INDIANAPOLIS – Who will be the “NEXT” driver to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing?”
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway stage is set for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil today with a lengthy list of intriguing contenders in search of the ultimate accomplishment and the prestigious honor of adding their name and likeness to the Borg-Warner Trophy.
2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon will start from the pole for a third time in his No. 9 Camping World Honda. He is one of seven former winners in this 33-car field, joined by three-time winner Helio Castroneves, two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Buddy Lazier and defending champion Alexander Rossi.
“It’s always hard,” Dixon said. “It’s competition, man.”
The best of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ full-time drivers is joined by several “one-off” entrants, including the most celebrated newcomer in recent history, two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso, whose No. 29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda qualified fifth.
“I hope he does well,” defending series champion Simon Pagenaud said of Alonso, “because it will keep a lot of people interested.”
As Alonso’s inclusion and the subsequent worldwide media attention reminds, this race defines careers. Pagenaud, who qualified 23rd in his No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, is just as succinct about what the Indy 500 means.
“I won’t be complete until I win this race,” Pagenaud said. “I do believe I can.”
Andretti Autosport has six cars, the most ever for Michael Andretti, who is looking for his fifth Indy 500 win as a team owner. Among those entrants is his 30-year-old son, Marco, who desperately wants to achieve what his father could not as a driver. Marco Andretti, the grandson of 1969 Indy 500 winner Mario Andretti, has come close so many times in finishing second as a 2006 rookie, third three times and fourth in 11 starts.
“I believe having an awesome car here is only 60 percent of the battle,” said Marco Andretti, whose No. 27 United Fiber & Data Andretti Honda will start eighth. “You need to be in the top five to have a chance at the end. The way it seems, when you’re following three or four cars it’s tougher to pass because they have enough of a tow; they’re going fast enough. Top three is ideal in a shootout, for sure.
“I’ve lost this race because I trimmed, and I’ve lost it because I didn’t trim. We hope to make the right decision.”
Graham Rahal is also looking to add to a family legacy. Rahal, the son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, qualified 14th in the Steak ’n’ Shake Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda. Graham Rahal has two top-five finishes in nine starts, including third in 2011.
“Running well on Carb Day definitely gives you confidence for the race,” Rahal said after posting the sixth-fastest speed in Friday’s final one-hour practice.
Starting alongside Dixon in the front row is another familiar face, two-time Indy 500 pole sitter Ed Carpenter, who grew up in Indianapolis with dreams of winning this race. Carpenter, the series’ only owner/driver, is confident his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet can fulfill his destiny. Carpenter’s best finish in 13 starts is fifth in 2008.
“There’s been so much heartbreak here over the years,” Carpenter said. “There’s certainly a ton of things you can do to control the outcome, but even if you get everything right, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win.”
Kanaan was denied in so many close calls before becoming one of the most popular winners in 2013. He’s also finished second, third twice, fourth twice and fifth in 15 starts. This time, he starts seventh in the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Kanaan contends that the track chooses the winner — a driver in the right place at the right time is ultimately rewarded at the end of this 200-lap test of endurance and patience.
“I do believe that, 100 percent,” Kanaan said. “I have no doubt.”
One of his best friends in racing, Castroneves, has hopes of finally winning for a fourth time and joining the Hall of Fame contingent of A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser in that distinction. Castroneves starts 19th in the No. 3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet.
“It changed more the first time when I won and did not know about it,” Castroneves said of his perception about the Indy 500 after his triumphant debut in 2001. “I’m still learning, to be honest, the history.”
Although Alonso is an Indy 500 rookie, he raced at this venue five times in F1. He finished second in the 2007 United States Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Career ambition has brought him back, but this time to compete on the 2.5-mile oval. Alonso, a 35-year-old Spaniard, has his sights set on the career triple crown; he’s won the Monaco Grand Prix and needs the Indy 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans to become just the second driver to accomplish this feat. The other was Graham Hill, who won the 1966 Indy 500 in his first attempt.
"When we came here in Formula One, it was just something special, because we were racing first in the States, which is always something amazing for Formula One, and secondly, (in) the biggest place in the world,” Alonso said. “I remember coming here (in 2001), the first year that I raced here, and, yeah, I was taking pictures of the entrance for the speedway. You know, capital of the world, motorsport. I was taking pictures.
“So it's a special place for motorsport in general. To race here in May (for) the Indy 500, it feels (like) quite a big thing.”
Indeed it is. And today, one driver will stand alone as a champion in the greatest race in the world.
Who will it be? Who has what it takes to add their name to his glorious legacy?
“If you don’t believe it,” Pagenaud said, “you’re not going to win it.”