Brazilian Helio Castroneves’ quest for an unprecedented third consecutive Indianapolis 500 victory in a Roger Penske-owned car will highlight today’s 87th version of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” at fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Despite apparent dwindling interest in the race, Speedway officials said they expect at least 300,000 spectators, which begins at 9 a.m. PDT.
Castroneves, latest in a long line of South American drivers who started coming to Indy with Emerson Fittipaldi two decades ago, won in 2001 as a CART driver, then again last year after Penske moved his team to the Indy Racing League. It was a record 12th win for Penske.
Gil de Ferran, a fellow Brazilian who won two CART championships before coming to the IRL with Castroneves, will give Penske a two-pronged threat for win No. 13.
“The race will be won by the team that doesn’t make mistakes,” Penske said.
And that is most likely to be Marlboro Team Penske, which covered its chassis bases by putting Castroneves in a Dallara and De Ferran in a G Force, both powered by normally aspirated 650 horsepower Toyota engines.
“I think [winning] really comes down to work ethics,” Penske Racing President Tim Cindric said. “I know the two guys that we have, both of those guys are completely dedicated to what they do. They don’t hang out at night and figure out how to have a lot of fun until it’s time to have fun. They believe in working.”
The figures prove his point.
Castroneves logged 828 laps -- more than four complete 500-mile races -- during the month of May at Indy. De Ferran had 758.
“We ran a lot, we ran so that we could expect the unexpected and not be too surprised by anything,” said Castroneves, who will start on the pole with a four-lap average of 231.725 mph. Penske drivers have won the 500 from the pole five times, by Rick Mears in 1979, 1988 and 1991, Bobby Unser in 1981 and Al Unser Jr. in 1994.
To sweeten the pot for Castroneves, who is nicknamed “Spider-Man” because he celebrates his victories by climbing safety fences in front of the grandstand, BorgWarner Inc. will award a $50,000 bonus to him if he wins.
It won’t be easy, however, as this year’s field may be as deep and strong as any in the previous 86 races. As many as 18 drivers have legitimate expectations of winning the $9-million race. The field is separated by only 5.63 seconds (a little more than 8 mph) and its average speed of 227.125 mph is the third-fastest in history.
Among the story lines are Michael Andretti’s dual desire of winning his final race as a driver and having one of his team drivers win in his first time as an owner, Jimmy Vasser’s attempt to become the third CART crossover driver in four years to win the IRL’s top prize, Robby Gordon’s 500-600 double as he tries for the checkered flag here and then heads to Charlotte to run in the Winston Cup Coca-Cola 600, and the hopes of Chevrolet to make up for a lack of horsepower with durability over 200 laps.
Andretti has led the 500 for more laps, 398, without winning than any other driver, but he said today will be his 14th and last try. From Monday on, his efforts will be directed solely toward managing Andretti Green Racing, which he formed last July with Kim Green and Kevin Savoree.
“If I can’t win, I still think one of our guys will be there,” said Andretti, who will have Tony Kanaan and Gordon starting on the front row and British rookie Dan Wheldon on the second row as well as himself in the fifth row.
Kanaan, who was leading on the 90th lap last year when he spun in an oil slick and hit the wall, came with Andretti from CART, where he drove last year for Mo Nunn. Wheldon, a brash graduate of the defunct Indy Lights series, was chosen to replace Andretti on the roster after Indy.
Gordon, who campaigns in NASCAR’s Winston Cup circuit for Richard Childress, was picked by Andretti to replace Dario Franchitti, who was injured last month in a motorcycle accident in his native Scotland. It will be Gordon’s fourth try for the double, although two were frustrated by rain. Last year, he finished eighth at Indy, then 16th at Charlotte.
One of the more interesting questions is what would happen if he won here. Would he catch the plane to Charlotte, or would he celebrate winning the world’s most famous race? Childress will be here with him, to either help celebrate or make sure he doesn’t miss his flight.
Gordon will be covered in both events. Bryan Herta will sit in for him here if rain delays the race beyond Gordon’s flight schedule, and Ron Hornaday will be in Charlotte to start the race if Gordon is delayed.
“I think the car Michael provided me is a car that can win, no doubt about it,” said Gordon, who began his career as an off-road racer from Orange. “Fatigue shouldn’t be a problem. I won the Baja 1000 driving solo for 17 hours a few years ago and am in better condition today.”
Vasser, who missed Pole Day qualifying because he was in Germany for a CART race, will start from the 27th position in a Honda-Dallara entered by Bobby Rahal.
Only twice in 86 years has the 500 been won from so far back, and none since Louis Meyer won in 1936 from 28th place. Ray Harroun also won the inaugural 1911 race from No. 28. Fred Frame won in 1932 from 27th.
Chevrolet, which powered Castroneves’ win last year, has been lacking in horsepower compared to the IRL’s new engine manufacturers, Honda and Toyota, in short-term speed. The fastest Chevy in qualifying was Vitor Meira, at 227.158 mph.
“I think if we can get the car handling how we like it to, [being down on horsepower] won’t be too much of a problem,” said Sam Hornish Jr., two-time defending IRL champion who is one of the few leading drivers who remained with Chevrolet this season. “A lot of people may think they have a good-handling car right now, but when you have to stay out there for 30 or more laps, running a consistent pace and trying to be fast for that long, then it’s different than pitting every time the car’s not working properly.
“Our car did really well, being up behind somebody in traffic.”
In the first three races this year, all shorter ones, Hornish’s best finish was sixth at Motegi, Japan. Jaques Lazier also got a sixth in a Chevrolet in Phoenix.