INDYCAR drivers ready to welcome Alonso at Barber

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BIRMINGHAM. Alabama – Fernando Alonso’s Indianapolis 500 adventure is underway. Not the racing part – that will happen soon enough – but the meet-and-greet part.

Alonso, the two-time Formula 1 champion who announced recently that he’ll compete in the 101st Indy 500 next month, arrived at Barber Motorsports Park late Saturday. He met with his soon-to-be teammates at Andretti Autosport, which will field his Honda-powered Dallara for the May 28 race. On Sunday, he’ll participate in a news conference and other interviews before the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First.

Alonso’s arrival left the paddock abuzz Saturday – particularly around the Andretti Autosport transporters, where drivers are already preparing to help him adjust.

“There are a lot of things that are going to be very different for him,” said Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won the 500 in 2014. “I’m sure he’ll have some questions, but he’s one of the best drivers in the world. (We’ll) just let him get on with his program and take it from there.”

Michael Andretti’s team has won Indy four times, including Alexander Rossi’s victory last year. Two of the four current Andretti drivers – Rossi and Takuma Sato – have F1 experience, as does Andretti.

“It’s very, very cool that it’s happening, and I think it showed the importance and the relevance to the Indy 500,” Rossi said Saturday. “I’m glad that McLaren and Honda could do it, and it is a huge opportunity for us as a team, for Honda and us as a sport in general.”

Two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, who raced against Alonso in F1 from 2001-06, thought any possible rematch might happen in sports cars later in their careers.

“If you would have told me I was going to win a race ever against Alonso, (it) would be an endurance race or something, not in Indy, to be honest,” Montoya said. “I think it’s great. I think having Fernando is going to be a really good day for motorsports, not only for INDYCAR, but I think the attention overall for seeing Fernando and myself and everybody running Indy is going to be really big.”

The publicity portion of Sunday’s tour will begin with a noon ET news conference featuring Alonso; Andretti; Zak Brown, executive director of McLaren Technology Group; and Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Company, the parent of INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The news conference will stream on INDYCAR’s Facebook Live page (https://www.facebook.com/indycar/).

The racing portion of Alonso’s adventure will begin in 11 days. Earlier in the week, Andretti Autosport announced that Alonso will test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 3.

Judging from the responses leading up to Alonso’s arrival Saturday, he should expect a hearty welcome from his fellow racers.

“It’s absolutely great,” said Helio Castroneves, the three-time Indy 500 winner for Team Penske. “It's great for everyone – for the drivers, for the teams and especially for the series. Normally in this era, I don't think it's very common for people to break their contract for one race just to come to the Indianapolis 500, but that shows that the Indy 500 is the most important race of all.”

What impresses INDYCAR drivers most is Alonso’s motivation. The Indy 500 is something he’s always wanted to do. It’s not a publicity stunt or a manufacturer’s call, but something Alonso requested. He will sacrifice F1’s premier event, the Monaco Grand Prix, to compete in INDYCAR’s premier event.  

“To pull that off politically is tough, for one,” said Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing, who won the 500 in 2008. “But then to have a driver of his caliber do it is even more amazing. He doesn’t have any reason to do it other than he just loves to race, which is good to see.”

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