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Carb Day crowd adds to Indy 500 spectacle

Tony Kaanan, James Hinchcliffe, Helio Castroneves and the rest of the Indy 500 field will race for glory in front of a crowd bigger than any of them have experienced.

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INDIANAPOLIS — They came in droves, wearing bright T-shirts and goofy grins. They brought beer, lots of it, and were cracking cans open well before noon. That still seems a bit gauche for a Friday, even one as sunny and warm as this one. But in the Circle City, they get an early start on their holiday weekends.

The observance in question, of course, is not Memorial Day. It’s the one that comes just before, the Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, at noon, it’ll happen for the hundredth time. The major stakeholders in this race—the Speedway, the Verizon IndyCar Series, the teams, their drivers and sponsors—have been heralding the coming of this grand spectacle for well over a year now.

They’ve built it up to be more than just another major event like the Olympics or the Super Bowl. They’ve made it out to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, like the first Olympics or Super Bowl III. The more they talked, the more it seemed like so much hooey. And then the good news started gathering: of overbooked hotels, of added stadium seating, of the first Speedway sellout in 20 years. For the first time since 1950, the race will be seen on local television.

2016 Indy 500 coverage hub: news, SI Vault, video, photos, more

But none of it seemed real until all these people showed up at the track. “I’ve never really came to this place until I actually raced in 2002,” says Tony Kanaan, a Brazilian pilot for Ganassi who conquered the Brickyard in ’11. “So I haven’t really experienced what people had told me when this place is sold out, how does it feel when you go out, you know, go into the tunnel and you experience the crowd. Because it’s definitely more crowded. I’ve never, never seen anything like this.”

By this, he means the crush of race fans that filled both sides of the grandstands along the front straightaway and spilled into the infield like melting ice cream. He means a delirious mob that, at times, roared louder than the cars on track and the bass rich music that thrummed behind it. They were never louder than at the end of the Indy Lights race on Friday, which ended with Andretti’s Dean Stoneman taking the checkered flag from Carlin’s Ed Jones by two-and-half thousandths of a second. 

The official attendance count was 100,000, which is vastly more people than there were at Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco for Super Bowl 50. The festive mood at the Speedway, a veritable ghost town just a day ago, wasn’t all a function of early drinking. It was a stellar showcase.

2016 Indianapolis 500 Starting Grid

Before the Indy Lights feature, there was the last practice session before Sunday’s race, Carb Day—an exhibition that looked eerily similar to an actual race. (Actually, that’s been true of most Indy practices this year.) Kanaan was the fastest pilot of the day, a development that bodes well for Ganassi. Their highest starter on the 33-car grid is reigning IndyCar series champion Scott Dixon, who’ll drive off from row five, in 15th position; Kanaan is one row back, in 18th.

Their biggest competition, Team Penske, didn’t fare much better. Juan Pablo Montoya, the defending winner, qualified 17th—or about 15 spots better than he would’ve started if his first qualifying attempt (which was interrupted by a dancing bag scene straight out of “American Beauty”) had stood. Hélio Castroneves, who’s bidding to become the fourth driver to win Indy four times, will start ninth and figures to advance quickly. His team just won the annual pit stop competition for an eighth time. After cheering his win, the crowd dispersed to a space inside Turn 4 for a Journey concert.

Alongside Castroneves (in the eighth position) is Simon Pagenaud, the season’s runaway points leader. He’ll be chasing a former teammate—Schmidt Peterson’s James Hinchcliffe, who sits on the pole. The result would count as an epic comeback for Hinchcliffe, who nearly bled to death on this track last year. But he thinks he has the car underneath him to make his story even better. If it’s a sentimental favorite you’re looking for, try Dreyer & Reinbold’s Sage Karam, a fierce competitor who’s striving to make his own comeback from ignominy as the second victim in the fatal accident of veteran IndyCar driver Justin Wilson.

A year ago, Karam recalled the visual experience of running in his first Indy, back in 2014. “One of the biggest things was that whole month when you're just doing laps and laps and laps, there’s nobody in the stands,” he told me. “And the stands are all gray. And then raceday comes along, and these stands go from gray to color.

“Dario Franchitti tells me, ‘When you get in that car, just don’t look in the stands.’ The first thing I did was look at the stands. I couldn’t help it. It’s really crazy the kind of image the stands give off. Because they’re so gray when you’re training there, and then all of a sudden, you come to the race and they’re color.

“People are standing up, sitting down, waving their arms, going through the fence, trying to yell at you. It looks like the bleachers are all moving. It kinda freaks you out a little bit.”

After Friday’s scene, there’s no chance of him being spooked on Sunday. With luck, the weather will hold up. At last check of the forecast, rain was a 50/50 proposition. The hope is that the race turns out to be the happening it’s been built up to be and then some. A day like today will make you never stop believing.