Just as springtime warms up the city of Indianapolis, so does racing heat up the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This year, the track's 100th, will see action from what is anticipated to be a longer list of contenders than in recent years. Among those vying for one of the 33 starting positions are five past winners, five rookies, three women and a few surprises. Here are a few things to keep an eye on.
Mother Nature can be volatile in May. Not only can rain cancel critical practice time, but it can also delay or shorten the race itself, throwing strategy out the proverbial window and fraying nerves as everyone plays weatherman in order to predict the future before recalculating a new game plan and deals with a freshly washed track with no rubber. Wind is also a factor at the Speedway, catching unsuspecting drivers by surprise and disturbing air flow around the cars, which sometimes results in a car or two getting stuck in the wall, much to the chagrin of the mechanics.
Raphael Matos is a 28-year-old Brazilian and a former champion of Skip Barber Formula Dodge, Star Mazda, Champ Car Atlantic and Indy Lights. His experience also includes competing in the A1 Grand Prix series and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. Signed to a multi-year contract with Luczo-Dragon Racing, Matos has proven himself quick but unlucky in the season so far, but has great potential to be this year's Rookie of the Year.
Like Matos, Stanton Barrett also got his start in go-karts. But the 37-year-old Californian and former stuntman went through the NASCAR ranks of the Busch series to Cup racing, where crashes and lack of sponsorship plagued him. Godson of the late Paul Newman, he will be driving the Interush CURB/Agajanian/3G Racing entry.
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's 26-year-old rookie, Mike Conway, owns a few trophies of his own. The Formula A British Karting, Formula Renault 2004 and British F3 International Series 2006 champ also competed in the GP2 Series.
Dutch-born Robert Doornbos gave up tennis for Formula Ford, at the suggestion of Jacques Villeneuve. By 2004, he had won the British F3 championship, competed in the German F3 and European F3 championships and been signed as a test driver for the Jordan F1 team. He graduated to a position as Formula One driver for the Minardi team in 2005, but was once again relegated to the role of test driver for Red Bull in 2006, replacing Christian Klein partway through the season. In 2007 he drove for Minardi Team USA in the Champ Car World Series. After sitting out much of 2008, he partners Graham Rahal at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing this year.
After only a year in the Barber Dodge series, 17-year-old Nelson Phillipe became Champ Car's youngest driver when he joined Rocketsports Racing. A mid-year switch to Conquest Racing saw improvement in his results and a change to CTE-HVM Racing in 2006 brought his first victory. Since the demise of Champ Car in 2008, the still-young Frenchman has competed in the GP2 Asia Series. He returns to HVM Racing with the first-ever carbon-neutral entry.
The reigning champ
Scott Dixon, last year's Indy 500 winner, wasn't looking so victorious in the opening rounds of this year's IRL season. After suffering pit stop and handling woes, he was out of the first race in St. Pete due to contact with Hideki Mutoh. The reserved New Zealand resident escaped a similar fate in Long Beach despite once again suffering suspension damage and contact with Ryan Briscoe. Instead, he managed to finish one lap down.
He entered the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 in Kansas a dismal 17th in the points standings. A victory -- and extra points for leading the most laps -- quickly changed that, jumping him up to fourth in the standings and rallying his self-assurance along the way. "This is a big boost for my confidence, the team's confidence and a lot of momentum going into the month of May, which is our biggest race," Dixon said in the post-race interview.
What Dixon said about chasing after the series championship can be suitably applied to the month of May: "You've got to come out of the box fighting, you've got to be strong [and] you've got to be consistent." Known for his unflappable consistency, a trait that contributed to his 2008 championship, Dixon firmly believes that "consistency's definitely the key. You have to come out with your A game. You've got so many great competitors. You've got big teams, fantastic drivers. It's getting tougher each year."
The returning warriors
First among the tough competition facing Dixon when he returns to IMS is his teammate. Dario Franchitti has been tagged by many, including Dixon, to be the favorite this year. Back from a year driving for Ganassi Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series, the intense Scot is one of four former winners entered. A win in Long Beach proved he hasn't lost his form in open wheel cars.
Both Dixon and Franchitti went on to win the championship in the same year they won the Indianapolis 500 -- 2008 and 2007, respectively -- so it's no wonder that both drivers look anxiously ahead to May while keeping close tabs on their points positions.
