The prestige of the Indianapolis 500 speaks for itself. It’s arguably the most history-rich race run in the United States.
From the winning driver chugging a jug of milk to the crew members kissing the bricks to the debauchery taking place in the infield, there’s no other race like it.
Sunday marks the 99th running of open-wheel racing’s Super Bowl and is expected to attract almost 300,000 race fans from around the world. There’s plenty of buzz about it once again, and we take a look at the key storylines going into it.
1. Wreck city
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The buildup to this year’s race has been dominated by safety talk, with four spectacular crashes in practice. Three of the drivers went airborne, including three-time Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves. Then James Hinchcliffe slammed hard into the wall, seeing his back end go up in flames, a crash that put him in intensive care and required surgery that ended his season.
Those wrecks, though, haven’t rattled fellow drivers.
As Scott Dixon said last week during an event at Texas Motor Speedway: “Crashing at Indianapolis is not a new thing. We don’t want to see it. We don’t want to see our friends get hurt. But once you get in the car, your frame of mind changes and you drive it to be fast and quick and try to win the race.”
2. Dixon’s day?
Dixon has to be considered among the top favorites to win the race. He’s the pole-sitter and won from that same position in 2008. Dixon is also off to another solid start and already has a win at last month’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
But Dixon wasn’t ready to predict success in his recent visit to TMS.
“It’s going to be impossible to pull away from the field,” Dixon said. “The style has changed a lot since , but I think we’re confident as a team but obviously that doesn’t give you much credit to get through 500 miles. It’s going to be a long day.
“Obviously the goal is to try and stay in the spot we are, but it’s going to be a lot of effort to get there by the end.”
3. Star power
Dixon might be among the better drivers on the circuit, but he isn’t one of the sport’s household names. Instead that belongs to the likable Helio Castroneves, who might be known for his dancing as much as his racing.
Castroneves is a three-time winner of the race, and certainly among the favorites going into this year’s event. A fourth win would put Castroneves in rare air as one of only four drivers with four Indy 500 titles along with A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears.
That might be more important to Castroneves than even winning an elusive series championship.
As Castroneves said, “Would I exchange my Indy 500 wins for a championship? Absolutely not. I’m really going to work to win a fourth one because that race is so special and I feel like to be part of that history means a lot.”
4. Or willpower
Castroneves doesn’t have a championship. Reigning series champ Will Power doesn’t have an Indy 500 win. That’s something Power is chasing, and it’s about the only box he hasn’t checked in his IndyCar career.
Power is expected to be in the hunt, starting second. He won the Grand Prix of Indianapolis earlier this month and had a top-10 run in last year’s Indy 500.
“It’s something that has been on my mind in the off-season,” Power said a couple months ago at TMS’ media day. “I’m very focused on that race this year and winning.”
5. American dreams
Most feel IndyCar has declined in popularity in recent years because there aren’t many great American drivers anymore. Ryan Hunter-Reay helped quiet that chatter by winning last year’s Indy 500.
He’s among the Americans’ best hope, although he starts 16th. Marco Andretti has the best starting position in eight, followed by Josef Newgarden (9th), J.R. Hildebrand (10th) and Ed Carpenter (12th).
Graham Rahal is another American who starts 17th, and would love to follow in the footsteps of his father, 1986 Indy 500 champ Bobby Rahal.
“Hopefully this is going to be lucky No. 8,” Rahal said. “The Indy 500 means everything to my family, to my team … this is why we do what we do.”
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760
11 a.m. Sunday, WFAA/Ch. 8
Three drivers to watch
1. Helio Castroneves. Yes, Scott Dixon is one of the more underappreciated drivers and Will Power is the reigning champion. But Castroneves and the Indy 500 go hand-in-hand, and he can cement his legacy as one of this generation’s best drivers with a win.
2. Tony Kanaan. The veteran driver is consistently in the mix, and is having a solid season with a pair of top-five runs in the first five races. He won this event two years ago, so it’s not too far-fetched that he can become a multi-winner of the event at 40.
3. Marco Andretti. Is this the year for the Andretti Curse to end? The great racing legend Mario Andretti won the Indy 500 in 1969, but he and his family have never returned to Victory Lane. His sons, Michael and Jeff, never won, neither has nephew John or grandson Marco. But maybe this is the year for Marco, who has five top-fives in nine career Indy 500s.