Bruce Martin
Wednesday May 12th, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS -- In any other year, Saturday would be Indianapolis 500 Pole Day but instead it will be Opening Day for the 94th running of the "World's Biggest Race."

Faced with economic concerns and the realization that a more compact schedule would create a greater sense of urgency for the competitors, which would create more drama for the spectators, officials trimmed one full week of practice and qualifications out of the Indy schedule.

So instead of lining up Saturday at 11 a.m. for four-lap qualifications runs, the teams and drivers entered for the May 30, Memorial Day weekend classic will begin a frantic search for speed with the first official day of practice. If the fickle Indiana weather cooperates, the reduced schedule should further concentrate the need for speed and ensure non-stop activity for Pole Day on May 22 and Bump Day on May 23.

There are 67 cars entered in this year's race, counting backup cars, but the real story is 37 car/driver combinations. That could grow to 40 if drivers such as Jacque Lazier, J.R. Hildebrand and a few others line up a deal before Bump Day.

With IZOD bringing much-needed sponsorship and promotion to the IndyCar Series and with plenty of cars and drivers, there should be plenty of competition for the 33 starting positions.

The first Indianapolis 500 was held 99 years ago, and with the exception of World War I and World War II, it has been part of the American sporting landscape every year since 1911. In its own way, it is as important a sporting event as the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup and the Kentucky Derby.

And while the debate rages that NASCAR's Daytona 500 has become the biggest race of the year, the stock car classic can't touch Indy for its long history, tradition, speed and even the grim specter of danger that comes from open-wheel, open-cockpit race cars turning laps at the 2-1/2-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway at nearly 230 miles per hour.

For anyone who grew up in the Midwest, a trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a "rite of spring." It was a chance to shed the shirts, put on some sun screen and load up the cooler to spend a day at the track people watching as much as watching the long days of practice. The diehard fans would bring stopwatches and know who was fast and who was having trouble getting up to speed.

Of course, today the lap times and speeds are posted automatically on the many scoreboards that surround the immaculate "Cathedral of Speed" as each car crosses the start/finish line on a practice lap.

So for the next two weeks, the Indianapolis 500 takes its place on the sporting consciousness, so let's take a look at the major storylines heading into this year's race.

By winning his third Indianapolis 500 last year, just six weeks after his acquittal from federal income tax evasion charges, Helio Castroneves provided the ultimate "triumph over adversity" story at the Indianapolis 500. By becoming the first foreign-born driver to win Indy three times, he joined such legends as Wilbur Shaw, Bobby Unser, Mauri Rose and Johnny Rutherford in that category. But a fourth would solidify his reputation as an Indy legend, joining A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only drivers with that many victories here.

Mears is the last driver to win Indy four times, and, ironically, he will be Castroneves' spotter on Race Day. There is also another unique twist if Castroneves wins -- he would be the first driver to win the Indy 500 in consecutive years two times in his career. His first two wins were in 2001 and '02 -- the first to go back-to-back since Al Unser in 1970 and '71.

"To win this year would be a dream come true," Castroneves said. "I want to be like Rick Mears. I'm at least getting there on the Indy wins."

When Janet Guthrie became the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 in 1977, she was a pioneer -- opening the sport to another gender of race drivers who could compete on equal footing with the men. Thirty-three years later there are a record-five female drivers entered in the race, including Danica Patrick, whose third-place finish in last year's race was the highest ever for a female, and Sarah Fisher, who has competed in eight Indianapolis 500s and is back for her third as an owner/driver. Milka Duno has competed in three Indy 500s, while Simona de Silvestro of Switzerland and Ana Beatriz prepare for their first attempt on racing's biggest stage.

While Patrick has the most visibility and the best equipment at Andretti Autosport, de Silvestro has been impressive on the street and road course races this year. She was a winner in the Formula Atlantic Series last year and could prove to be the best driver of these five. But Patrick is the only one of the five women capable of winning in '10. Read's Tim Tuttle's assessment of her chances here.

With two of the four rounds of qualifications eliminated by the shortened schedule, IndyCar Series officials wanted to make sure there would be some extra drama with the new format. They didn't want to see all 33 cars qualify on the same day and they wanted to make sure the fastest drivers all had a chance to make several attempts at the pole. So the new format has the first 24 positions on the starting grid filled on Pole Day, with the final nine positions filled on Bump Day. The times of the top nine drivers from the first segment of qualifying will be erased at 4 p.m., with all of those competitors guaranteed to start no worse than ninth in the Indy 500.

The "Fast Nine" then will be required to make at least one four-lap qualifying attempt between 4:30-6 p.m., with one additional, optional attempt if time permits. Each driver's best run during the 90-minute session will set their position within the top nine spots on the starting grid. If inclement weather prevents the 90-minute shootout for the "Fast Nine," their times from the opening session will determine starting positions.

In another change, the pole winner will earn $175,000, an increase of $75,000 from '09. The second-fastest qualifier will earn $75,000, with the final front-row starter earning $50,000.

In a departure from the other 16 IZOD IndyCar Series races, in which the pole winner earns one bonus point, all 33 starting drivers will receive championship points. The pole winner will receive 15 points, with the other front-row starters earning 13 and 12 points, respectively. Drivers in Rows 2 and 3 will receive, in descending order, between 11 and six points. Positions 10-24 receive four.

