Fans tune in to the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” because the Indianapolis 500 is just that: a spectacle.
So what if Danica Patrick is logging 600 miles in “that other race” on Memorial Day weekend? Or that the entry list for the May 27 Indy 500 included just enough car-driver combinations to fill out the traditional 33-car field, rendering “Bump Day” a bust.
All the drama that inevitably flavors the days leading up to the Indianapolis 500 will be exceeded by the drama of the actual race, where this year Helio Castroneves could join legends A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as a four-time winner; Marco Andretti looks fast enough to maybe snap the family’s four-decade old Indy curse; and Sarah Fisher Hartman could make history as the first woman team owner to hoist the Borg Warner trophy.
For two generations, there has been a natural and intense rivalry between two of America’s greatest racing families – the Andrettis and the Rahals. And Marco Andretti, 25, and Graham Rahal, 23, are among a half-dozen American drivers who stand a legitimate chance to bask in racing’s brightest spotlight come May 27.
The Indy 500 did all right for itself before Danica Patrick’s stunning 2005 debut and it will hold its own even now that she’s defected to NASCAR.
The rest of the racing world might scoff at the state of open-wheel racing – its lowly TV ratings and lack of star power – and wonder how the IZOD IndyCar Series will pull off its marquee event during what’s been a tough transition to new cars and engines.
But at 16th and Georgetown, things are just fine, thank you.
“I haven’t heard anything in terms of being negative – about maybe not having a Bump Day, or even about Danica not being here,’’ three-time Indy winner Castroneves said this week. “The atmosphere is good here, positive.
“We have to move on and keep pushing forward. We have new cars, new engines; competition between Honda and Chevy has heated up. We have new guys on the top of the (speed) chart and that’s all the comments I’m hearing about.
“You have to remember it’s a new car and we didn’t have as many available like last year. But we’re building and when you’re building it takes a little time. We are shooting to have a great show and I do believe it will be exciting. It’s gonna be a very close race and that will please everyone.’’
An entire field of new engines and new chassis has created manufacturer competition but also complicated things and even stressed out potential team owners trying to secure an engine from a limited supply in hopes of filling out the Indy 500 field.
For example, 15-time Indy winning team owner Roger Penske’s son, Jay, who is the principal owner of Dragon Racing, just secured Chevrolet engines last Thursday. Penske sued Lotus for breach of contract in what was a frustrating and unacceptable past five months of futility for that engine maker, then settled that suit and announced the engine deal right before qualifying for the race.
The renewed rivalry with Chevrolet and Honda has intensified. Chevy – thanks to Team Penske – has swept the first four races. For Indy, however, Honda has redesigned the housing on its turbocharger – something that so upset Chevrolet, the American manufacturer has twice unsuccessfully appealed to have the modification ruled illegal in what’s been dubbed turbo-gate.’
But in the end, it’s not the off-track theatrics that define this race, it’s the competition on track and the aura surrounding the event.
This year – more so than in years past – will be particularly emotional and sentimental in light of the death of 2011 Indy winner Dan Wheldon in the series’ season-ending race. It will be the first time since 2004 (and now-retired Gil de Ferran) that the previous year’s winner won’t be defending his title. And, as custom, Wheldon’s photograph will be on tickets and his image on signs around the Speedway, reminding both his fellow competitors and fans alike how he stunned the world last May by claiming his second Indy victory while driving for a small, underfunded team owned by one of his best friends.
The feat had landed him a ride with Andretti Autosport for 2012 and you can bet that team is even more motivated to win in his honor.
Wheldon’s good friend Andretti has been quick this month and he couldn’t be more confident – in himself or the level of competition.
“We have the car to the point now that I am confident to say we would be the ones to beat if the race was today,’’ Andretti said. “The speed on its own, I’m a little concerned about, but I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, if we start 33rd, we can still win this race.”