Indy 500 takes spotlight for IndyCar Series on an uptick
INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis 500 once was considered one of the top sporting events of the year, an iconic, milk-drenched staple of Memorial Day weekend filled with patriotism and nostalgia, triumph and disappointment.
It is nearly impossible to maintain reverential status for 103 years, and the Indy 500, like almost everything in sports, has had its declines. Huge crowds no longer jam the grandstands to watch qualifying or Carb Day, and the economics of racing and sponsorship has pared down the entry list.
But IndyCar is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, and interest in a series largely supported by “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” slowly is returning. The hype certainly has been high at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year, where a strong infield crowd attended practice days and large groups of teens roamed the grounds as part of school field trips.
The race itself, which will broadcast for the first time by NBC, could be a good one. Qualifying for Sunday’s race produced the tightest Indy 500 field in history with only 1.8 mph separating pole sitter Simon Pagenaud at 229.992 mph from Pippa Mann, the slowest qualifier at 227.224.
There were 36 entrants, which meant three drivers would not make the field, and once-proud McLaren was humiliated to miss the race with superstar Fernando Alonso. The two-time Formula One champion nearly salvaged McLaren’s mortifying return to Indianapolis when he gallantly held it wide open for four desperate laps in an overhauled car worked on until the very last moment. The car did not have the right gear ratio on a run that should have gotten Alonso into the 33-car field, and mighty McLaren was bumped by tiny Juncos Racing and young American driver Kyle Kaiser.
The result is Kaiser, winner of nothing of national note, and Mann, driving for the Clauson-Marshall team that races sprint cars the rest of the year, are in the race. Alonso, needing the Indy 500 to complete his quest of the Triple Crown, and an actual Formula One team went back to Europe.
The Indy 500 will draw at least 250,000 people — more if Sunday’s forecast didn’t call for rain — and those who show will be treated to a true spectacle in the push to drink the victory-lane milk. IndyCar, slow in rebuilding, is on the up, and drivers argue the on-track product is better than anything else out there.
“It’s the most competitive racing series in the world. It’s the tightest,” said Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 champion as a rookie after he flamed out in Formula One. “On any weekend, you have no idea who is going to win the race.”
IndyCar has had five different winners through its first five races this year, but Pagenaud might be the first repeat. He’s the favorite to repeat his victory from two weeks ago on Indy’s road course. His job with Roger Penske is on the line — Pagenaud knows it — but he is on the pole Sunday, and Penske could not be more pleased.
Penske is bullish on everything right now, especially IndyCar.
“I think the good thing that’s happening in IndyCar, the races are shorter (than NASCAR), we have diversity across the field, people are racing (from) different countries, and to me, I think we’re on a good ride,” he said.
The highest-starting Honda driver is rookie Colton Herta, who became IndyCar’s youngest winner earlier this year just days before his 19th birthday.
The son of former IndyCar driver Bryan Herta has been spectacular around Indianapolis and is a legitimate contender.
“He’s tremendously talented and not fazed by a lot, and that definitely shows he’s Bryan Herta’s kid,” said Marco Andretti, who is starting 10th on Sunday.
The Herta entry has an alliance with Andretti Autosport, which has been a bit under the radar during the month of May. Rossi is probably the strongest of the Andretti group, but Conor Daly, in a fifth entry, has been fast in the best car of his life. Daly doesn’t have a race planned after Sunday, and he needs a huge payday to get back in a car this season.
Chip Ganassi Racing also has been quiet. Five-time series champ Scott Dixon starts 18th, but rookie Felix Rosenqvist struggled to qualify after the Swede was rattled by a crash in practice.