The 96th Indianapolis 500 ushers in a new era


Perhaps what truly makes the Indianapolis 500 “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is tradition.

Indeed, few things change about the most significant annual event in motorsports. Whenever you enter the storied 2 1/2-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, you often feel as if you have never left.

As firmly steeped in tradition as the 500 is — the festivities during the Month of May, the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” before the race, the drinking of ice-cold milk in Victory Lane — one of those very traditions is evolution.

We’ll get just that in this, the 96th running of the race, which begins at noon Sunday. New cars, new stars, new hope — a new era.

Those who study the fascinating history of the Indianapolis 500 find it easy to see that evolution and progress has been as definitive of the race as listening to Tom Carnegie call time trials, attending Carb Day and having a bit too much fun in the Snake Pit.

We’ve seen the track paved completely with bricks, earning its iconic nickname of “The Brickyard.” We’ve seen it dilapidated during World War II and restored. We’ve seen it repaved with asphalt. We’ve seen the facilities, especially the towering pagoda, renovated and made into as majestic as any in the sports world.

We’ve seen the American dirt track-friendly front-engine roadsters become Europe-influenced rear-engine machines. We’ve heard the Doppler effects of normally aspirated and turbocharged engines. We’ve even seen all the cars in the race use one engine-chassis combination, as has been the case since 2008.

We’ve seen the classic Midwestern kid work his way up the ranks from the dirt ovals. We’ve seen drivers from all over the world who were trained as road racers. We’ve seen efforts to bring more of the former back into the fold. We’ve seen years of foreign dominance with only flashes of American promise.

We’ve even seen the month-long on-track activity be reduced to a dramatic two-week affair with Pole Day and Bump Day occurring on consecutive days rather than consecutive weekends.

Now it appears we could see further profound change in the 500. We have a new chassis, new turbocharged engines with multiple manufacturers (Chevrolet, Honda and  Lotus), a new race director in Beaux Barfield and new potential stars. Here are the two biggest things I’m looking at in advance of race day:

  • The DW12 and engine competition. The new-generation Indy car — named for the late two-time and 2011 500 winner Dan Wheldon, who spent much of last season testing the car before his untimely death in the IndyCar finale at Las Vegas last October — makes its debut not only at Indy but in an oval race, period. While the Dallara formula has produced exponentially better racing on road and street courses than did the previous Dallara spec, it remains to be seen just what we can expect on high-speed ovals. Practice observations suggest that, at least without the boost the turbocharged engines were given during qualifying, speed can be attained throw a tow in traffic, which could mean a lot of passing on race day. With quasi-pack racing, however, comes the potential for plenty of accidents, particularly on a track projected to be especially slick with a forecast high of 94 degrees. It also will be interesting to see how the three engine manufacturers fare against one another in the first engine battle the sport has seen since 2005. Chevrolet has had the overall advantage thus far in its return to the 500, especially with the extra boost provided to its twin-turbo engines for qualifying weekend. Eight of the “Fast Nine” qualifiers drove Chevy-powered machines. But don’t let Chevy’s decided advantage with the boost skew your take on Honda’s chances tomorrow. The teams will not have that added power, and the playing field should be leveled a bit. That was the impression in final practice on Carb Day — Target Chip Ganassi Racing, the flagship Honda team, saw its two drivers, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, trade top speeds after the two former 500 champs failed to crack the Fast Nine on Pole Day. The only question we’ll be asking about the two entries with Lotus engines is how long before they’ll be black-flagged and/or parked. Cars must complete laps at 105 percent of the leader’s pace to stay out on the track, and the English-based manufacturer, which was behind the eight-ball from the get-go as far as readying its engines for the 2012 season, has not shown any speed. Perspective: pole winner Ryan Briscoe qualified with a four-lap average above 226 miles per hour, and Lotus drivers Simona de Silvestro and Jean Alesi rounded up the 33-car field with average speeds around 214 and 210 miles per hour, respectively.
  • Potential American winners. As wrapped in Americana as the 500 is, the overall lack of American competitiveness in the race has been evident since the 1990s. It’s a great irony, because Tony George, then-CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, wanted to reopen the door to American oval racers who had been phased out over time by international road-racing specialists as Indy-car racing had shifted to more of a formula/road racing philosophy. Since the 12-year open-wheel split between CART and George’s Indy Racing League began in 1996, just four American drivers have won the 500. There very well could be a fifth this year, thanks in no small part to the success Andretti Autosport, which fields three full-time North Americans on the circuit, has had in practice and qualifying at the track this month. Marco Andretti, who came so close to winning the race as a 19-year-old rookie in 2006 (he was beat at the line by Sam Hornish Jr. by 0.0635 second, the second-closest margin in history), posted the fastest lap of the month in a May 18 practice session, eclipsing 227 miles per hour, and qualified fourth. His teammates, Ryan Hunter-Reay of Florida and Canadian James Hinchcliffe, bested Andretti on Pole Day; Hinchcliffe starts second after coming within 0.023 second of pole winner Ryan Briscoe, and Hunter-Reay will roll off on the outside of the front row. Any of the three could help the IndyCar Series tremendously with a win, as could impressive rookie Josef Newgarden, who posted the top speed in several practices and starts seventh for Sarah Fisher’s race team, 23-year-old Graham Rahal, who starts from the 12th position, and JR Hildebrand, who had the win in the bag last year before smacking the wall in turn four on the final lap.

It indeed is a new era at 16th and Georgetown, and hopefully one that steers what traditionally has been the most prestigious race in the world even further back in that direction.

As for me, I’ll predict a slightly different form of change in the IMS winds: a breaking of the Andretti curse. Marco Andretti has looked and felt as comfortable as ever on the track, and Andretti Autosport’s tremendous work with the new Chevy engine has been evident all month. This may be the third-generation driver’s best chance yet to heal the heartbreak his father Michael and grandfather Mario have suffered at Indy all those years.

Almost time to start your (turbocharged) engines.

 

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