5 STORYLINES TO WATCH DURING MONTH OF MAY
NEW CARS: Can Chevrolet keep up turbocharged dominance over Honda?
For the first time since Buddy Lazier’s win in 1996, turbocharged engines will power the 33 cars at the Indianapolis 500 this season. For the first time since 2005, there is more than one manufacturer providing engines for the series — with Chevrolet and Lotus joining Honda, which had been the sole manufacturer from 2006-11. The series used normally-aspirated engines from 1997-2011, and had not updated the chassis since 2003 — when the series shifted from being an all-oval one to one balanced between ovals and road courses.
So far, the engine competition has seen Chevrolet dominate — winning all four of the races this season. But Indianapolis is the first oval on the schedule, and Honda’s different turbocharger setup is believed to give it an advantage. Lotus has been behind in development and has cut ties with several teams. The cars, which are all identical Dallara chassis, are intended to improve safety with larger sidepods and wheel bumpers to prevent wheel-to-wheel contact. The design was also intended to reduce the “pack racing” that had been a hallmark of IndyCar oval racing for years. However, the 2003-11 Dallara produced two of the most exciting finishes in Indianapolis history and some exciting wheel-to-wheel racing. The cars have produced tremendous racing and a significant increase in passing and wheel-to-wheel racing at the four road courses to date. But Indy is a different animal, and how they respond to Indy is an unknown.
NEW WINNER: Who will carry fallen champ’s torch?
Defending champion Dan Wheldon will be remembered everywhere at Indianapolis — with his image on the tickets, his name in the chassis — called the DW12 by Dallara, as he did much of the testing for the chassis. Few loved Indianapolis more than Wheldon, and his absence after his fatal crash at Las Vegas will leave a big void. Someone new will carry the torch. Wheldon was considered to be one of the best active drivers at Indianapolis — he had been runner-up two straight years before winning in 2011. There are three former winners in the field, and all drive for the “big two” teams owned by Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi: Castroneves (2001, 2002, 2009), Dario Franchitti (2007, 2010) and Scott Dixon (2008). Those two teams have combined for eight of the last 12 Indy victories. Andretti Green Racing (now Andretti Autosport) also has two victories in that span — Wheldon in 2005 and Franchitti in 2007.
YOUNG AMERICANS: Will a Yank find Victory Lane?
A crop of talented young American drivers is making its way into the lineup, two of which nearly have won the race in recent years. J R. Hildebrand (right) led the Indianapolis 500 until his last-turn crash last season. He and Charlie Kimball made a splash last season and are back with their respective teams, Panther and Ganassi. Panther-powered cars have finished second at Indy four consecutive years with Vitor Meira, Wheldon twice and Hildebrand, but have never won the race. Second-generation veterans Marco Andretti, who nearly won in 2006, and Graham Rahal return with their old teams in top-flite equipment. Sarah Fisher Racing has brought promising newcomer Joseph Newgarden into the fold. Given the stability in the IndyCar driver lineup, it’s likely a core of young stars could come out of this field.
There are also several fresh foreign faces taking a shot at the Speedway. Among 10 drivers either taking rookie tests or refreshers, three are Formula One veterans: Rubens Barrichello, Jean Alesi and Sebastien Bourdais. In addition, Takuma Sato has been an IndyCar regular for two years now. Barrichello, a winner in the United States Grand Prix at Indy, has moved over from Formula One to drive an IndyCar this season and will be running the first oval race of his career at Indianapolis.
FOLLOW THE RED CARS: Will Penske/Gannasi rule again?
It’s been a consistent theme for years: follow the red cars. Penske and Ganassi have dominated the series for the past several years, and Penske has been the dominant force this season. Castroneves won the initial race, and teammate Will Power has won three straight since. The three Penske cars: Castroneves, Power and Ryan Briscoe — and the four Ganassi cars driven by Franchitti, Dixon, Charlie Kimball and Graham Rahal — will be the ones to watch. But several teams have been competitive this year.
RACE TO 33: Will there be a full Indy field?
With new cars and new engines, getting 33 cars has been questioned. As of now, there are 34 cars entered for the race, with 30 car/driver combinations announced. In addition, a team can enter a backup car if the primary car is qualified, if the engine leases are available.