Englishman Dan Weldon, another former 500 winner and the previous occupant of Franchitti's seat at Ganassi, returned to Panther Racing, where he began his IndyCar career in 2002. It's been speculated that he has something to prove to Chip Ganassi by beating Franchitti, but the always smiling driver won't admit to anything beyond a burning desire to find Victory Circle again.
Buddy Lazier rejoins Hemelgarn Johnson for his usual sojourn at Indy. The 41-year-old won the inaugural IRL-sanctioned Indianapolis 500 in 1996 while enduring constant pain due to recent back injuries.
Team Penske's Helio Castroneves, two-time winner of the Indianapolis race, is something of a dark horse this year. A last-minute entry at Long Beach, where he finished a strong seventh, the emotional Brazilian had been replaced by Will Power due to Castroneves' court case for tax evasion. Facing a prison sentence if convicted, he missed the season opener in St. Petersburg, but has demonstrated his unflagging determination to get to the front by charging from a 21st starting position in Kansas to a second place finish just 0.7104 of a second behind Dixon.
Happily back in the No. 3 car, with his temporary replacement Power joining Team Penske for a three-car effort with teammate Ryan Briscoe, Castroneves hopes to see his name join that of the eight other drivers who have won the race three or more times. But he knows it won't be easy to earn the right to climb the fence in victory, because, as Dixon stated, the competition is tough this year and although he doesn't drive for Ganassi Racing, Castroneves has a target on his back.
One driver in particular may be aiming for that target. In announcing his return to Indianapolis as part of the KV Racing Technology team alongside KV teammate Mario Moraes, the always quotable Paul Tracy alerted the world that he hasn't forgotten his now infamous battle with Castroneves -- and Speedway officials -- in the 2002 race. Explaining why he would not be participating in the Rookie Orientation Program and refresher course, he cracked, "I don't think they let past winners do that there."
Tracy referred to his previous foray into the unique maelstrom of politics and racing known as the Indianapolis 500. Initially credited with the win, a hotly contested and controversial ruling snatched it away in favor of Castroneves. Race officials based the decision on a pass they contend occurred illegally under yellow flag conditions. Videotape, official timing and scoring records and numerous spectators and participants indicated otherwise, but a costly appeal waged by Team Green resulted in the absurd verdict that the decision was "un-appealable."
Tracy's Web site still displays video of the event, illustrating that his pass was completed before the yellow light was displayed. However, he insists that "the past is the past and I'll go to IMS focused on the present, putting forth my best effort for [sponsor] Geico and KV Racing." Tracy's memory is nothing if not convenient. Nicknamed "the thrill from West Hill" and "the chrome horn" for his aggressive driving style, his speaking style off the track is equally abrasive. It was the burly Canadian who coined the term "crap wagon" in regards to the IRL car he considered inferior to the Champ car. And it was an angry Tracy who vowed to never again set foot in the Speedway.
But bygones are apparently bygones. PT, as he is also known, drove in a Canadian race for his nemesis, Tony George's Vision Racing team. That was the last time the 2003 CART champ competed in open wheel racing -- a possible disadvantage against other drivers more comfortable with their cars and teams by this point in the season. Team co-owner and former Indianapolis 500 winner Jimmy Vasser isn't concerned. "Even though Paul hasn't been in an open-wheel car much the last year, having raced against him and knowing his ability, he will get up to speed quickly. In July 2007, he hopped in a car for Vision Racing in Edmonton and turned in a fourth place finish, despite having been out of a car since Long Beach."
Lately, PT has seen the inside of a NASCAR truck more than an IndyCar. Excited to return not only to open wheel racing but to the "place that stole his joy," as his Web site proclaims, Tracy says he's been frustrated to have raced only one time since the merger of the IRL and CART. "I did a race at Edmonton and felt I did a good enough job to warrant being back in a car, but that didn't transpire."
At 41, Tracy is one of the oldest drivers competing for a starting position. In contradiction to his claims about the irrelevance of the past, he yearns for a more noteworthy spot in the history books than the footnote his last endeavor at the Speedway earned. "Indianapolis is a special place and I look forward to returning and taking a run at getting a win and putting my name in the history books. I've committed my life to racing and a win at Indy is something that is very important to me." How he'll do that without setting foot on IMS grounds could be quite entertaining to watch, but PT is nothing if not entertaining.
