Skip to content

The Indianapolis 500: Still alive and making a comeback

May 24, 2013, 8:30 AM EDT

Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves AP

The Indianapolis 500 has witnessed and endured many things in its 97 years of existence. In more recent times, it has had to sustain itself against a crippling split in open-wheel racing, NASCAR’s evolution from a strictly Southern tradition to a national phenomenon, and perhaps more importantly, a wealth of entertainment options that simply didn’t exist when the race was in its heyday.

But times are getting better at the Brickyard. Slowly but surely, the ‘500’ has started to gain back some of its former glory. Helping it has been the on-track product, which improved dramatically last year with the introduction of new cars and engines; 2012’s race saw a record number of passes for the lead and wasn’t settled until the final lap.

This year, it may be easier to determine who doesn’t have a chance at winning the race than who can be a contender. In the first four races of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season, the wide-open competition has meant nobody has been able to dominate. If that carries over to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the 97th running of this race stands a good chance of continuing the event’s positive momentum.

The pair of three-time ‘500’ winners, Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves, are Indy’s modern legends. And as two of the longest-tenured drivers in the series, they’ve been able to see and appreciate how Indy has evolved throughout their careers.

For Franchitti, it’s about recognizing his place in history, even if he still isn’t comfortable being part of the discussion.

“Where do you start with all of them? My hero Jimmy Clark, Dan (Gurney), Parnelli (Jones), A.J. (Foyt), JR (Johnny Rutherford), Mario (Andretti), Uncle Bobby (Unser) just to name a few,” he said. “It’s always weird to think about it. There’s something not quite right about being in the discussion. To me, they’re on a pedestal.”

Castroneves won his first Indianapolis appearance in 2001 and says the buzz now is as strong as it has been at any point in his 15-plus year open-wheel career.

“The Indy 500, it never lost its star or its shine,” he said. “The race never went away, but certainly, the series might have a different view. The only thing I can say is that the next few years, I see only bright things.”

Castroneves’ Team Penske teammate, AJ Allmendinger, makes his Indianapolis 500 debut fresh from NASCAR. The last time he was in open-wheel racing, in 2006, was during the acrimonious split. It robbed him and others a chance to race in what they considered the most prestigious event.

“I felt like open-wheel (then) had been degraded,” he admitted. “The fans suffered the most because you didn’t get all the best guys in every race and as a driver, you wanted the best guys. I thought Indy lost a little bit of luster … growing up, I was watching it when all the best people weren’t there.”

Now, for Allmendinger, coming from a series that garners more national attention over the course of a season, it’s apparent he was missing out on what the Indianapolis 500 has to offer.

“When I came here in Cup and walked through Gasoline Alley for the first time and went down the front straightaway, I said ‘Okay, I get what it’s all about,’” he said. “Now, having been here for the last two and a half weeks, and on race day, when there’s 250,000 people in the grandstands – it’s brought those emotions over to me and it’s made me say ‘Okay, this really is the greatest spectacle in all of racing.’ I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.”

The 500 represents both a major national event and the banner day for Indianapolis as a city. Drivers who have moved to Indianapolis describe how the fever builds over the month of May.

“You see it even through close friends and family and people just wanting to come to the race,” said Franchitti’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate and 2008 500 winner Scott Dixon. “I’m lucky enough to live in Indy and see the buzz starting from the first part of the month of May.”

It’s rare racing drivers are united on anything – setup differences and food preferences often run the gamut of opinions. But they all understand, embrace and appreciate the behemoth that is Indianapolis.

“You can’t put a price tag on it,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, the defending series champion from Andretti Autosport. “You grow up watching and discover this is where heroes are made. The guy who wins might as well have a ‘Superman’ cape on.”

“RHR” wasn’t directly speaking of JR Hildebrand there, but the third-year driver for Panther Racing does have a Superman livery on his No. 4 National Guard Chevrolet this month. Hildebrand admits finding more fans in the younger demographic – really seeing these Indy 500 drivers as heroes – will go a long way towards the race’s continued future growth.

“Over the last few years, there’s definitely been a resurgence,” he said. “But to be frank with you, in order for that to happen, guys like me and Hinch [James Hinchcliffe] and [Josef] Newgarden gotta have a shot at winning the thing. We’ve got to run up front and be there at the end of the day.”

Hinchcliffe has won two of the year’s first four IndyCar races, including a last-lap pass of points leader Takuma Sato in Brazil. But Hinchcliffe admits when you get to Indy, everyone starts at zero.

“You can be cautiously optimistic, but this race has a history of crushing people when you think you’re close,” he said.

Like Hinchcliffe, Newgarden is a social media savvy youngster (he’s 22) who has the potential to captivate a new audience. Mature beyond his years, Newgarden is both candid and blunt about Indy’s prestige level.

“It’s not about points racing. If you don’t believe you can win going in, why are you competing?” he asks. “That’s all it’s about at the 500.”

Townsend Bell, Hildebrand’s Panther Racing teammate this month and also an analyst for NBC Sports Network’s IndyCar coverage, estimated between 25 to 28 possible winners of the race. Bell, having watched all four races this season from the booth, plus practicing with them, would be well-versed to make such a guess.

So who’s a favorite? The closest thing to one could be Marco Andretti, he of the legendary surname and off to the best start of his eight-year IndyCar career. Andretti nearly missed winning as a 19-year-old rookie in 2006, but says the race is at a much higher point now.

“I’d like to think so,” he said. “The league has generated some interest in general but this race in particular has always been strong, yet I think it’s coming back to where it used to be. It used to be crazy, so that’s fun to be a part of that – and I think they need an Andretti to win. That’ll help.”

