove a flawless race. He is a great race car driver, we all know. For the team to get their first here, it is so special. Words cannot describe it."
Munoz led Karam by .0914 of a second at the start of the white flag lap. Chaves was .1433 of a second back and Dempsey was .4915 of a second behind in fourth. Munoz, the series championship points leader, was running close to the inside line, with Karam and Chaves in the middle of the racetrack.
Karam and Munoz were running nose to tail -- separated by no more than one-tenth of a second from Lap 20 through 39.
"It was insane. It was a great race, great finish," Karam said. "It was just a lottery at the end. You didn't know who was going to win. That's the beauty of this place. It's a heartbreaker, but we will take it."
The lone caution flag flew on Lap 2 when the No. 67 car of Kyle O'Gara made contact with the Turn 4 wall.
Dempsey gave props to Wilson, a former Firestone Indy Lights driver, for his steady voice over the radio.
"I’m glad he spoke to me as much as he did," Dempsey said. "He won the race for me. He said be patient, get us across the line. They’re going to spread out and you’ll sneak up on them. He’s never won here with himself, but I definitely owe him this one.
"If you’re going to win your first Firestone Indy Lights race, there’s no better place to do it than at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I had a feeling this end was going to happen. And you know it’s going to be four-wide across the line certain enough. It’s massive.
"Belardi Auto Racing gave me this opportunity, and it’s Brian’s first win, so it’s much his dream as mine to win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And I beat the guy that qualified second in the Indianapolis 500, so that’s not a bad thing, is it?”