Words by John Olsakovsky, Photos by Doug Patterson
For over a century, daring men and women have dared to pilot motorized wheeled contraptions around this rounded rectangle that Carl G. Fisher was able to create in central Indiana. In the early days, five hundred miles was an all-day affair that required relief drivers and riding mechanics. Indianapolis was a race that every racer from every discipline wanted to win, and many still do. I point to the unprecedented entry this year of Fernando Alonso, who will eschew the Monaco Grand Prix to compete at The Brickyard.
[singlepic id=1992 w=200 h=300 float=right]So what is in store for the 101st running of this historic race? Who should I watch and why? I’ll break down some of the major players, more or less in order of the starting grid.
He isn’t on pole, but the biggest story this year has to be Fernando Alonso. He has an (R) for ‘rookie’ next to his name, which seems silly for a two-time World Drivers Champion. While he may be a rookie at Indianapolis, he has done remarkably well in getting up to speed on the car, as well as on the track. It’s no surprise that he was able to adapt quickly, but I don’t think anyone truly expected him to qualify fifth, in the middle of Row 2. Further, he believes he left some speed on the table in his qualifying run! Stretching fuel mileage is a skill that Fernando has yet to show. Invariably fuel mileage comes into play, so that’s really the one factor could make or break his run in my opinion.
All of Andretti Autosport’s drivers have shown speed this year, with four of their six drivers in the Fast Nine (ultimately the front three rows). Last year’s winner Alexander Rossi, Takuma Sato and Fernando Alonso make up positions three through five, while Marco Andretti is in P8. Ryan Hunter-Reay qualified in P10, with a Pole Day run faster than most of the Fast Nine. The sixth car is a partnership with Michael Shank for Jack Harvey, the only Andretti-affiliated car not near the front. We’ve seen Andretti work as a team when Townsend Bell helped Alexander Rossi draft for fuel mileage last year to get a win. Would Alonso play domestique if called on to help a teammate get a win?
[singlepic id=2081 w=200 h=300 float=left]Another threat is the two-car combination of JR Hildebrand and team owner/driver Ed Carpenter. Ed is a local who knows the Indianapolis Motor Speedway better than anyone, and his pace in qualifying showed as much. JR Hildebrand nearly won the Indianapolis 500 for Panther Racing in 2011 as a rookie, with only an ill-timed pass in Turn 4 of the final lap causing him to hit the wall, allowing the late Dan Wheldon to get his second victory. Ed Carpenter Racing is definitely a force to be reckoned with, so long as little details don’t go unchecked and the team handles pit stops without problem.
The only other team with a good chance at a win is Chip Ganassi Racing, namely the veterans Tony Kanaan and pole sitter Scott Dixon. The other two Ganassi cars (the ‘B’ squad, that doesn’t officially exist) of Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball weren’t slow by any means, qualifying in P15 and P16 respectively. They didn’t have the sheer pace of the ‘A’ squad. Watch Dixon to lead from the start and employ his gift of going fast while saving fuel early to gain an advantage, while Kanaan carves a path toward the front through sheer ballsiness.
[singlepic id=1983 w=200 h=300 float=right]What about perennial favorites in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Team Penske? If this were any other year, Penske would be the first team I’d mention, as their powerhouse lineup of drivers (Pagenaud, Newgarden, Castroneves, Power and Montoya) has been lackluster all May. Will Power somehow made the Fast Nine, but his Pole Day run of 230.200 mph was only 15th fastest of the day. That was still best of the team with Montoya P18, Castroneves P19, Newgarden P22, and Pagenaud P23. I’m sure The Captain is ripping his hair out looking for answers. They can only hope their setup for race day does better than qualifying setup or that Honda’s reliability bottoms out on Sunday.
Dale Coyne Racing and Sam Schmidt Racing both have good lineups and strong pace. Before Bourdais’ crash on Saturday, he was a favorite for pole. His rookie teammate Ed Jones starts in P11, looking very strong. Even Bourdais’ replacement James Davidson looks solid in a backup car cobbled together from their road course car. Of Course Hinch and Aleshin are fast. The Mad Russian has shown speed and aggression all season, often to the detriment of his own race and others. If he can keep a cool head all race, he too could be a contender.
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The only other potential winner on Sunday is Mother Nature. Rain and oval racing don’t mix, so a wet track means no race. The speedway is surely prepared for quick track drying, as was evident on Saturday. If there is the slightest window of opportunity to have a dry track for racing, they will make every effort to make that happen. As of this writing (Thursday morning), the forecast at Weather Underground says “Variable clouds with scattered thunderstorms. High 77F. Winds WNW at 10 to 15 mph. Chance of rain 60%.”
So the world will be watching, thanks to one unexpected entrant crossing the motorsport bridge to be a part of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. He will get to experience, as Todd phrased it in Episode 28 of FBC indi, “a canyon of humanity” like no other. But when that snazzy new scoring pylon turns green, the smiles and the fun is over; 500 miles need to be raced in central Indiana.