The latest chapter of history at Indianapolis will occur this Sunday, and 33 drivers will be working tirelessly to ensure it’s their name that enters – or re-enters – legendary status.

See Carb Day coverage on NBC Sports Network starting at 11 a.m. ET, and IndyCar 36 featuring Simona de Silvestro at 10:30 p.m. ET on Friday.

Latest Posts
  1. NHRA: All you need to know about the 61st U.S. Nationals

    Sep 3, 2015, 6:55 PM EDT

    u.s. nationals logo

    Here’s all the information you need to know about this weekend’s 61st annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis:

  2. NHRA: Year’s biggest race, the U.S. Nationals, ready to roll

    Sep 3, 2015, 6:54 PM EDT

    nhra logo

    The biggest and most important drag race of the season takes place this weekend with the 61st Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis.

  3. GP3 unveils new car for 2016 season at Monza

    Sep 3, 2015, 3:27 PM EDT

    © GP3 Series © GP3 Series

    The GP3/16 breaks cover at Monza ahead of its introduction next year.

  4. Mercedes uses remaining development tokens to upgrade power units

    Sep 3, 2015, 2:39 PM EDT

    A track marshal waves the checkered flag as Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team's British driver Lewis Hamilton crosses the finish line to win the Belgian Formula One Grand Prix at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Sunday Aug. 23, 2015. (Andrej Isakovic/Pool photo via AP) AP

    Mercedes goes all-in ahead of this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, fully upgrading the power units on both of its cars.

  5. FOM satisfied Pirelli not to blame for Spa tire failures

    Sep 3, 2015, 1:23 PM EDT

    A Ferrari technician works on tires outside the Ferrari pits at the Monza racetrack, in Monza, Italy , Thursday, Sept. 3 , 2015. ormula One tire supplier Pirelli blamed debris on the track and prolonged usage for a "highly unusual number of cuts" at the Belgian Grand Prix, which was marred by frightening tire deterioration on the cars of Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg. The Formula one race will be held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno) AP

    FOM comes out in support of “first class partner” Pirelli.

  6. F1 2015’s silly season is proving to be a let down, but who could yet spice it up?

    Sep 3, 2015, 12:45 PM EDT

    xxxx during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 23, 2015 in Spa, Belgium. Getty Images

    Silly season has been a let down in 2015. Perhaps it is therefore fitting that McLaren is now the team to watch in the driver market.

  7. Lewis Hamilton’s blonde hair brings back memories of when Villeneuve, Vettel also did so

    Sep 3, 2015, 12:13 PM EDT

    LewisBlonde AP

    Hamilton goes blonde for Monza. He’s not alone in F1 annals.

  8. Perez keen to remain at Force India for 2016 season

    Sep 3, 2015, 11:15 AM EDT

    BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 26:  Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India walks in the paddock before the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 26, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Perez expects to confirm his plans for 2016 in the next two weeks.

  9. Pirelli: Debris to blame for Belgian GP tire failures

    Sep 3, 2015, 10:30 AM EDT

    A Williams technician walks over Pirelli tires at the Monza racetrack, in Monza, Italy , Thursday, Sept. 3 , 2015.  Formula One tire supplier Pirelli blamed debris on the track and prolonged usage for a "highly unusual number of cuts" at the Belgian Grand Prix, which was marred by frightening tire deterioration on the cars of Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg. The Formula one race will be held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni) AP

    Debris, not structural problems, to blame for tire failures at Spa.

  10. MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: Italian Grand Prix

    Sep 3, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT

    MONZA, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 07:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams celebrates his thrd place during the F1 Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 7, 2014 in Monza, Italy.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Luke Smith and Tony DiZinno make their picks ahead of this weekend’s race at Monza.

  11. 2015 Italian Grand Prix Preview

    Sep 3, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT

    Fans wave with a giant Ferrari flag after the Italian Formula One Grand Prix motor race at the Autodromo Nazionale circuit in Monza on September 7, 2014.  AFP PHOTO / OLIVIER MORIN        (Photo credit should read OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    The European season comes to a close at Monza this weekend. Can Lewis Hamilton enter the final run of flyaways with an even bigger lead?

  12. James Hinchcliffe on the comeback trail for IndyCar driving return

    Sep 3, 2015, 8:00 AM EDT

    HinchComeback AP

    James Hinchcliffe a few weeks away from his driving return.

  13. Bottas and Massa to remain with Williams for 2016

    Sep 3, 2015, 5:38 AM EDT

    NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 05:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams drives ahead of Valtteri Bottas of Finland and Williams during the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone Circuit on July 5, 2015 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Williams confirms an unchanged line-up for 2016, keeping Bottas and Massa together for a third season.

  14. Mardenborough set for GP2 debut at Monza with Carlin this weekend

    Sep 2, 2015, 2:36 PM EDT

    Photo: NISMO Photo: NISMO

    Jann Mardenborough steps up from GP3 into GP2 this weekend.

  15. James Hinchcliffe describes how inspired he was by Justin Wilson

    Sep 2, 2015, 1:00 PM EDT

    Hinchjw AP

    Hinchcliffe recalls racing, commentating on Justin Wilson.

  16. NHRA: Leah Pritchett climbing mountains as she continues to grow career

    Sep 2, 2015, 12:26 PM EDT

    All Photos: Gumout/Dote Racing All Photos: Gumout/Dote Racing

    Leah Pritchett looks to make her mark even more in NHRA Top Fuel, going into U.S. Nationals.

  17. Dixon: “I don’t think anybody had a stellar season”

    Sep 2, 2015, 11:22 AM EDT

    DixonJPM AP

    Dixon offers a rebuttal to Montoya’s dig about a “poor” season.