Alonso chases racing immortality with bid to win Indianapolis 500

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The Indianapolis 500 Mile Race has been run 100 times. The 24 Hours of Le Mans has taken place 84 times. The Monaco Grand Prix has raced 63 times.

A total of 792 drivers have strapped into a car on race day since 1911 to attempt to win the Indianapolis 500. At least that many have raced on the public roads and long straights of Le Mans, France, with its fields of 50-plus sports cars. And hundreds of Formula One drivers have dared to race on the narrow, unforgiving streets of the principality of Monaco.

Yet just one driver has won all three – Graham Hill, who triumphed in 1966 as a rookie at Indianapolis (shown in photos at right and below), won Le Mans in 1972 with teammate Henri Pescarolo and reigned five times on the streets of Monaco (1963-65, 1968-69).

Graham HillFernando Alonso wants to become the second person to scale auto racing’s highest peak dubbed the “triple crown.” Alonso is entering the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 28 because he covets joining the late Hill in the rarest air of racing immortality.

Two-time Formula One champion Alonso, 35, from Spain, is driving a car entered by McLaren and prepared by reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Andretti Autosport for his rookie start in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

He won the Monaco Grand Prix, which takes place in late May, in 2006 with Renault and in 2007 with McLaren. He has yet to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which takes place annually in mid-June.

Alonso’s shocking decision to skip Monaco this year to race in Indianapolis indicates his triple crown quest isn’t a lark. He is a throwback to a time when racing at Indianapolis, the uncompromising, walled streets of Monaco and the fast, fearsome La Sarthe road circuit at Le Mans were annual dates on the calendars of the best drivers in the world.

Growing specialization in racing over the last 40 years has prevented many drivers from attempting the Triple Crown. So has the racing schedule, which usually sees Indianapolis and Monaco take place on the same day. That’s the case again this year, which makes Alonso’s decision to miss the marquee race on the F1 calendar to race in the 500 even more powerful and resonant.

Another big challenge is the variety of the equipment and racing styles. Powering into Turn 1 at 230 mph in an Indy car at Indianapolis requires a different touch than dancing around Monaco’s serpentine streets in an F1 car and hurtling through the night at 240 mph on the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans.

Alonso is committed with a refreshing approach toward making history, knowing his immense talent behind the wheel must quickly adapt to a completely different style as he tackles his first Verizon IndyCar Series race and first career oval race on the fastest, most fearsome circle track in open-wheel racing. That blend of talent and an open desire to try a completely new form of racing on its biggest stage have attracted global attention from the minute Alonso’s decision April 12 ignited social media, the Internet and news wires around the world.

How realistic are Alonso’s chances? Better than you think. Just look at the latest bas-relief face added to the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Alexander Rossi had zero oval experience when he joined the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2016 after a limited season of Formula One competition. He made one oval start, on the tricky, 1.022-mile oval at Phoenix Raceway, before coming to Indianapolis for the first time.

Then Rossi shocked the world by executing a daring fuel-saving strategy to win the historic 100th Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, in just his second oval start.

Alonso will come to Indy with one less oval start than Rossi. But like Rossi, he will benefit from a stable of experienced Andretti Autosport teammates, including Rossi, 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, 2006 runner-up Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato, who dueled with Dario Franchitti for the win on the final lap in 2012. Alonso also knows Rossi and Sato from their tenures in Formula One, which will accelerate his learning curve.

Plus, there are two guys on the pit wall in the Andretti team who know a thing or two about Indianapolis and Formula One – 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner and 1978 Formula One world champion Mario Andretti and Andretti Autosport CEO Michael Andretti. Michael will call strategy for Alonso this May, and it’s a given that Alonso will pick Mario’s immense racing brain early and often.

Another aspect to consider: Alonso is a generational auto racing talent, the sixth-winningest driver in Formula One history. A recent Autosport magazine poll of more than 217 Formula One drivers ranked him as the ninth-best driver who has ever strapped into an F1 car.

Adaptability to different handling and surface conditions always has been the quality most admired by peers, media and fans about Alonso. That will serve him well at Indianapolis.

Still, history indicates this is an immense challenge for Alonso. And some of his toughest competition this May could come from a driver who already is two-thirds of the way toward joining Hill as the second triple crown winner.

Juan Pablo Montoya electrified the racing world by dominating and winning the 2000 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, albeit with a year of oval experience while winning the CART championship in 1999. He then moved to Formula One and won at Monaco in 2003.

Montoya, who will drive for Team Penske in May, is a member of an elite club of just six drivers who have won two of the three legs of the triple crown. Others to win two of the three marquee events are Tazio Nuvolari (Monaco 1932, Le Mans 1933), Maurice Trintignant (Le Mans 1954, Monaco 1955, ’58), Bruce McLaren (Monaco 1962, Le Mans 1966), Jochen Rindt (Le Mans 1965, Monaco 1970) and A.J. Foyt (Indianapolis 1961, ‘64, ’67, ’77, Le Mans 1967). Foyt and Montoya are the only two of the group who drove in the Indianapolis 500.

Graham Hill

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