INDIANAPOLIS – History is both the Indianapolis 500’s greatest asset, and perhaps, its greatest crutch.
Come today though, it’s the start of a new chapter that ends a near decade-long embrace of history and actually has the excitement of a forward-thinking future for both the Verizon IndyCar Series’ marquee race, and the series itself.
From the moment the “Centennial Era” was announced at the 2008 Indianapolis 500 – my first on-site and first covering – the allure of the buildup of history, it could be argued, hamstrung the event.
2009 marked 100 years since competition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened, with, of all things, a balloon race.
Two years later was 100 years since the first running of the ‘500 miler itself. Ray Harroun is forever etched in the history books from 1911’s win, and in 2011, one of Indy’s most famous finishes occurred with JR Hildebrand’s fateful slide into the Turn 4 wall and Dan Wheldon’s run through the debris to steal his second ‘500 win.
In 2012, it began the countdown of five years until the 100th running of the race, culminating with last year’s hundredth-palooza ultimately won by Alexander Rossi in similar, “how the hell did he pull that off?” fashion. Strategist and team co-owner Bryan Herta and the No. 98 are the common denominators between those two fantastic finishes.
In-between, Dario Franchitti etched his name into lore with his second and third wins in 2010 and 2012. Tony Kanaan finally broke through in 2013. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Juan Pablo Montoya emerged from fantastic duels with Helio Castroneves and Will Power, respectively, to nab the 2014 and 2015 wins.
All of those winners were precursors to the 100th, but the 101st is a chance for both the race and the series to break free with the newness looming on the horizon.
To wit, there are these items to look forward to in the immediate future, starting with today’s race:
NEW COMMON AERO KIT IN 2018
This year will be the last for the manufacturer designed aero kits from Honda and Chevrolet, which have proven positive for both manufacturers and set a number of IndyCar race track records. They’ve also been expensive engineering exercises that team owners have publicly grumbled about, although less so in the last year and a half.
IndyCar, the series, produced even more parity with a common kit – renderings of both the speedway and road and street course package have now been revealed – from 2012 through 2014. The hope is those days can come back with next year’s new kit, the sleek look of which recalls IndyCar’s past while also being confident in crafting a new future.
NEW DRIVER CROP READY TO TAKE OVER
The balance between the 30-plus-year-old veterans and the emerging 20-something young guns is in a perpetual state of flux. For a second straight year though, a chance for a young driver to break through at Indy will give him or her a chance to star beyond the inner sphere of influence.
The veterans of note who do not have an Indy 500 on their resume include Team Penske’s trio of Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden; famous sons Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti have been around more than a decade in search of their first victories here; James Hinchcliffe has reached that 30-year-old threshold and having established his national presence last fall on Dancing with the Stars, has the cache to add this race to his record.
Then there are the under-30 drivers with lesser experience but enough to be considered stars of the future who could break through a la Rossi last year: a JR Hildebrand, Ed Jones or Sage Karam for instance. All three have looked excellent in race running in traffic and could well break through today. The Mazda Road to Indy has fed a large number of drivers into the field – 24 of 33 to be exact – and a win for one of them today would be the latest in its “proof of concept.”
NEW TEAMS MAKING THEIR DEBUTS
Beyond Penske, Ganassi and Andretti and the remaining five full-time teams, today marks the series debuts for new entrants Juncos Racing, Harding Racing and Michael Shank Racing (in partnership with Andretti Autosport), as well as the return of the iconic McLaren name to the Speedway in a potential preview of a fuller comeback itself.
You may not know these teams now, but how they expand for the rest of their IndyCar ownership careers may rest in large part on how well they do today. With a big race comes a big opportunity, and so too does the shot to grow their teams and their status beyond just one Sunday in May.
The Indianapolis 500 has, in recent years, produced a number of first-time winners. Since 1996, the year Buddy Lazier won in the first IRL ‘500 (and 80th running), and as the last active link to that bygone era, there has been this balance of first-timers versus encore winners:
- New winners (14): Rossi (2016), Hunter-Reay (2014), Kanaan (2013), Scott Dixon (2008), Franchitti (2007), Sam Hornish Jr. (2006), Wheldon (2005), Buddy Rice (2004), Gil de Ferran (2003), Castroneves (2001), Juan Pablo Montoya (2000), Kenny Brack (1999), Eddie Cheever Jr. (1998), Lazier (1996)
- Repeat winners (5): Montoya (2015), Franchitti (2012, 2010), Wheldon (2011), Castroneves (2009, 2002), Arie Luyendyk (1997)
There’s only seven past winners in the field of 33, so the odds are better for a first-timer than a repeat one.
But importantly, there are two new – or refreshed – story lines that will define the day:
NEW STORY LINES: WEATHER RELIABILITY
Fernando Alonso has grabbed the headlines all month, but heading into race day it’s not Alonso that will dominate the discussion.
It’s likely to be these two words: weather and reliability.
Weather, first. Rain is the ultimate word no one likes writing about, but a distinct possibility today. Heavy rains hit Indianapolis both late Friday night and again Saturday night into Sunday, making a washout for today a topic of conversation.
INDYCAR has one benefit in that Indianapolis stays light until 8 p.m. or later, which could make a start time as late as 5 p.m. possible, but hopefully something that won’t be needed.
The other option, of course, is that it’s a consistent drizzle all day – we lose the track – and we race on Monday.
A one day-delay hasn’t happened since 1997, 20 years ago, and that one wound up running on Tuesday in an anomaly. The 2004 and 2007 races were rain-shortened. Any delay this year would be most challenging for the crews, who already face a compressed window to convert and/or prep their street course cars before heading to Detroit mid-week for the doubleheader there next weekend.
On-track, the story of the race will revolve around reliability, in the Chevrolet vs. Honda battle. From most competitors we’ve talked to, the acknowledgement is Honda has the edge on power, while Chevrolet has the edge on both aero and most notably – reliability.
There’s the likelihood at least one and potentially more Hondas will blow, and while that sucks, it’s also sort of cool that Honda is pushing the envelope to where if they pop, they pop.
“It’s part of life. These things happen,” Graham Rahal said Saturday. “Honda is pushing these engines as hard as they possibly can. I’m not going to sit and worry about it. I hope it doesn’t happen right away; I think we’ll be OK. Is there a risk? Sure, we’ve lost an engine last week too.
“I believe in Honda. I know they’re trying hard. I know we’re pushing hard. That’s why you’re seeing what you’re seeing. They told us Friday in a meeting they’re not going to hold back, and they’re going to race it to win it. I like that mentality. If that means failures, it means some failures. But I like that mentality. Let’s see what happens. If it happens, we’re back in 2018.”
Chevrolet drivers aren’t saying much publicly but the Team Penske quintet, Ed Carpenter Racing’s pair and Sage Karam of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing stand as that manufacturer’s best bets on Sunday, all of whom having exuded a quiet confidence both about their reliability and their cars in race trim. There is something to be said for Penske drivers not feeling “off” despite four of them starting 18th or worse – and Roger Penske is renowned for noting the unpredictability of Indianapolis, even as he and his team have won here 16 times.
Who lasts longest will likely stand strongest today.