A few minutes before the traditional command for drivers to start their engines for the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, the entertainer Jim Nabors will, for the final time, serenade the hundreds of thousands in attendance with his unique rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana.”
It is not the state song (“On The Banks of the Wabash” is) but since 1946 it has become the unofficial anthem of the 500, and something of a call to the faithful to gather in person or in spirit once again for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
This year’s event features a rather large helping of nostalgia, even by Indy’s tradition-steeped standards. Nabors, a couple of weeks short of his 84th birthday, says this is his final year of performing the number he first sang here in 1972. “This is it,” he confirmed.
He will be saluted, as will those the sport has lost in the past year; that list is long and full of Indy legends, such as ace crew chief George Bignotti, car builder A.J. Watson, colorful businessman Andy Granatelli, driver and engineer Jack Brabham, and Gary Bettenhausen, a star of one of Indy’s most storied racing families.
Beyond that, there will be no shortage of story lines, as the 33 starters line up in 11 rows three-abreast for the traditional and treacherous flying start, and the ensuing 200 laps around Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile “Brickyard” oval.
For one, the field – from pole winner Ed Carpenter’s 231.067 m.p.h. qualifying average to last place starter Buddy Lazier’s 227.920 – is the fastest in Indy history. And the difference between the fastest and slowest qualifiers is a matter of mere seconds. That should portend an even more competitive race than last year’s barn-burner, with its record of 68 lead changes among 14 drivers.
Who is capable of winning this year? More than half the field, if past performance is any indication. Twenty starters have previously won an Indy car race at some time in their careers; seven are past series champions. Another champion, Kurt Busch from Nascar, is attempting a rare “double” – racing at both Indy and Charlotte on the same day.
Busch said he was “intrigued” by the challenge of Indy, and found its lure too compelling to pass up when he was offered the chance to drive for a top team like Andretti Autosport.
“I think the fans in general are also intrigued,” he said in an interview, “not only by what I am attempting, but by the race in general.”
The particular allure of being back home again in Indiana this year also proved irresistible for past champions Lazier, Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve – who last raced here 19 years ago. No one, according to speedway archives, has ever gone so many years between starts at Indy.
That trio is among six past champions in this year’s starting field; the others are series regulars Scott Dixon, three-time winner Helio Castroneves and defending champ Tony Kanaan.
Kanaan’s chances for rare back-to-back wins would seem to be improved by starting in an even better car than he rode to Victory Circle last year. He has inherited three-time winner Dario Franchitti’s former ride; Franchitti suffered career-ending injuries in a crash last October in Houston. Mostly recovered now from a broken back and several other bones, plus a serious concussion, Franchitti will be on the grounds, but only as a commentator on the broadcast of the race.
Castroneves, starting fourth, would seem to be well-positioned in his quest to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the race’s only four-time winners. Foyt and Mears will be among those in attendance, although the ailing Unser will not, speedway officials said.
Mario Andretti, the 1969 winner, has been entertaining lucky fans and dignitaries with pre-race 180 m.p.h. rides around the track in a special two-seat race car. One of his passengers earlier in the month was a 102-year-old woman, who complained that Andretti wouldn’t lead-foot it to 200 m.p.h.
Andretti, understandably, will be rooting for his grandson Marco, starting sixth, to end the family’s 45-year victory drought. Besides Marco Andretti and Kurt Busch, the potent Andretti Autosport lineup includes IndyCar series champ Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Carlos Muñoz, last year’s 500 runnerup. Hinchcliffe qualified second fastest, despite being knocked unconscious in an incident May 10 in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. When Hinchcliffe’s status was uncertain for several days after the accident, Mario Andretti, now 74, strode into the team’s garage and announced, “I’m ready.”
Other top contenders include Will Power, the third front row starter, who won the most recent IndyCar oval track race; Ryan Briscoe, a former Indy pole starter; Simon Pagenaud, the G.P. of Indy winner; the versatile Justin Wilson; and J.R. Hildebrand, the hard-luck driver who crashed one turn short of victory in the 2011 race.
Hildebrand, starting ninth, is a teammate this year to Carpenter, another driver who is hoping for his luck to change. Carpenter, a stepson of former speedway CEO Tony George, has been the fastest qualifier two years in a row now, but has never finished higher than fifth in 11 tries. The last pole sitter to go on to win the race was Castroneves in 2009.
Only one woman, Pippa Mann, is among the starters. The youngest driver is 19-year-old rookie Sage Karam, who will miss his high school graduation to compete here. Another first-year driver is Mikhail Aleshin, the first Russian driver to compete at Indy.
May 24, 2014