Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves

The Indianapolis 500: Still alive and making a comeback


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.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Graham Rahal

Graham Rahal
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MotorSportsTalk continues its driver-by-driver review of the field in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Next up is fourth-placed Graham Rahal, who had a career year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

  • 2014: 19th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 4th, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 4 Top-10s, 28 Laps Led, 14.4 Avg. Start, 15.0 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 4th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 5th, 6 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 10 Top-10s, 76 Laps Led, 11.0 Avg Start, 8.5 Avg. Finish

Formula 1 fans will remember the miraculous, shock rise of Brawn GP, which didn’t even exist as a team until mere weeks before the 2009 Australian Grand Prix having risen from the demise of the former Honda factory team, and then promptly proceeded to stomp the field en route to winning both the Driver’s and Constructor’s World Championships that season.

It’s the best racing comparison in recent years – or perhaps any year – for what was done at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2015, courtesy of a career year from Graham Rahal, an instant chemistry renewal with the people father Bobby put in place, and the fact Bobby himself stepped back this year to allow his team’s key players to shine through.

Because quite simply, after finishes of 18th and 19th the last two seasons, no one in their right mind had Rahal winning races and contending for a championship this season.

It’s hard to say specifically which point was most important, because all played dividends. Bobby Rahal moved off the pit box, and actually missed a fair number of races this year, which allowed Graham and team manager Ricardo Nault to gel with Nault on the radio and pretty much running the team on the whole. Then there were the three key crewmember additions: Eddie Jones moving over to be lead engineer on the No. 15 car was clutch, as was Rahal getting the opportunity to reunite with Martin Pare and work for the first time with Mike Talbott. The addition of damper ace Stuart Kenworthy was not covered much this year, but undoubtedly a big help. Sponsor Steak ‘n Shake’s arrival also brought a wealth of attention.

And then there were the drives in the races themselves. Perhaps strangely, Rahal had a tough qualifying average – only 11th – but it was the best for a Honda driver this year. The strategy calls from RLL were damn near perfect all year and Rahal seized every opportunity at his disposal, be it his wins at Fontana and Mid-Ohio, his recovery at Iowa, and his numerous other podiums throughout the year. His charge to second at Barber stands out as one of the drives of the year.

Call Fontana lucky if you will, and he was fortunate to avoid a penalty for leaving with the fuel buckeye, but even so he still could have come back given where the race was at that point. And being on the receiving end of two ill-advised taps from Tristan Vautier and Sebastien Bourdais at Pocono and Sonoma, respectively, cost him huge results and huge points – the net effect of three races.

The single-car title charge was one of the stories of the year, even beyond Scott Dixon’s championship comeback and Juan Pablo Montoya’s consistent-until-Sonoma season. Rahal re-established his credentials on track if people had forgotten what he was capable of; additionally, he reaffirmed his status as one of racing’s best people with his work in the Justin Wilson memorial auction after that tragedy. It was truly a ’15 to remember for the driver of the No. 15 car.

Nick Tandy is on a ridiculous roll of form of late

Tandy (second from left) is on a roll. Photo: Getty Images
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With the international sports car season nearing its conclusion after a few more FIA World Endurance Championship and other international GT championship events, the question begins to be asked who might be the driver of the year.

There’s a British driver who’s pretty much firmly got that title wrapped at the moment – Nick Tandy – even though the nature of his season means he is unlikely to capture any championship on his own!

Tandy has competed in the full FIA World Endurance Championship season, splitting his time between the LMP2 class Oreca 05 Nissan from KCMG and a third Porsche 919 Hybrid in LMP1, which he drove at Spa and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Though Nico Hulkenberg got many non-insider accolades for his drive at Le Mans, it was truly Tandy’s overnight stint, coupled with regular fellow factory Porsche pilot Earl Bamber, that won the race for the No. 19 Porsche.

That win for Tandy has kicked off a ridiculous run of form, culminating with his shock – but thoroughly well-deserved – overall win Saturday night at Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda, co-driving the No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR with Patrick Pilet (Richard Lietz, the designated third driver, did not drive).

Tandy won three consecutive GT Le Mans class races at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Road America and Virginia International Raceway.

A week after VIR, Tandy was back at KCMG for the first time since Silverstone in April and co-drove to victory in the LMP2 class at the Nürburgring.

After a relatively “rough” month of September where Tandy and Pilet needed a late splash of fuel to make the finish and lost a shot at a fourth straight GTLM class win, they rebounded this weekend at Petit Le Mans.

“The fact that we were a lot of time the fastest cars on track, so by racing against each other, naturally we had to race against the prototypes. So when they were in our way we had to race against us,” Tandy explained post-race at Petit Le Mans of his drive against, and past, the prototypes.

“When the race was coming to a close, I was aware that the 31 car was in the lead, but I knew if we had another rain shower I knew we would checker the race, so that was why I was pushing so hard to get ahead of the GTLM cars, and once I had done that and we had a really good pace and were comfortable we were catching the 31.

“It was a case of just pulling ahead of the rest, but we ended up winning overall, so it was fantastic. [opening] “The opening stint opened our eyes to the fact that we could actually be fighting for the overall victory, the fact we came from the back of the field to I think we were running second on pure pace.

“To be honest, the first 2 hours were the best conditions we had. We had consistent rain, but very little running water. Clearly towards the end, it dried out a little more and our pace compared to the other classes and the BMW and Corvettes came back. It was a race of two halves really.”