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Ben Smith

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Associated Press
The car driven by Alex Popow and Sebastien Bourdais heads into a turn on a wet track on their way to winning the Grand Am Rolex Series race Friday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For more, see Page 4B.

Mini invasion at Speedway cool, ignored

– OK. Never seen that before.

It’s 2:30 or so on Friday afternoon at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and here is what just went past, going the wrong way around this ancient old place: A Mini Cooper.

Red body. Yellow roof. Big yellow 198 on the door.

And right then and there, inside my head, a scene from “Rudy” popped up.

You know the one: Rudy runs onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium, golden helmet shining in the sun. And his friend Bob points at him and shouts, “He’s so LITTLE!”

That was me watching the Mini at Indy this day, and, listen, there’s never been a day quite like it. For once, at a place that wears its hype on its sleeve, the hype was not hype. When they said this was historic, they were absolutely dead on.

As proof, I offer the RSR Motorsports No. 198, which turned a fast lap of 88.545 mph en route to a podium finish in the street-stock class of the Continental Tire race.

I offer the sight of a pit crew member opening an actual trunk to fuel a car during a pit stop. I offer the rain that pounded the Speedway intermittently but didn’t stop much of anything. And now here they come around again, and you know what I see?

There were a bunch of Ford and BMW Rileys in the three-hour Grand Am Rolex Series race, sending up rooster tails of water as they scream down the main straightaway. With … wait for it … their headlights on.

Headlights at Indy. Who’d have thunk it?

Surely this was a new day at a place that has seen a few. But if the Speedway was betting that would be hook enough to bring back the crowds of yore, the Speedway lost that bet.

Except for clots of fans along the main straightaway, on the infield mounds and down in Turn 4, the place was Ghost Town, USA. And that was a shame, really, because all those empty seats got a door handle-banging, no-backing-down show.

“Being here, sitting right now … like a dream come true, you know?” said Alex Popow, who teamed with Sebastien Bourdais to win the inaugural Grand Am Rolex Series.

“Epic race,” said Chris Puskar of Charlotte, N.C., who teamed with Randy Smalley of Paradise Valley, Ariz., to drive the No. 198 Mini to third in its class in the day’s opener.

Now here he was back in the paddock, his face shiny with sweat and his arms full: a magnum of champagne in the crook of one elbow, a huge silver trophy in the other. Slight and bespectacled, he looks more like a high school English teacher than a race driver. But looks deceive.

That Mini, for instance.

“It’s definitely got some modifications to it,” Puskar said. “It starts with a stock chassis and we put a roll cage in it, do a little motor work and a lot of suspension work …”

Horsepower?

“Puts out about 230,” Puskar said.

Handling?

“Oh, it’s awesome,” Puskar said. “Through the infield nobody can touch me.”

A Mini Cooper no one can touch.

Told you it was a new day.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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