–by Bob Pagels
INDIANAPOLIS — It is May in Indianapolis, and, with apologies to Indiana Pacers fans, that means only one thing: the Indianapolis 500 mile race. Only a year has passed since the last edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” but a lot is new at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this time around: new title sponsor (Verizon replaces the departed Izod), new qualifying procedure (three rounds over two days, the fastest 33 cars locked into the field, the end of “Bump Day”), new Pole Day (Sunday, called the Fast Nine Shootout), and the running of the inaugural Indianapolis Grand Prix earlier in the month. But one thing hasn’t changed: Ed Carpenter is sitting on the 2014 Indy 500 Pole. The only owner/driver in the field this year scored a rare pole position repeat. More on Ed’s accomplishment later.
Welcome Back…and Forth
What has returned to Indy this year, after a long absence, are two previous winners who had moved on to Formula One and NASCAR. (Yes, I said Formula One and NASCAR.) It is very strange to mention them in the same breath, though that is the path back to Indy that Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya have taken. Villeneuve was the Indy 500 winner in 1995 (and finished second in his only other Indy 500 start the year prior), while Montoya won the Memorial Day Classic in 2000. During those years, many Formula One team bosses were keen on IndyCar Series champions, and both men were snatched up by the Formula One circus. After their Formula One experiences, Montoya began an extended run driving taxi cabs down south (NASCAR), while Villeneuve made an occasional NASCAR start as well.
Beyond being previous winners, both Montoya and Villeneuve share an Indianapolis Motor Speedway record: competing in three major events there (Indianapolis 500, the Formula One United States Grand Prix, and the NASCAR Brickyard 400). This race is a one-off for Villeneuve, while Montoya landed a coveted season-long ride with Roger Penske’s organization.
And speaking of one-offs, 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kurt Busch is attempting to “Do The Double.” As an Indy rookie this year, he qualified an impressive 12th at the Speedway driving for the five-car Andretti Autosport super squad. The double, or “Double Duty” consists of racing the Indianapolis 500, which will take the green flag at 11 am ET, and the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte N.C., which goes green at 6 pm ET the same day. Busch is the fourth driver to attempt this feat, which is such a logistical, physical and mental challenge that…well…uh…only four people have ever attempted this! (Only Tony Stewart was successfully able to complete every lap of the 1,100-mile, one-day marathon, back in 2001.)
So what will Busch’s itinerary consist of on Sunday? Well, Busch will jump in a helicopter at the conclusion of the Indy 500 and head to a waiting private jet for his flight to Charlotte. En route, Busch will be hydrated with an IV, receive any medical and therapeutic care required, and try to recover for that night’s 600-mile race in a stock car. To understand the incredible challenge Busch will try to overcome, here are a few differences he will experience in the two races he will attempt to win on the same day: An IndyCar weighs about 1600 lbs; a stock car about 3500 lbs. An IndyCar has wide sticky tires and Brembo carbon brake rotors; a stock car has narrower hard tires and steel rotors. The record qualifying speed at Indy is 237 mph; at Charlotte it is “only” 195 mph. The banking – the angle at which a track inclines towards the outside of a corner or from the lower to the higher side of a straight – at Indy is 9 degrees, which is considered almost flat, while Charlotte’s banking is 24 degrees. Combine those stark differences with the changing temperatures and humidity of a day race in the Midwest and a night race in the South, and you have the challenge known as “The Double.” All of the martial arts workouts, the additional cardio and upper body strength training Busch has completed to prepare for this day may not be enough to meet the challenge.
In case you are wondering what would happen if Busch won the Indianapolis 500 and stayed for the victory recognition and interviews and missed the tight cut-off time to depart Indy, Parker Kligerman is in Charlotte and ready to substitute for Busch if for any reason he is not in the stock car by the drop of the green flag.
So what to make of the drivers for this year’s running of the world’s most famous car race? There will be the usual 11 rows of three taking the green flag. There won’t be a quartet of women in this year’s field, unlike 2013. The only woman of those four to make this year’s field is Pippa Mann, the popular English driver making her repeat start at Indy for Dale Coyne Racing. Pippa will be driving the pink Susan G. Komen No. 63 IndyCar, raising awareness for breast cancer research and treatment. True to form for the 500, all corners of the world are represented in the driver line-up. The front row has an American on pole, a Canadian (James Hinchcliffe), and an Australian whose name is Will Power. How cool is Will Power for a racer’s name? The second row has a Brazilian (three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves), a Frenchman (Simon Pagenaud), and another American, Marco Andretti. Marco’s grandfather is the world famous Mario, and his father is Michael who is also his team owner. Impressive family genes. In the fifth row is a Russian, Mikhail Aleshin, a first for the 500.
For the record, there are six previous winners in the field, joined by seven rookies (including Kurt Busch). There are 11 American drivers, including one previous winner named Buddy Lazier (1996).
When the Indy cars come to life Sunday morning, they will be lead to the green flag for the second time in a row by Ed Carpenter. As previously noted, Ed owns the team he drives for, Ed Carpenter Racing. He is local to central Indiana (he graduated from Butler University in Indianapolis), and has a reputation as a decent guy and a hard charger on the ovals. With Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka as his primary sponsor, jokes abound of a special ingredient in his fuel to help him win the pole. While I won’t speculate on any additives to his qualifying fuel, a win by the hometown boy will be very popular for Hoosier IndyCar fans.
The impact of winning the Indianapolis 500 reaches far beyond Indiana, though, as this will be the 98th running of this world famous race. Win the Big Race and your face joins the list of previous winners on the massive Borg-Warner Trophy. You’ll drink the winner’s milk (your choice among whole, 2% and skim), celebrate with your team and sponsors, conduct the network morning show interviews and late night show appearances. Your life will never be the same after a win at the Indianapolis 500. Just ask all the men who have come in second place over the years. You remember their names, don’t you? Neither do I. But I remember the names of the winners.
On Sunday, I will be watching all the glorious pageantry of race morning at Indy from my seat high in Turn Three. When the green flag flies I will be privileged to witness another historic Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. There are dozens of potential great stories that can write themselves on this day. After the military flyover, and the respectful Memorial Day acknowledgements, Sunday’s great story will begin to write itself. Here’s hoping it includes a safe and fast race as its main storyline. Have a great Memorial Day Weekend!
[About the author: Bob Pagels has been an IndyCar fan since the 1967 Indianapolis 500, when he watched A.J. Foyt win his third Indy from the Turn 1 infield with his father. He usually pulls for the underdog, though he is a big fan of retired four-time winner Rick Mears.]
[Cover photo courtesy of Chris Graythen/Getty Images]