Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves

The Indianapolis 500: Still alive and making a comeback

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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.

PWC: Andrew Palmer, Jorge de la Torre remain hospitalized in Hartford

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Pirelli World Challenge released an updated statement late Tuesday night on the status of injured drivers Andrew Palmer and Jorge de la Torre, who were both injured in a severe accident in practice on Saturday morning ahead of that series’ race at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Conn.

No conditions were revealed in the statement.

The statement reads:

“As a follow up to the releases regarding the GT warm-up accident in Saturday’s Pirelli World Challenge race at Lime Rock Park, the Series wants to thank our teams, drivers and fans for the tremendous outpouring of support for Andrew Palmer and Jorge De La Torre.

“Both drivers continue to receive treatment for their injuries at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Conn.  Hartford Hospital has not released further information at this time. The Series will forward any detailed update on the drivers when received from a Hartford Hospital spokesperson. We thank everyone for respecting the families right to privacy as they concentrate on Andrew and Jorge’s hospitalization.”

Bryan Clauson pulls off ‘Hoosier Double’ — Indy 500 and sprint car win in same day

Bryan Clauson prior to the start of Sunday's Indianapolis 500. He'd then go on to race again that evening in a sprint car race at Kokomo (Ind.) Speedway -- and won!
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When Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 was over, most drivers went out to dinner, attended Conor Daly’s post-race party – or just plain chilled out and relaxed.

But not Bryan Clauson.

Clauson put together his own version of “the double” Sunday, starting his day at Indy and finishing it not 600 miles away for NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 – but rather with an evening sprint car race about 60 miles away in Kokomo, Indiana.

 

It was indeed a heck of a day and evening for Clauson.

First, he led the 500 for the first time in three career starts there, having the 32 other drivers in the field chasing him for three laps.

Next, Clauson finally finished his first 500 in the No. 88 Cancer Treatment Centers of America Honda for Dale Coyne/Jonathan Byrd’s Racing, amassing 198 laps in the 200-lap event. That was a significant improvement than his first two starts in 2012 (completed just 46 laps) and 2015 (completed 61 laps).

Running 500 miles at Indy didn’t leave Clauson too worse for the wear: he went out and won just a few hours later that evening at Kokomo!

As he was leaving IMS, Clauson, a native of Noblesville, Indiana – about halfway between Indy and Kokomo – stopped quick enough to tweet out his reaction to his finish at Indy.

And then with that, the 26-year-old Clauson was back on the road up to Kokomo Speedway.

Racing at Indy and Kokomo was just a warm-up act for Clauson, who is kicking off a stint of 40 races in 34 days, as part of Clauson and Byrd Racing’s “Chasing 200” tour.

Of course he and fiancee Lauren also had a banquet to attend on Monday night.

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Indy 500 champ Alexander Rossi visits NASCAR AMERICA (VIDEO)

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As part of his New York City media tour on Tuesday, Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi visited NBCSN’s NASCAR AMERICA show.

Rossi spoke with Carolyn Manno, and discusses winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, his choice of milk after winning and his Formula 1 past before shifting to IndyCar and driving the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda for Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian.

Rossi’s NAPA Auto Parts primary sponsorship will continue into next weekend’s Chevrolet Dual in Detroit Presented by Quicken Loans, Rounds 7 and 8 of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

The IndyCar circuit returns to NBCSN on June 11, at 8 p.m. ET, from Texas Motor Speedway.

Despite rough finish, Conor Daly finds humor in 2016 Indianapolis 500 experience

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Conor Daly may have been disappointed in his 29th place finish in Sunday’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500.

But you couldn’t tell by the 24-year-old Noblesville, Indiana native’s comments at Monday’s Indy 500 Victory Banquet.

Daly started his acceptance speech to receive the $336,243 he earned for being in the 500 by discussing his wardrobe – or lack thereof.

“This is my first purchased suit,” he said with a smirk. “I bought this with my own money. It’s a big achievement in my life.”

That comment drew applause and laughs.

Daly touched on the crash with Mikhail Aleshin shortly after the mid-point of the race that ended the day for both drivers, not blaming the Russian driver, then went into a routine that featured several funny one-liners, including:

* “I’d like to thank Christopher Columbus for coming over and discovering this great place.”

* “And I’d like to thank George Washington for establishing this wonderful country. And all of our veterans and just the great American country, because it’s awesome.”

Daly then talked about how he decided to mosey out to Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s legendary “Snake Pit” in the Turn 3 and Turn 4 portion of the infield.

Just before the race, too!

“I had never been to the snake pit before so I went out there before the race, oddly enough,” Daly said. “I carved out a 30-minute window to do some promotional activities and I wore my helmet and my race suit, safety first. That was awesome. I probably won’t be able to see it ever hopefully for a long time because I’ll be driving (in the race).”

And as for his close friend Rossi, Daly said, “Mr. Rossi, good job, my friend. You get a car and money and all kinds of cool stuff. Yeah, it’s awesome, so good job, buddy.”

When asked about his close friendship with Rossi when they raced against each other in the GP2 series, Daly noted: “We shared many a meal in the GP2 hospitality of dried meats and cucumbers and whatever the heck they had there that I thought were ridiculous.

“We talked many a times about where we were going to go in our careers. Sure enough, here we are, he’s an Indy 500 champion and I’m attempting to do something with my life. So, we’re getting there.”

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