100 years ago
DePalma breaks down
1912: The Joe Dawson victory, in which Ralph DePalma led all but the first two and last two laps. He took the lead from Teddy Tetzlaff on Lap 3 and leading until his car broke down on Lap 198. Dawson led the final two laps for the win.
75 years ago
Leaky Shaw snares 1st win
1937: Wilbur Shaw holds off Ralph Hepburn by 2.16 seconds in what was the closest Indy finish in history for 55 years. On a 92-degree day, Shaw was leaking oil for much of the latter part of the race, allowing Hepburn to catch up to him by the backstretch of the final lap. Shaw was able to hold Hepburn off for the first of his three Indy wins. He would later help save the track after World War II.
50 years ago
Jones fast, Ward faster
1962: A race best known for Parnelli Jones becoming the first driver to lap the track in less than a minute — 150mph — and he leads 120 laps, but Rodger Ward wins his second 500, beating teammate Len Sutton by 11.52 seconds.
25 years ago
'Mario is slowing down'
1987: One of the more dramatic finishes started as a runaway. Mario Andretti had dominated the month, winning the pole in qualifying and lapping the field. He appeared to be cruising to thevictory when his engine lost power on Lap 177 with an apparent electrical failure. Roberto Guererro inherited the lead, but his car stalled upon exiting the pits from his final stop, handing the lead to Al Unser Sr., who would win his fourth 500.
10 years ago
Tracy protest goes for naught
2002: One of the most controversial finishes in Indianapolis history. Tomas Scheckter had been dominating the race, but crashed while leading on Lap 170. Defending champion Helio Castroneves (right) inherited the lead via pit strategy during the ensuing yellow. Low on fuel, Castroneves was trying to hold off a charging Paul Tracy in the closing laps. On Lap 199, Tracy passed Castroneves on the outside of Turn 3. But at the other end of the backstretch, Laurent Redon and Buddy Lazier crashed into the Turn 2 wall, bringing out a yellow flag. By IndyCar rules, Castroneves was ruled to be in front of Tracy — barely — at the time the yellow came out, and therefore he was ruled the leader and the winner under yellow. Tracy protested the decision, and would not return to the Indianapolis 500 until 2009.
Also notable is that 2002 was the final Indy start for Greenfield driver Mark Dismore, who finished 33rd with handling problems.
Last year, J.R. Hildebrand led the Indianapolis 500 heading into the final turn. But he exited the final turn with his car sliding alongside the wall, while the late Dan Wheldon passed underneath him for his second Indianapolis 500 victory. It wasn’t the latest pass in the race for the Indianapolis lead, but it was pretty close.
Hornish edges Andrettis
Sam Hornish Jr. vs. Marco Andretti. The green flag flies with four laps to go, and Hornish is back in the pack. Michael Andretti — running his final Indianapolis 500 as a driver — is in the lead, but is passed by his son — an Indy rookie — a lap later. Hornish works his way up to second by Lap 199 and the race is on. Hornish makes a move in Turn 3, but Andretti chops his nose and Hornish loses a lot of momentum. That appeared to be the move that won the race, but on the final lap, Hornish began reeling Andretti in on the backstretch, and caught up to him by Turn 4. Hornish first showed high, then ducked underneath Andretti at the line for the first last-lap pass for the win in Indianapolis 500 history.
Indy native triumps
The first time the winner made an on-track pass of a disabled car late in the race. Ralph DePalma has a five-lap lead over Joe Dawson in the second Indianapolis 500. He had led 196 laps — still the most ever in 500 history. But his car began to break down and finally coasted to a stop in Turn 4. With DePalma and his riding mechanic pushing the car down the front straightaway, Dawson makes up the five-lap deficit and makes the pass to take the lead with two laps to go, and the Indianapolis native went on to win.
1967, 1987, 1992
Al Jr. in closest 500 finish ever
There have been several instances of the leader having mechanical trouble late in the race — Parnelli Jones’ turbine losing power with three laps left in 1967, allowing A.J. Foyt (top of page) to become a three-time winner; Joe Leonard’s car dropping out with 10 laps left the next year, in which Bobby Unser became the winner; Mario Andretti’s engine dying and Roberto Guererro’s car stalling in the pits en route to Al Unser’s 1987 win, and Michael Andretti’s engine failure while running away with the race in 1992, leading to the closest finish in 500 history with Al Unser Jr. beating Scott Goodyear.