by Frank Santoroski @seveng1967
The sound of race cars at full song is permeating the air in Speedway, Indiana this morning as the Verizon IndyCar Series takes to the track for practice. While Spring slowly yields to Summer, that familiar sound can only signal one thing: the month of May has arrived.
The month of May is both a blessing and a curse for the Series. A blessing in the fact that for a brief time, the stars and cars of the Verizon IndyCar Series gain International attention. There are few places on the earth that are as seeped in tradition as much as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Sure, many auto racing purists will tell you that the traditions have been stomped on in the recent past with changes in the qualifying format, the addition of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, and moving Carb Day to Friday. Throw in the fact that the historic facility has opened its doors to running Stock Cars, Formula One, vintage racing, sports cars, Indy Lights and motorcycles over the years, and yeah, maybe traditions are made to be broken.
Still, none of this takes the magic away from the month of May, at least as far as I’m concerned. I’ve been trekking to the Speedway each Spring annually since 1994, and every year produces wonderful memories.
Every sport has its crown jewel. Whether it be the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, or Wimbledon, these events command more attention that the rest of the season.
At the same time, none of these events can compare with the disparity between the amount of attention put on the 500, and the lack of attention the Series receives in any other month.
That’s the curse. Once the checkered flag falls on Memorial Day weekend, IndyCar quickly slips out of the collective consciousness of the mainstream media and the casual fan.
This is a direct result of having an event that pre-dates the current sanctioning body by nearly 80 years, essentially giving us a series built around an event, rather than an event that is the centerpiece of a strong series.
Now, I could write ad nauseam on this topic, and still not tell you exactly how to fix it. But, this article is not intended to be a diatribe against the series, an examination of its stormy past, its struggle to market itself, or to question the leadership.
Instead, while we have this beautiful month of May upon us, let’s focus on the blessing and have a look at the 99th Indianapolis 500.
The hot topic of conversation has undoubtedly been the introduction of the aero-kit packages for this season. After a crash-fest at St. Pete and a rain-drenched debut at NOLA, the races at Long Beach and Barber went off without major issues.
The super-speedway aero-kits made their debut this past weekend at Indianapolis during an extended open test session. While Chevrolet cars topped the time charts once again, early indications are that there will be more parity between the Honda and Chevy teams than we have seen on the road courses.
With speeds flirting with 227 mph in the first practice, the Series looks poised to top last year’s pole speed of 231.067 set by Ed Carpenter. Whether or not Arie Luyendyk’s 1996 track record of 236.986 mph comes into jeopardy remains to be seen.
It will indeed be interesting to see how much the speeds come up as the teams learn the ins and outs of the new super-speedway aero-kits.
Of course, before the teams can place their full focus on the 500, there is one more road course event on the schedule, The Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis to be held Saturday, May 9. Chevy teams once again topped practice, with qualifying set for this afternoon. With possible showers in Saturday’s forecast, look for an interesting race.
The 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 will feature five previous winners that have a shot at another win. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya are all with top teams, are all at the top of their game, and must be considered favorites to take a second win.
The only active multiple winner in the field, Helio Castroneves, once again has a chance to etch his name in the history books and become a four-time winner. He came within inches of pulling off that feat last year, in a dramatic final lap duel with Ryan Hunter-Reay.
A fourth win by Castroneves would be epic for the event and the Series, perhaps giving the Series some much-needed press as the season moves forward.
Another former winner, Buddy Lazier, has entered the 500. Running a one-off with his small family-run team, he would be seen as an extreme long shot at best. Of course, stranger things have happened.
Picking a winner out of this field is as wide open as you can imagine. The first four races of the season produced four different winners from four different teams. The big three teams of Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti have fourteen cars entered between them, comprising more than 40% of the field. Aside from the aforementioned former winners, Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, and Charlie Kimball have all had strong runs at the Speedway.
Even the part-time runners in this group, Sage Karam, Sebastian Saavedra, Justin Wilson and Simona de Silvestro, all stand a chance come race day if things fall just right.
Outside of the top teams, the organization most likely to challenge will be the Carpenter/Fisher/Hartman team. Coming off of the momentum from a big win at Barber, the team looks as solid as any of the big dogs.
Team principle Ed Carpenter, driving an oval-only schedule, returns to the cockpit for the 500. Carpenter took pole position here the past two years, and remains a threat to win on any oval track.
Teammate Josef Newgarden’s oval program hasn’t been his strong suit, but with Carpenter as a mentor, it can only improve.
The team will be joined for the month of May by J.R. Hildebrand in a third car. Hildebrand came within one turn of winning the Centennial 500 as a rookie in 2011, and would certainly like to replace that memory with a new one.
On the Chevrolet side, KVSH Racing falls right behind CFH. However with a driver lineup consisting of Sebastien Bourdais and Stefano Coletti, who are primarily seen as road course specialists, I would have to rate them as a dark horse. KVSH will enter a third car for Brian Clausen, who has very little experience in these cars.
In the Honda camp, the Schmidt-Peterson and Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan teams have actually performed stronger than Andretti Autosport up to this point.
That all may change this month, but look for both James Hinchcliffe and Graham Rahal to put their best foot forward. The addition of veteran Oriol Servia at the Rahal Team will give Graham a teammate to pool information with, while SPM will add the young and talented Conor Daly to their lineup of Hinchcliffe and James Jakes.
Sato, in particular, always seems to run well at the Speedway, although his results don’t show it. In 2012, he nearly stole an Indy 500 win from Dario Franchitti in the final laps.
While Franchiltti took his third win, Sato ended up in the turn two wall. Like J.R. Hildebrand, Sato will also be looking to erase that heartbreaking finish from his memories.
Rookie Gabby Chaves will run for the Bryan Herta team, as the Dale Coyne Team has yet to announce their full driver lineup for the 500. Coyne has confirmed England’s Pippa Mann, who will be competing in her 4th 500 with support from the Susan G. Komen For the Cure Foundation.
Coyne will run Carlos Huertas and Francesco Dracone in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, but he may have a surprise or two up his sleeve for the 500.
The names Vitor Meira and Katherine Legge are being mentioned around the garage area, but until Coyne makes an announcement, we can never be truly certain.
The month of May is upon us as another page is about to be written in the history of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Photos courtesy: IndyCar