The Indianapolis 500 may be an American institution, but the prestigious race is known worldwide.
For more than a century, drivers from around the world have come to Indy with 22 winners from 12 countries outside the United States in the race’s 102 previous editions.
This year, two open-wheel veterans from Sweden are making their first Indy 500 starts. Formula One veteran Marcus Ericsson is behind the wheel of the No. 7 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Dallara-Honda, and Formula E veteran Felix Rosenqvist is in the No. 10 Dallara-Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing.
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With two Swedes racing in the series full time, the level of interest in their home country has not been this high since Kenny Bräck became the first Swede to win the race in 1999.
“To be honest, IndyCar was very big from the late ’90’s to the beginning of the 2000’s when Kenny was over here and doing very well,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “I remember watching on TV as a kid, and there was a lot of coverage of it in Sweden.”
Bräck competed in the Indy Racing League and CART full time from 1997-2003. The Swede was one of the most successful drivers at the time, with nine victories (including the ’99 Indy 500). He also won the 1998 IRL championship.
But in the final race of the 2003 IRL season at Texas Motor Speedway, Bräck would suffer serious injuries in a crash that nearly cost him his life when his car locked wheels with another, sending Bräck’s car into the catchfence.
Bräck would recover from his injuries and return to IndyCar one final time in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, but Ericsson said interest in the sport had evaporated in Sweden by then.
But with two Swedes making their debuts at the Brickyard, interest in IndyCar has been rekindled in the Scandinavian nation.
“Obviously, for me coming from Formula One, I had a lot of support from Sweden during my years in there and now I see pretty much all of the fans who followed me in F1 are following me in IndyCar,” Ericsson said.
“With Felix in the series on top of that, it just became super popular in Sweden now. I think all of the motorsport fans in Sweden are following the IndyCar Series now. It’s very good, and I’m very happy to receive that support from my country.”
Like Ericsson, Rosenqvist also has fond memories of watching Bräck race, and he could not be happier finally to have the chance to follow his footsteps.
“It’s something that I always strived to do. IndyCar is always something I’ve loved and followed very closely from Europe,” Rosenqvist said. “It’s definitely been a dream to go to IndyCar.”
“It almost seems like not only are there fans who used to follow Kenny, but there are also a lot of younger, new fans that are really into IndyCar as well. We have a very big following in Sweden.”
Ericsson will start Sunday’s race from the 13th position while Rosenqvist will start 29th. Though Rosenqvist would have liked to qualify closer to the front, he still is enthused to compete in his first Indy 500.
“It’s such a huge spectacle to be a part of,” Rosenqvist said.
“I think as the month goes on, you realize more what it’s all about. You have guys who have been telling you for weeks what it’s going to be like, what you have to pay attention to, and other things. But as you go on you realize you kind of experience everything yourself. It’s one of those races you’ve always wanted to take part of, and now it’s only a couple of days away.”