INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indy 500, held every Memorial Day weekend, is draped in Americana. Thousands of fans attend the “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” decked out in stars and stripes attire. They stand tall when the the colors are presented, take off their hats for the National Anthem and cheer when a colossal American flag makes a lap around the track on a flatbed.
But the quintessentially American Indy 500 also is a showcase and celebration of international racing talent. In the 101st Indy 500 held Sunday, 21 of the 33 drivers who raced in the event were from countries other than the U.S., including six Latino drivers.
The international aspect of the race was underscored by the race's winner, Takuma Sato, the first Japanese driver to win it, and the second place finisher, three-time winner Helio Castroneves of Brazil.
The international mix of the drivers in the race drew attention over the weekend after a Denver Post sportswriter tweeted after the race that he was "uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the Indianapolis 500 during Memorial Day weekend." The writer was fired.
Although the elite auto race's drivers first and foremost represent teams and sponsors, they’re also proud ambassadors for their home countries.
The countries of origin of drivers is often noted with a flag replica on their uniform, their cars or on nameplates in garages as well as online and on most race results. Sato waved the Japanese flag after winning the Indy.
Like Castroneves, Tony Kanaan is also from Brazil, while Carlos Muñoz, Sebastián Saavedra and two-time champ Juan Pablo Montoya are Colombia natives. Gaby Chaves is Colombian-American.
On race day, drivers Muñoz, Chaves, and Saavedra were awaiting the drop of the green flag to represent their teams, but to also come through for the yellow, red and blue banner of Colombia.
“To me it’s being able to take my culture with me, my values and hopefully, bring my flag to the top of the step for the race,” Chaves, 23, told NBC Latino on the morning before the race.
“It’s a lot of pride,” Saavedra said. “We not only have four Colombians but we also have two Brazilians and two drivers from Spain, which activates a lot of the Latino market and a lot of the Latino fans that are here and also watching from everywhere in the world.”
Seeing Latino drivers excel in the sport was a source of pride for some Latino fans at the race.
Kelvin Solares went to the Indy 500 to support his favorite driver Montoya, who drove for Team Penske. Montoya finished sixth in the race.
“He actually did an awesome job, so I’m very happy,” Solares said.
“It feels very good to see a lot of Latinos doing really well in the race,” he added. “We’ve had a few winners and as a Latino it makes me feel really proud,”
In a race full of crashes and engine blowouts, only 19 of the 33 drivers finished, with all six Latino drivers making it through to the end.
Kanaan finished in 5th, Chaves in 9th, Muñoz in 10th and Saavedra in 15th.
“I did my best,” Castroneves said in the post-race interview session. He and Sato traded the lead in the final laps and Sato took it for good in the end, beating Castroneves by a 0.2011 margin.
Even though Castroneves was denied his fourth Indy 500 win, it was a good day for the Latino drivers at the race.
“All together it’s just bringing something positive in these negative times. (I) just want to bring a little bit of good energy on all the little bad things that are happening in South America,” Saavedra said.