Call me delusional. Call me naive or caught up in the fanfare. Call me whatever. All I can do is go with a gut feeling.
And that gut feeling is that this Indianapolis 500, which falls on the 100th anniversary of Ray Harroun’s inaugural victory in 1911, is going to be different.
The centennial running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” which takes the green flag at noon today at the venerable Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has incredible potential compared to its predecessors of the last few years — maybe even the last few decades. Amidst honoring and celebrating the history of the Indy 500 and the opening of a gateway to a new era in U.S. open-wheel racing lies an opportunity to instill the excitement, the buzz that has been missing from this race for far too long.
By Drew Allen
The speedway opens each Indy 500 with a healthy dose of Americana, but few times in history do events get to celebrate a 100-year anniversary. Despite everything this event and this venue have experienced since 1911 — decay and near-death during the World War II years, the split of Indy-car racing into two separate professional series in the mid-90s that imploded the sport, and the aftermath of said split that has included once-unthinkable disinterest and low attendance and TV ratings — the Indy 500 is 100 years old. The speedway is going to celebrate it appropriately, and perhaps the race will do so as well.
Before getting into all the history and the romanticism surrounding the Indy 500, a look back to last week’s qualifications weekend point to endless possibilities on the track today.
Alex Tagliani of Sam Schmidt Motorsports took the pole from traditional powerhouses Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske with a four-lap average speed of 227.472 miles per hour. Only one Penske car, driven by IZOD IndyCar Series points leader Will Power, cracked the front three rows.
Some others to qualify for those top nine positions? One-offs Townsend Bell, Dan Wheldon and Buddy Rice (the latter two are former winners) and part-timer Ed Carpenter, who drives for driver-turned-owner Sarah Fisher.
Heck, the usually spot-on Ganassi team floundered a chance at securing the top two starting positions by failing to supply 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon and defending champ Dario Franchitti with enough fuel before their final qualifying runs.
What’s more? Two cars in the stable of Andretti Autosport, once a powerhouse along with Penske and Ganassi, could not find the speed to make the field, and only after striking a deal with A.J. Foyt could owner Michael Andretti secure a spot for driver Ryan Hunter-Reay and his sponsors, DHL and Sun Drop. The only Andretti driver to start further up from the ninth row on the grid is one-off John Andretti.
Sounding crazy, right?
Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and suggest a weekend of qualifying will have any implications on the race other than speed. So many more factors come into play, among them racing in traffic, accidents, pit strategy and the sheer grind of the 500-mile marathon. There’s no reason to write off the big teams before the race starts, but what transpired on Pole Day and Bump Day last weekend does give one the sense that the little guys could realistically compete.
That could create a story, the story this great American sporting event has long needed to reappear in the consciousness of the nation’s mainstream sports fans.
And why should it not happen? Why not now? A significant rules change could make it reality.
Double-file restarts are coming to the Indy 500 for the first time ever. This style of returning to racing became prominent in NASCAR, but what kind of effect will it have on cars that don’t have fenders but suspensions that can snap with even the most minimal contact? Could an ill-fated restart lead to a multi-car crash in the dreaded first turn of the speedway? Could a Goliath fall behind a David in a battle for the lead while restarting on the outside?
It’s the deepest field since before the split, which became official in 1996. So many great drivers, and particularly great Indy drivers, will take the green flag today. The circumstances could make for any kind of exhilarating outcome, be it Helio Castroneves’ joining Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as a four-time winner, Franchitti going back-to-back and cementing his status as one of the sport’s all-time greats, Danica Patrick challenging for a win in what might be her final Indy 500, Simona de Silvestro taking over the female charge from Danica, Carpenter winning for Fisher, Graham Rahal or Marco Andretti surging from the back for a win and immediately becoming a future American star of the sport, Tony Kanaan breaking through to victory and shedding his status as the Lloyd Ruby/Michael Andretti heartbreak symbol of this generation … the list goes on and on.
I’m telling you, this running of the Indy 500 could set the open-wheel racing world back on fire. It could be a start to something much bigger.
This race has had plenty of milestone runnings.
The inaugural race in 1911 when Harroun drove his Marmon Wasp to a groundbreaking first 500-mile race win. The Wasp will take the track today.
The 1928 running, after which Louis Meyer became the first winning driver to drink milk in the winner’s circle. Meyer’s Miller machine will be here today.
The 1965 race that featured the rear-engine Lotus that Scotsman Jim Clark drove to Victory Lane, signaling the end of front-engine dominance at the 500. The Lotus will be here today.
Roger Penske’s first 500 victory in 1972 with Mark Donohue. The McLaren machine that revolutionized the “rear wing” will be here today.
Johnny Rutherford’s third win in the famed Chaparral chassis in 1980. That car will be here today.
Arie Luyendyk’s first of two in 1990, the fastest 500 in history. His Lola-Chevrolet will be here today.
The Indianapolis 500 knows how to appropriately celebrate its history. Here’s hoping history rewards the Indianapolis 500 with the most thrilling race yet.