Powerhouse teams challenged by start-ups




INDIANAPOLIS – The month of May started with Takuma Sato having made A.J. Foyt Racing a reigning winner for the first time in 11 years, and nearly repeating, finishing second at Sao Paolo.

It will end with driver-owner Ed Carpenter — the head of a two-year-old one-car team, leading the field to the green flag at the Indianapolis 500 — with rookie Carlos Munoz right beside him.

They’re striking a blow for balance in the IndyCar Series.

Three teams – the ones owned by Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti – had dominated the series over the last decade. From 2006 through the moment Dan Wheldon zoomed past a wounded J.R. Hildebrand car and took a small team across the finish line at Indy in 2011, those three teams won all but four of the IndyCar races, and swept all of the ovals in that span.

From that point forward, those three well-funded veteran teams have still collected the most victories, but their stranglehold is quickly being broken as the IndyCar Series field keeps getting deeper.

That wasn’t lost on the latest interloper, the Indy 500 polesitter, who gave Sarah Fisher Racing its first-ever win in the 2011 season finale at Kentucky, and then became the first driver-owner to win a series race since Adrian Fernandez in 2004 in last year’s season finale at Fontana.

“It’s an honor to win this pole because it is a really competitive field,” Carpenter said of his pole run, which tallied 228.762 mph and outdueled five cars from Andretti Autosport and three more from Team Penske in the Fast Nine qualifying session. “I hope this is part one of a really magical month, and we’re here for race day. This is awesome, and it’s bigger than our wins and it’s huge for the team.”

Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 field is separated by 0.9848 seconds per 2.5-mile lap in qualifying.

But even though he finished the most recent oval race atop the podium, and will start Indy atop the pole, Carpenter isn’t the only driver from a smaller team making noise in the IndyCar Series.

Sato enters Indy with the points lead – trying to become the first from a non-Big Three team to win the title since Sam Hornish Jr. did so for Panther Racing in 2002, the first year in which Team Penske competed full-time in the IndyCar Series. Ganassi and Andretti’s teams would make the move from the now-defunct ChampCar World Series the next year. Cars owned by Dale Coyne (piloted by Justin Wilson), KV Racing (Simona de Silvestro) and Panther Racing (Oriol Servia) are in the Top 10 in the points. .

Meanwhile, the Long Beach Grand Prix saw a podium of Sato, Graham Rahal and Wilson. At Sao Paolo, Sarah Fisher Racing driver Josef Newgarden was fighting for the lead until the closing laps and finished fifth.

One of the “Big Three” – Andretti Autosport – has made itself the team to beat. It boasts the defending series champion in Ryan Hunter-Reay and three of the four race winners so far – James Hinchcliffe has won two, passing Sato on the final lap at Sao Paolo for his second – and Hunter-Reay a third.

But it doesn’t have a stranglehold on the series the way it might have in previous years, when it fielded championship cars for Tony Kanaan in 2004, Dan Wheldon in 2005, Dario Franchitti in 2007 and Hunter-Reay last year.

“Three of four wins is certainly something we can be proud of, but it’s nothing we’re resting on,” Hinchcliffe said. “This series is so competitive. Take two seconds to have a break and enjoy it, you’re probably going to get passed by somebody else.”

One of the big reasons of late was the switch to the new Dallara DW12 chassis and a new engine package in 2012. The chassis was a radical departure from previous specs and has provided two years of very close racing, while the package introduced turbocharged engines back to Indianapolis for the first time since 1996.

As a result, everyone started with a clean sheet of paper, and while the traditional teams remain fast, they’re not as dominant as they had been.

“The cars are almost identical. It’s not like the old days or even the last generation car, where you could adjust it infinite amounts with aero stuff. Everybody’s dealt the same hand,” 2008 Indy winner and two-time series champ Scott Dixon said.

“Last year, the difference was it was a new car and some people figured the new car out quicker. You saw the difference in the times and separation then. Now, everybody’s had the car for a year, people have moved teams, and so information has gone around everywhere.”

