The Indianapolis 500 has a rich and proud heritage of being an international event.
It's a reputation that dates back to the Indy 500's inaugural running in 1911, when it was promoted as the "International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race" and attracted European drivers and car manufacturers. Frenchman Jules Goux, in a Peugeot, won the third 500 in 1913, further establishing it as the world's best-known race.
For most of the 20th century, American drivers dominated the Indy 500, in both victories and starting positions. They won every race from 1921 to the final pre-World War II race of 1941. George Robson, born in England and raised in Canada and the United States, won the first post-war 500 in 1946. The next non-American was Scotland's Jim Clark, a Formula 1 world champion who brought the rear-engine revolution to its initial victory at Indy in 1965. He was followed by F1 world champion Graham Hill of England in 1966.
Their presence enhanced the 500's reputation and stature on the global stage. They became the standard by which Mario Andretti, Bobby and Al Unser, Parnelli Jones and A.J. Foyt could measure themselves. Andretti went on to become F1 world champion in 1978, while Foyt and Jones turned down offers to race in F1. Throw in Dan Gurney's ability to win races in both F1 and IndyCar and the conclusion was Americans could pull out wins against anybody, anywhere.
Fast forward to Sunday's 94th Indy 500. There are nine Americans in the starting lineup of 33 cars, an all-time low. There were 11 last year. They've become a vanishing breed, a trend that can be traced to Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi's Indy victory in 1989, the first by a non-American since Hill.
American drivers have won only seven of the past 21 Indy 500s. Is this a sign that American drivers simply can't compete with the rest of the world anymore?
The answer is a resounding no.
If Sam Hornish Jr. had remained in the IZOD IndyCar Series, he'd be one of the favorites Sunday. But Americans are outnumbered this year, making them underdogs in Sunday's race. The evolution of European-developed drivers who have migrated to IndyCar has taken them straight to the powerhouse teams owned by Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi.
Penske's teams have a staggering 15 wins at Indianapolis, five in the past nine years and three by this year's polesitter, Brazilian Helio Castroneves. He's going for two in a row, which he did in 2001 and 2002, and is trying to become the fourth four-time winner. If you can get a bet down somewhere, put it on Castroneves.
Will Power and Ryan Briscoe, both Australians, are big-time threats for Penske, too. They're cut out of the Danny Sullivan mold, world-class road racers who are adapting to ovals. Sullivan's famous spin-and-win triumph in 1985 came in his third start at Indy, but his first for Penske. Power was fifth last year and has qualified on the middle of the front row with a team purpose-built for the IndyCar Series and the 500.
Briscoe was driving for Penske's sports car team in 2007 when he finished fifth at Indy with a team owned by Jay Penske, Roger's son, that used Penske equipment and personnel. When Hornish bolted for Penske's NASCAR Sprint Cup team, that fifth earned Briscoe a spot on the IndyCar team. He starts fourth on Sunday, though he's almost the forgotten man in the Penske armada.
Ganassi, a five-time Indy starter who ran competitively in the very competitive '80s, has three wins as an owner at Indy, with Fittipaldi in 1989, Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000 and Scott Dixon in 2008. New Zealander Dixon led 73 laps last year, but faded to finish sixth. He's been sixth or better in the past four races. Dario Franchitti, born in Scotland and living in Nashville, Tenn., won the 500 in the rain-shortened 2007 race for Andretti Green, missed 2008 with his sojourn to NASCAR, and returned to finish seventh for Ganassi last year. Franchitti starts third, Dixon sixth Sunday.
Who among the nine Americans have legitimate shots of winning this year's 500?
Townsend Bell isn't well known, but he's an outstanding driver with the experience, savvy and team to become an Indy winner.
Bell, 35, finished fourth at Indy last year in a one-off for KV Racing Technology. His only race of the season, Bell was the highest finish in that category at Indy since Al Unser Sr. was third in 1992. Unser was the last driver to win at Indy as a one-off, driving for Penske in 1987.
Bell, backed by his sponsor Herbalife, has moved to an entry fielded by Ganassi and Firestone Indy Lights team owner Sam Schmidt. Ganassi supplies the equipment and race engineer Andy Brown, one of IndyCar's finest, and Schmidt supplies the rest of the personnel, many of whom are IndyCar veterans.
This will be Bell's fourth Indy and he was 10th in 2008 with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and 22nd in 2007 with Vision Racing, both midpack teams.
Bell is a former Indy Lights champion and also has driven in the FIA International F3000 series, then Formula 1's top development series, CART's Champ Car and IndyCar. Indy would be his first win in any of them, but it's happened before, notably Arie Luyendyk in 1990.
Graham Rahal is the highest starting American in seventh, but he's running a one-off for father Bobby's Rahal Letterman Racing, in its only race of the year. The team hasn't fared well in two previous 500s, running a combined 91 laps and crashing out in both. Rahal has the talent, but not the experience.
Andretti Autosport has four Americans with Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti, John Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay, but the team has been off its game this month. Are the drivers capable of winning Indy? Yes. Is the team? Probably not this year. They'd need to find a ton of speed in race conditions, an unlikely situation.
Ed Carpenter is the second-best hope among the Americans in another one-off. He was fifth in 2008 and eighth last year for stepfather Tony George's Vision and they've teamed with IndyCar Series regular Panther Racing. Panther has finished second the past two years at Indy with Vitor Meira and Dan Wheldon, who drove from 18th on the grid.
"I think we have a really good chance," Carpenter said. "I've been fifth and eighth and we're running with the team that finished second in the past two years. Even though it's a one-off, I have a comfort level with the people involved."
Like every driver, Carpenter wants to win for himself, the team, his sponsors. But he would also like to win for his country.
"Indy racing is home for Americans," Carpenter said. "You want to win for your country. But we have the best drivers in the world who come here to race. It's everyone's main event."