His much anticipated return to Indy could be the story of the year, and he'll do everything in his power to make it so, one way or another. As Vasser says, "I think I can speak for everyone at KVRT when I say that running Paul Tracy at the Indy 500 is very exciting."
The Richard Petty phenomenon
Perhaps more surprising than the acquittal of Castroneves or Tracy's comeback is the entry filed by NASCAR legend Richard Petty for driver John Andretti. Andretti, a nine-time Indy 500 competitor, has more recent IndyCar experience than Tracy, although his only win came in Australia in 1991.
Nephew of former 500 winner Mario, Andretti has driven for Petty before -- in NASCAR. In fact, he gave "the King" his last Cup victory in 1999 at Martinsville. However, this marks Petty's first venture into the open wheel world of team ownership. Sponsored by Window World, the largest replacement window company and sponsor of Andretti's ride in the Daytona 500 earlier this year, Petty will combine efforts with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, which is also fielding cars for rookie Mike Conway, Milka Duno and Darren Manning. The car will sport the iconic number 43 and the familiar paint scheme of "Petty blue" and DayGlo red made famous by the seven-time NASCAR champ.
"It's great to drive the 43 car again for Richard," Andretti says. "We have had success before in the stock cars and we hope to have another strong run in the Indy 500. I'm really excited about being a part of Richard's first entry into open-wheel racing."
Petty, who currently campaigns four Dodge cars in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, says, "This is pretty exciting news for all of us. Never did I think I would have the opportunity to be part of the Indianapolis 500. I know how much this means to John and the Andretti family and I'm looking forward to seeing him on the track in May."
Andretti was the first driver to compete in both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on the same day. This year, it's Petty's turn to do double duty, as he joins Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi as team owners competing in both Memorial Day racing classics.
Veteran Scott Sharp returns for the first time since 2007, when he scored his best finish of sixth place for Rahal Letterman Racing. The 2001 pole sitter, who competes regularly in the American Le Mans Series for Patron Highcroft Racing, will drive for Panther Racing along with Dan Weldon.
"The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500 are easily my favorite track and favorite race," Sharp mused. "It's the one race you think about every day of the year. It's just an incredible experience every time you're involved with it. For me, every lap around that track is pretty sacred."
Sharp, 41, holds the IndyCar Series record for race starts (146) and has nine victories, but none at Indy, despite top 10 finishes in his three most recent attempts. "I've always gone really well [at Indy], whether it be practice, qualifying or part of the race itself [but] I've never been able to put it all together to get the race finish I'm after."
No stranger to victory, Sharp and co-driver David Brabham won the ALMS Acura Sports Car Challenge in St. Petersburg in April. It was the first win for Patron Highcroft in the competitive LMP1 class, as well as the first victory for Acura's new ARX-02a prototype. The teammates finished second in the ALMS LMP2 points standings last year.
But rather than be detrimental to potential success at Indianapolis this year, Sharp believes his year and a half away could be beneficial. "Being away for a while and getting the chance to work with such a high-technology car like the Acura has really fine-tuned my development skills as a driver. I think every time you step aboard a race car, you learn something. I've learned quite a lot in the past year and a half. A lot of that pertains to road courses, but I am sure it has sharpened my game quite a bit and I'm sure I'll be able to apply what I've learned -- particularly in regards to my focus and approach to the Indy car. Indy is a track I've always been totally comfortable on. I've run a lot of laps at Indy and a lot of laps in the Dallara, so hopefully, it will be a bit like getting back on an old bike and it will all come back to me pretty quickly."
And finally, the ridiculous wager
Former teammates and longtime friends Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan sidestepped the bookies for a bet of a more personal nature. The Hollywood-glam-tousled Franchitti won Round 1 with a victory in the Long Beach Grand Prix in April. As the loser, Kanaan has agreed to let his hair grow. Usually seen with a shaved pate, the Brazilian is concerned about how bushy his curly locks will grow over the course of the month before he has an opportunity to return to his customary coif, a 'do only doable when and if he takes the checkered flag first. The sweet revenge is that Franchitti will have to join him in shearing his locks.
Top 10 in the points standings
Tony Kanaan, Andretti Green Racing
Ryan Briscoe, Team Penske
Dario Franchitti, Target Chip Ganassi Racing
Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Vision Racing
Danica Patrick, Andretti Green Racing
Marco Andretti, Andretti Green Racing
Graham Rahal, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing
Will Power, Team Penske