The entry list has been stable for several years — Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal, Scott Dixon, Justin Wilson and Sebastien Bourdais form a core of veterans who have been key parts of open-wheel racing for years.  

As a result, there were few open seats — to the point where recent Indianapolis 500s have had few rookies. Only four — A.J. Allmendinger, Conor Daly, Carlos Munoz and Tristan Vautier — are on the entry list this year. A handful of seats have come open recently, but there’s a mad scramble to fill them.

“It’s a really difficult sport to get to a high level,” said Simona di Silvestro, one of several recent additions to the series. “You look around, there are only 24 cars in Formula One, 27 in our series every week. There are not a lot of opportunities at the highest level.”

What that all adds up to is a scramble for 500 miles where anyone can win.

“We’re not resting too comfortably,” Hinchcliffe said. “We’re not sleeping well at night, because this is Indy. Anything can happen.”

***

Indy By The Numbers

0.043: The closest finish, in seconds, in the Indianapolis 500, when Al Unser Jr. nosed out Scott Goodyear at the line in 1992.

1: The car number reserved for the previous year’s series champion. It is being used by Ryan Hunter-Reay for the 2013 season. It’s the first time the No. 1 has been used since Michael Andretti used it for his car at Indy in 2006 after his team won the series title in 2005.

1: Number of times James Hinchcliffe looked into the camera and said “Hi, Rog,” to Roger Penske in the post-qualifying press conference.

1: Drivers who have won the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and Formula One World Championship: Mario Andretti. He has also won his class at the 24 Hours of LeMans.

2: The number of Indiana-bred drivers in the race: Ed Carpenter of Indianapolis and Conor Daly of Noblesville.

2: The Indy 500 starting spot for Carlos Munoz, and number of races at Indy he’ll try to win this week, as he is also running the Indy Lights Freedom 100 on Friday.

3: The number of four-time Indianapolis 500 winners – A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser. Both defending champion Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves have three wins and will be vying for a fourth. The last time two 3+-time winners raced in an Indianapolis 500 was 1992, when the three four-time winners raced together for the last time.

3.939: The difference, in seconds over a 10-mile, 4-lap qualifying run, between Ed Carpenter’s pole speed and that of 33rd starter Katherine Legge.

4: The number of female qualifiers for the Indianapolis 500, tying a record.

5: Number of Indianapolis 500 wins by Chip Ganassi-owned cars. Juan Pablo Montoya (2000), Scott Dixon (2008) and Dario Franchitti (2010, 2012) have flown the famous Target colors into Victory Lane. Ganassi also co-owned Emerson Fittipaldi’s winning car in 1989.

5: Number of Andretti Autosport cars starting in the top three rows, including front-row starters Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti. E.J. Viso, Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe are also starting in Row 1.

6-7: The number of expected pit stops in the race, depending on a fuel window that will run between 25-30 laps and the number of yellow flags.

7: Number of times the race has run less than the scheduled 500 miles due to rain. The most recent rain-shortened race was 2007.

8: Number of Indianapolis 500 wins in this year’s field. Castroneves (2001, 2002, 2009) and Franchitti (2007, 2010, 2012) have three each. Former winners Buddy Lazier (1996) and Scott Dixon (2008) are also in the field.

8: This will be Takuma Sato’s eighth start at Indy in a major race – he started the United States Grand Prix four times in a Formula One car, finishing third in 2004, his highest-ever F1 finish. It will be his fourth Indianapolis 500 start.

10: Number of Chevrolets in the top 10 starting positions. The fastest Honda is piloted by Alex Tagliani and will start 11th.

11: American drivers in the field. There are also five from the British Isles, three from Brazil and France, two from Australia, Colombia and Canada and one each from Japan, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland and Venezuela.

12: Number of years since a rookie last won the race, when Helio Castroneves did so on his first try in 2001. Four rookies – A.J. Allmendinger, Carlos Munoz, Conor Daly and Tristan Vautier – will vie to be the next.

