Spectators streaming into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway mid-morning to secure prime vantage spots were quickly joined by tens of thousands of other ticket-holders on a glorious spring day to witness the first-ever Verizon IndyCar Series race on the new road course.
"Wow! What a great day of racing," Jim O'Neill of Louisville, Ky., enthused in the sun-drenched Pagoda Plaza late during the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis. "You had it all."
Strategy, drama, overtaking, bumps and bruises, and -- in what was a devastatingly surprising and frustrating development for first-time Verizon P1 Award winner Sebastian Saavedra -- a standing start that knocked his and two other cars out of the 82-lap battle before cars reached the first of 14 turns on the 2.439-mile circuit.
Finally, fans saw history as Simon Pagenaud picked up the hard-earned win but couldn't celebrate with a burnout because there was nary a drop of E85 left in the 18.5-gallon fuel tank.
"He doesn't like to save fuel, but he did everything we asked him to do today," race strategist Rob Edwards said.
Click it: Grand Prix of Indianapolis box score
Pagenaud, who started fourth in the No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports car, held off Ryan Hunter-Reay by .8906 of a second for his third Verizon IndyCar Series victory and the charging Helio Castroneves, celebrating his 39th birthday, by 1.8244 seconds. Like Pagenaud's, Hunter-Reay's No. 28 DHL car was starved for fuel after completing 28 laps. Castroneves, who started 10th in the No. 3 Verizon Team Penske car, had plenty of fuel and was closing in the final laps but couldn't get around Hunter-Reay.
“Did you hear the number they were asking for? This car’s making fuel, I think, thanks to Honda," said Pagenaud, who will mark his 30th birthday May 18. "The fuel we’re saving is amazing. With the pace it was nerve-racking. I was worried about Helio coming back and I didn’t know what Hunter Reay was doing either, so I just kept working. My lap time was saving fuel, being off throttle. I don’t like racing off throttle. But it worked out."
Sebastien Bourdais finished a season-high fourth, while Charlie Kimball jumped 18 positions relative to his starting spot to finish fifth. Teammate Ryan Briscoe gained eight positions from the start and overcame a drive-through penalty for a pit safety infraction to finish sixth. Series rookie Jack Hawksworth, who earned his first front-row start, led a field-high 31 laps and finished seventh.
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“It was a shame. We had the race under such good control in the beginning," said Hawksworth, who finished fourth in the 2013 Indy Lights championship. "It’s disappointing because we could have won the race. We just have to move on to the next race."
There were 12 lead changes, and Pagenaud inherited the point for the duration on Lap 78 when Oriol Servia had to make a fuel stop. He led Hunter-Reay across the line by 2.8 seconds on Lap 80 and coaxed the Honda-powered car to navigate the final laps without incident or stalling.
Both Hunter-Reay and Pagenaud gained on championship points leader Will Power, who started fifth in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske car and placed a season-low eighth. Power (149) leads Hunter-Reay by one point and Pagenaud by six heading into the points-laden Indianapolis 500 on May 25.
"Everybody was doing different strategies, but it was a lot of fun," said Hunter-Reay, who has a victory and pair of runner-up finishes this season. "I would rather not have saved fuel at the end. But the team put us on the right strategy, so thanks to them. I thought maybe we had a shot that time but hopefully we’re saving that last step of the podium for the big race at the end of the month (the Indianapolis 500)."
Pagenaud is the fourth different winner in as many races this season, which also has seen four different pole sitters. Saavedra, of Colombia, was the latest, and he was expecting to challenge for the victory after a strong performance in the three rounds of qualifications.
But as the starting lights extinguished and drivers were launching from their starting spots on the frontstretch, the No. 17 AFS KV AFS Racing car didn't move. Drivers immediately behind dodged Saavedra, but the Nos. 34 (Carlos Munoz) and 7 (Mikhail Aleshin) cars slammed into the helpless Saavedra. The drivers weren't injured, but City of Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, who was waving the ceremonial green flag, suffered a soft tissue injury on his arm from flying debris and was treated at the IU Health Infield Medical Center and released.
“We just followed protocol of the start. As soon as I released the clutch you went from 11,000 RPMs to 0," Saavedra said. "Very sad because we did an amazing job. The team had very high expectations. When you have the opportunity to be in the front of the pack in this amazing place you want to bring it home. To not even get a chance because of an electrical thing or something (is disappointing)."
About 18 hours after the checkered flag, most of the drivers will take to the 2.5-mile oval for the opening of practice for the Indianapolis 500. Qualifications are May 17-18.
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