A hundred years is a long time. How long? When the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race was first held in 1911, the RMS Titanic was still under construction in Ireland, Orville and Wilbur Wright were touring the country and showing folks their newfangled "aeroplane," and Yale University had America's best college football program.
The racing machines that will tour the 2.5-mile rounded rectangle located at the crossroads of 16th Street and Georgetown Road in Speedway, Indiana during this year's Indianapolis 500 are a long way removed from the Marmon Wasp that Ray Harroun drove to victory in the first Indy 500 at a whopping 74.602 mph average speed. By comparison, Canadian Alex Tagliani drove his No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Dallara-Honda to the top spot in qualifying with a four-lap average speed of 227.472mph, which is fast enough for a commercial airliner to get airborne.
This year is the centennial of what is known (and trademarked) as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, although not the 100th running of the event due to a hiatus brought on by World War II. The race is an annual American tradition that transcends the boundaries of its sport, much like the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl and the Masters. With 2011 being the 100th anniversary of the first race, race organizers expect an extra level of attention for the event to go along with over a quarter-million race fans in attendance - still the largest single-day sports gathering in the world.
Those extra eyes will have lucked into seeing some of the toughest competition the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has seen in decades. Although the tagline created for this year's event - "The Most Important Race in History" - seems a little egregious, there is no doubt that it will be one of the most exciting and unpredictable Indy 500s in decades. The IZOD IndyCar Series, the sanctioning body that oversees the Indy 500, is overhauling the series' race cars for 2012 with new bodies and new engines, meaning that there is a surplus of soon-to-be-obsolete 2011-vintage cars. That surfeit of machinery has opened the doors to a talent pool of drivers as deep as any All-Star team in any sport and closed the performance gap to mere fractions of a second.
Time trials for the Indy 500 were the ultimate proof of how razor-thin the margins were between success and failure. Tagliani's four-lap average speed was only nine-hundredths of a second faster than New Zealand's Scott Dixon, who will start in the middle of row one. Dixon actually ran out of fuel at the end of his fourth and final qualifying lap - proving that luck can be the residue of preparation.
For Tagliani, the pole win was doubly sweet, as it marked the first pole position at Indianapolis for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Schmidt, a former IndyCar driver who was rendered a quadriplegic after a testing accident in 2000, has spent the intervening years balancing building a racing empire with dedicated philanthropy. With three cars bearing his stamp in the top-six qualifiers, Schmidt has emerged as a legitimate contender against the mighty Penske Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing powerhouse teams.
As is usual at Indianapolis, there were a myriad of other compelling human dramas that played out in qualifying: past Indy 500 winners Dan Wheldon and Buddy Rice qualifying in the first three rows in one-off efforts without full-season rides; local Hoosier favorite Ed Carpenter putting former driver Sarah Fisher's machine into the Fast Nine qualifiers; defending Indy 500 and IZOD IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti running out of fuel on the third of his four qualifying laps; three-time race winner Helio Castroneves qualifying a dismal 16th; Swiss driver Simona de Silvestro qualifying a backup car in 23rd place on Pole Day, less than a day after a vicious practice crash that left her with second- and third-degree burns on her hands; fan favorite Paul Tracy defying an intensifying rainstorm and slipping and sliding his way to the fastest qualifying time of Bump Day; Briton Alex Lloyd putting it all on the line on the last of his three attempts and getting his Dale Coyne Racing car into the field.
Perhaps no drama was more intense during time trials than the one surrounding Andretti Autosport during last-chance Bump Day qualifying. With five cars attempting to make the field, only one of them - John Andretti, cousin of AA team owner Michael Andretti and racing in a one-off with NASCAR legend Richard Petty - qualified on Pole Day. During Bump Day, a rain delay threatened to send Danica Patrick home without a starting spot before the track was dried and she was able to put her car in the show. Mike Conway, who made international headlines with a horrifying late-race accident in the 2010 Indy 500, failed to make the race after winning the Grand Prix of Long Beach earlier this season. And Marco Andretti, grandson of Mario Andretti, had to bump his way into the field at the expense of teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay - forcing Andretti Autosport to resort to the controversial, though legal, fallback option of buying out 19th-place qualifier Bruno Junqueira's race seat from A.J. Foyt to get Hunter-Reay and his sponsors back in the race.
What can be predicted for today's running of the Indianapolis 500? Only that nothing is predictable. 100 years of history attest to the fact that nothing is decided until the twin checkers fly to end the race. Still, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to follow:
- Can Helio Castroneves become the first foreign-born driver and only the fourth person in history to win four Indianapolis 500s?
- Is this the year a female driver wins the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, with four women - Simona de Silvestro (23rd), Danica Patrick (26th), Pippa Mann (31st), and Ana Beatriz (32nd) - in the starting field?
- Can Penske Racing and Andretti Autosport overcome their qualifying woes to challenge for the victory?
- Will Sam Schmidt complete the Cinderella story and put one of his drivers' faces on the Borg-Warner Trophy?
- Is this the year a legacy driver - for instance, Marco Andretti or Graham Rahal - follows in his famous families' footsteps to drink the milk in Victory Lane at Indianapolis?
- Does a driver with diabetes - Charlie Kimball - have a shot to win the greatest single prize in American motorsports?
- Will the new double-file restart rule - requiring cars to be lined up in two columns when returning to green-flag racing after a caution instead of single-file - cause issues on the racetrack?
As the hours, and minutes tick closer to the start of the 100th Indianapolis 500, so does the anticipation. On Sunday, people from around the world will descend on the famed Brickyard - enough to make the racetrack the second-largest city in Indiana - to share in the nostalgia and traditions, to sing "Back Home Again in Indiana," and to watch thirty-three of the world's top race car drivers take the green flag in eleven rows of three.
After that... who knows what will happen? No one knows - but the joy, as always, is in finding out.