13: American open-wheel series championships in the field. Sebastien Bourdais won the last four ChampCar titles before the 2008 merger of the series. Dario Franchitti won four IndyCar titles in 2007 and from 2009-11. Other former series champions in the field are Scott Dixon (2003, 2008), Buddy Lazier (2000), Tony Kanaan (2004) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2012).

15: Number of Indianapolis 500 wins by Roger Penske’s team. The first was for Mark Donohue in 1972. The most recent was by Castroneves in 2009. Rick Mears (4 times), Al Unser Sr., Al Unser Jr., Bobby Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi, Danny Sullivan, Gil de Ferran and Sam Hornish Jr. have also won races for Penske.

16: The number of Hondas in the field. There will be 17 Chevrolet-powered cars. Honda has won the last nine 500s. The last Chevy-badged car to win was Helio Castroneves in 2002.

17: Years since Buddy Lazier won the 1996 Indianapolis 500. The longest span between two race wins is 10, between A.J. Foyt’s third (1967) and fourth (1977) wins.

20: Number of times the Indianapolis 500 has been won from the pole position. The last was by Helio Castroneves in 2009. Also the car number of this year’s polesitter, Ed Carpenter.

21: Age of the youngest driver in the field, front-row starter Carlos Munoz.

33: Number of cars that will start the race. The field was set at 33 in 1934, using a rule by sanctioning body AAA that set one car in the field for every 400 feet. Only twice since then – in 1979 and 1997 – did more than 33 cars start. In those years, 35 cars started, due to legal wrangling stemming from the CART/USAC split in 1979, and the short-lived 25-and-8 rule in 1997 that saw two cars bumped from the field due to a rule that guaranteed starting spots to the top 25 in Indy Racing League points later be added to the field.

34: The number of cars that attempted to qualify for this year’s race. Michel Jourdain Jr. was the only driver to be on track and not qualify.

38: Years since a driver-owner last won the pole at Indianapolis until Ed Carpenter did it this year. A.J. Foyt did it in 1975. His win in 1977 was the last win for a driver-owner in the 500.

45: Age of Buddy Lazier, the oldest driver in the field.

56: The number of years since an Indiana-born driver won the pole in the Indianapolis 500 – North Vernon native Pat O’Connor did so in 1957. The last Hoosier to win the race was Shelbyville’s Wilbur Shaw, who won in 1937, 1939 and 1940.

67: Starts by an Andretti in the Indianapolis 500 when third-generation driver Marco rolls off the line third on Sunday. Marco is making his seventh start, and has the second-highest finish for a family member, finishing as the runner-up in his rookie year of 2006. Mario Andretti started 29 races between 1965-94, winning once in 1969. Mario’s son Michael – Marco’s dad – made 16 starts between 1984-07, with two third-place finishes. Michael’s brother Jeff started three races, and cousin John has started 12.

85: As in 1985, the year Pancho Carter won the pole at Indianapolis. He was the last driver raised in Indiana to win the pole until Ed Carpenter did so this year. Both Carter and Carpenter were born out of state, but grew up in the Indianapolis area.

97: Runnings of the Indianapolis 500 since 1911.

177: The number of Sprint Cup starts made by A.J. Allmendinger since leaving a very successful ChampCar career in 2006 to try his hand in stock cars, and returning to IndyCar this season at Barber Motorsports Park.

200: The number of laps the race winner has to complete. Four times since 1999, there has been a lead change on either the second-to-last or last lap, including the last two. Last year, Scott Dixon led Lap 199, but was passed by teammate Dario Franchitti and Takuma Sato on the penultimate lap. Sato then tried to take the lead from Franchitti in Turn 1 on the last lap, but spun into the wall. In 2011, J.R. Hildebrand hit the wall exiting Turn 4 while leading, and Dan Wheldon drove to the win. The 2006 race saw the latest lead change – Sam Hornish Jr. took the lead from Marco Andretti in the last few yards to win.

229.347: Fastest qualifying lap of the month, turned by Ed Carpenter. It, in turn, is the fastest official lap at the Speedway since Helio Castroneves qualified for the pole with a 231.725 average in 2003.

 

— Andrew Smith, Daily Reporter correspondent

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