Of course, this grand plan could drastically be affected by weather. If Pole Day is rained out, all 33 starting positions would be filled the following day. If that day is rained out, then every driver would get one qualification attempt to make the field.

The electronic horsepower assist device that was implemented on IndyCars midway through last season proved to be a big success by drastically improving the quality of racing. The device gives short 12-second bursts of horsepower, which, when timed properly, can dramatically help a driver pass another car. There are a limited number of times a driver can use "push-to-pass," so it has to be done judiciously.

It will be used in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time this year, so expect the restarts to be even wilder and more dramatic than normal. And if the leader late in the race is out of "pushes," he may be a target to get passed at the end of the race, adding yet another element to follow in this year's race.

There will be plenty of stories written about Danica Patrick this month about her chances at becoming the first female driver ever to win the Indianapolis 500. But after a slow start to the season and her limited foray into NASCAR, there are many racing fans suffering from Danica overdose. She remains the most visible and popular driver in IndyCar, but some of the fans and even a few of the media have grown tired of the hype that surrounds her. While she remains an important figure for the IZOD IndyCar Series, there are some team officials who would like to see the focus shift to some of the more successful and talented drivers in the sport.

One of the major disappointments this season is that 21-year-old Graham Rahal does not have a full-time IndyCar ride. He is easily the most talented young American driver in the sport, has an impressive family lineage as the son of 1986 Indy 500 winner and three-time CART champion Bobby Rahal and has the looks that would please any sponsor. But Rahal hasn't landed a deal with a good team, although he competed in three street and road course races for Sarah Fisher Racing this season.

At least Rahal has a ride for his third Indianapolis 500, and that will be with his father's team at Team Rahal. A few weeks ago, Graham was torn on accepting this ride because he didn't think it was his dad's responsibility. He questioned whether it would be better to just sit out this year's Indy 500. But common sense finally prevailed as he realized any chance to compete at Indy is worthwhile to a driver's career.

To this day, Paul Tracy believes he was the actual winner of the 2002 Indianapolis 500 after he passed the leader, Castroneves, on lap 199 of the 200-lap race. But that pass was disallowed when officials ruled the pass came after Buddy Lazier and Laurent Redon crashed in the second turn just a moment earlier and the yellow light was ordered for caution. That gave the win to Castroneves, but the dispute waged through appeals until then-Indy Racing League CEO Tony George made the final determination that Castroneves was the winner.

Eight years later, Tracy is back for his seventh 500. This will be his second Indy since that fateful decision in '02 and his second attempt for KV Racing Technology and his pal Jimmy Vasser.

Tracy finished ninth last year, and at 41 his best days as a driver are in the past, but this is a team and a driver capable to being a factor late in the race.

There has been no better driver at the start of the season than Australia's Will Power at Team Penske. He won the first two races of the season and has an impressive lead in the IndyCar Series points race. Driving for the winningest team owner in Indy 500 history -- Roger Penske -- could be enough to make Power a favorite to win the race after he finished fifth last year.

Both Dixon and Franchitti are the best of the best in the IndyCar Series and both are former Indy 500 winners. Franchitti drove to victory in the rain-shortened '07 race and Dixon followed with an impressive win in '08. They are among my picks to win at Indy this year, with an edge going to Dixon following his impressive oval-track victory at Kansas.

Of course, we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto, so what happens in Kansas stays in Kansas when it comes to the Indianapolis 500.

Sebastian Saavedra, a talented 19-year-old driver from Colombia, will attempt to compete in both races at Indy -- the Firestone Freedom 100 Firestone Indy Lights race on May 28 and the 500 on May 30. If successful, he would join Jeff Simmons in '08 and Canada's Marty Roth, who ran both in '04 and '05.

It's kind of hard to consider a former Indy 500 winner a "darkhorse," but that is the role Dan Wheldon is in as he returns for his eighth Indy 500. Wheldon was the winner of the '05 Indy 500 but probably never got the credit he deserved because of a rookie named Danica Patrick finishing fourth. Wheldon has four top-five finishes, including second place last year.

Also, Vitor Meira returns to Indy after suffering a broken back in last year's race. He has finished second twice -- for Rahal Letterman Racing in '05 and Panther Racing in '08.

Take a look back to Johnny Rutherford's Indianapolis 500 win in '80 and the list of drivers is startling, as 32 of the 33 drivers in the lineup were from the United States. This year, only 10 drivers entered are from the U.S. and a few of those may not be in the starting lineup.

The Indy 500 remains the world's biggest race, but for it to truly regain its stature in America, it needs more drivers from the U.S. so that the fans from Bloomington Speedway and Kokomo Speedway have somebody they can relate to.

For the first time since the day preceding him being named president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in '90, George returns without a management position at the track. He remains a shareholder in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation but he resigned his position on the IMS Board of Directors at the end of last year. George has been in self-imposed exile ever since but returns as a car owner for his stepson, Ed Carpenter, at Vision Racing in a joint arrangement with Panther Racing.

George was ousted from power by his three sisters and mother, who make up the board of directors, just two days after last year's Indy 500. His return proves there is no drama like family drama.

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