The entitlement “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” welded to the Indianapolis 500 for decades, has not been without its share of skeptics in recent years.
The Brickyard has been under a barrage of brickbats, lobbed by those who disagreed with Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George in 1995 when he formed his own open-wheel sanctioning body. He used the Indy 500 as leverage to try to obtain the keys to all of major open-wheel racing in the United States.
His Indy Racing League didn't work to that extent. Most of the top drivers in open-wheel racing stayed with Championship Auto Racing Teams. They stated at the time that the Indy 500 was no longer a viable part of their racing futures and they would not be held hostage by George and his hallowed grounds.
Over the last five years racers of less repute have attempted to grace the great race, and its popularity had waned to the point that it has been running second to the annual NASCAR Brickyard 400 in terms of prominence at the corner of Georgetown and 16th.
But lo and behold, the Indy 500 has undergone a facelift. Slowly, but at an accelerated pace this year, old faces are returning to Indy this month to make a race of it, with Pole Day tomorrow.
CART dignitaries such as car-owner Roger Penske and celebrated driver Michael Andretti are back at the Brickyard, since CART has been unable to inaugurate a signature race to compete with the Indy 500.
They'll join CART compatriot Chip Ganassi, whose team broke the CART-IRL barrier at Indy last year and captured the Indy 500 with driver Juan Montoya, who has since gone to Formula One.
It's back to being the Indy of old, but with even more pizzazz. That's because there are now two formidable factions sharing the same 21/2-mile pavement on Memorial Day weekend.
The Indy 500 is taking on the identity of a separate entity even more, what with CART and the IRL otherwise struggling on their own for fan support and television ratings. It's a race that's becoming a Super Bowl of sorts, bringing the best of both worlds together.
It's also a race that has the power to resolve the differences between the two sides, whose continued existence might totally depend on co-existence.
“People look at the Indianapolis 500 as a separate event, an event on its own,” said two-time winner Arie Luyendyk, 47, coming out of retirement to compete this year. “It has always been like that, even when the Indy 500 had most of the teams in it from CART. Everything that happens here in a positive way will have a positive effect on the IRL, but in a certain way it will have a positive effect on CART as well.”
Penske, with drivers Gil de Ferran, the reigning CART champ, and Helio Castroneves, is the winningest car owner in Indy 500 history with 10 victories. But since 1996, Penske has not been back to the Brickyard following the split between the IRL and CART.
One of those 10 triumphs belonged to Al Unser Jr., who won the 1994 Indy 500, but was not re-signed two years ago by Penske when Unser's contract expired. Unser then jumped to the IRL.
Andretti said he's waited long enough to continue the family legacy at Indy, adding, “I don't have anything to prove to anyone. I just want to win this race.”
Andretti is driving for Panther Racing. His teammate is 21-year-old Sam Hornish from Defiance, who won the first two IRL races this season and leads the IRL.
Ganassi hired drivers Jimmy Vasser and NASCAR Winston Cup star Tony Stewart to replace his two rookie drivers, Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian, for this race only.
Vasser brings to six the number of CART drivers who will compete at Indy this year, with more on the way in the future. He finished seventh in last year's Indy 500 with Ganassi, then was fired by Ganassi at the end of last season.
“It's like maybe this is where we can meet and come to terms,” Luyendyk said. “This is where we can get together. The fact that Penske and Ganassi and Michael Andretti are here, it means they really want to run here really bad.”
Let's drop a couple of other names that lend to the lure of this year's race. There's Rick Mears, a four-time Indy 500 winner and a member of the Penske team, who will be watching his nephew, Casey, attempt to make the field after Casey walked away from a horrific crash during practice earlier this week.
NASCAR Winston Cup team owner Richard Childress has become a co-owner with four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt and driver Robby Gordon, recently fired by NASCAR team owner Larry McClure. Childress and the late Dale Earnhardt teamed up to win six Winston Cup championships and the 1995 Brickyard 400 at Indy.
Sarah Fisher, 20, made history last year as just the third woman to qualify for the Indy 500, behind Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James, who announced her retirement this week. Fisher finished a career-best second at the IRL race in Miami last month, nearly chasing down Hornish for the win.
The IRL has gotten stronger, led by Hemelgarn Racing, which won the series championship last season with driver Buddy Lazier. Team owner Ron Hemelgarn is a Toledo businessman.
While this year's field presents more variations than a Foyt carburetor on Pole Day, there's even more anticipation with the CART-IRL confrontation.
When Andretti originally announced that he was serious about participating at Indy this year, he said he wanted to give Montoya more competition. Veteran IRL driver Eliseo Salazar took exception to that remark.
“That's the biggest bull I've heard in my life. Why didn't he do that to Montoya in CART? I'm glad they are here. I don't have any grudge against them. This is going to be maybe the best Indy 500 in the last 20 years because of the competition. But I take offense to them thinking they are coming in here to take candy away from a little kid.”
Sweet. It should be sweet.
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