There's a reason the Indianapolis 500 is called “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and the race itself always lives up to that moniker. Today will be no different as over 300,000 people are expected to make the pilgrimage to the 2½-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the corner of 16th and Georgetown.
Some are continuing family traditions to watch 200 laps of wheel-to-wheel racing and see who can emerge victorious in what is a modern-day gladiatorial conquest. Others are simply race fans that fell in love with the sound, speed, smells and excitement that Indy brings year in and year out. However, this year there is another reason many are making the trek and it's for something that hasn't happened in almost 25 years.
Fernando Alonso, a driver currently competing in Formula One, has made his way across the pond to the Verizon IndyCar Series to try and win what will be the longest race he's ever competed in. It's a callback to racing's glory days of the 1960s, when F1 drivers like Jim Clark and Graham Hill competed and became Indy 500 champions.
The last time anything remotely close to this happened was in 1993 when reigning F1 champion Nigel Mansell left that series to compete full-time in the CART IndyCar Series. Mansell led 34 laps at Indy that year en route to a third place finish and won the series championship that season.
Alonso is racing at Indy because of his desire to win the Triple Crown of Motorsport, which in addition to the Indy 500 includes the Monaco Grand Prix and 24 Hours of Le Mans. Alonso, who will miss today's F1 race in Monaco (airing at 7 a.m. on NBC), already has two wins there and plans to run at Le Mans in the coming years. The aforementioned Hill is the only driver to have won in all three events.
Alonso's entry is a partnership between McLaren-Honda (his F1 team) and Andretti Autosport, who share Honda as a common engine manufacturer. The McLaren team has an Indy 500 history of its own, competing from 1970-79. Mark Donohue won in 1972 driving a McLaren for Roger Penske's team. The McLaren team won in 1974 and 1976, both times with Johnny Rutherford.
Looking beyond Alonso, there are four other rookies and seven former winners among the 33 drivers from twelve countries who will try to win and have their likeness etched in immortality on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Teams with Honda engines took 15 of the top 20 spots in qualifying, but reliability may be a big issue. There have been seven Honda engine failures this month as opposed to none for Chevrolet, so attrition may be an issue that tips the odds to Chevy's favor.
Coverage of today's 101st running of the race starts at 10 a.m. on ABC, weather permitting. As is the case with all IndyCar races on that particular network, we get the pleasure of listening to former drivers Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear fumble and stumble their way through the race as commentators. With any luck, next year will see a changing of the guard for the broadcast team.
This year marks the seventh year of this column, so I'm going to change it up and go through the starting grid team-by-team and tell you who I think will be drinking the milk in victory lane today.
Lazier Partners Racing
Colorado native Buddy Lazier, the oldest driver in the field at age 49, starts 30th in his 20th Indy 500. The 1996 race winner only races at Indy and his highest finish in his last ten starts was fifth in 2005, but he'll be lucky to make it to halfway.
Gabby Chaves starts his third Indy 500 from 25th. The Colombian won the Indy Lights title in 2014 and is driving for the new Harding Racing team that is only competing at Indy, so I don't expect to see much of him.
This is the team's IndyCar debut and they're running American Spencer Pigot, who won a Pro Mazda title for the team in 2014, and Colombia's Sebastian Saavedra.
Florida native Pigot, who starts 29th, currently runs the road and street course races for Ed Carpenter Racing and finished 25th in his first Indy 500 last year.
Indy-only driver Saavedra starts 31st and has five previous 500 starts with a best finish of 15th in 2014. It'd be great just to see Pigot and Saavedra make it to the end of the race.
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
Pennsylvania native Sage Karam is another Indy-only driver and starts 21st. Karam has finished 32nd in his last two 500s after finishing ninth in his rookie year of 2014. If Karam can make it through the opening lap, I reckon he'll have a good finish and hopefully a better chance at a full-time ride.
A.J. Foyt Enterprises
The team run by one of the greatest drivers in history hasn't experienced much success in this race since winning with Kenny Brack in 1999. Americans Conor Daly and Zach Veach, along with Colombian Carlos Munoz, will be hard pressed to change that.
Indiana native Daly starts 26th but has never finished higher than 22nd in his three previous starts while Ohio native and rookie Veach starts 32nd in only his second-ever IndyCar start.
Munoz starts 24th and has three top-four finishes in four starts at Indy. If the team had a little more speed, I would expect Munoz to run near the front, but that's probably not likely.
There's also a local angle to Foyt's team as Munoz and Daly carry sponsorship by Beloit-based ABC Supply.
Dale Coyne Racing
Following a terrifying crash in qualifying that resulted in multiple pelvic fractures and a broken right hip, Sebastien Bourdais won't be competing today. It's unfortunate for many reasons, not least of all because Bourdais was going to be my dark horse pick to win. Fortunately, Bourdais is expected to fully recover so we should see him back in a car as early as later this season.
In Bourdais' place will be Australia's James Davison, who starts 33rd. Davison started in the same position last year for Coyne, but with only four IndyCar starts on his resume, I don't expect much from him.
Britain's Pippa Mann starts 28th in her sixth race at Indy, having never finished better than 18th. That's probably going to be the best she can hope for today.
Ed Jones, also from Britain, is having a pretty good rookie season so far and starts eleventh. I think the 2016 Indy Lights champion could save the day for Coyne and bring home a top-ten finish.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Graham Rahal starts 14th in his tenth Indy 500, his best starting spot since 2012. The Ohio native hasn't had much success in the race his dad Bobby won in 1986, but his luck has to turn at some point. I don't think today will be his day, but look for him to run well.
Spain's Oriol Servia starts twelfth in his ninth race at Indy, having previously run with Rahal's team in three of those starts. Servia is always exciting to watch, but with this as his only IndyCar race of the season, I don't think he'll improve on his career-best finish of fourth.
Jay Howard, the 2006 Indy Lights champion, is making a return to Indy for the first time since 2011 and starts 20th. The Brit's ride is partially financed by 1997 IRL and three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart. Howard's previous Indy finish was 30th, so he should be able to improve on that.
Mikhail Aleshin starts 13th in his third race at the Brickyard. The Russian has ruffled some feathers this season with his aggressive driving and while he's usually fast, I just don't think he'll figure in to mix.
Canadian James Hinchcliffe, last year's pole sitter, starts 22nd. Hinchcliffe won at Long Beach earlier this season and finished seventh at Indy last year. I would love to see Hinch win after nearly being killed in a practice accident at the track in 2015. Keep your eye on him.
Ed Carpenter Racing
Ed Carpenter, the only full-time owner/driver in the series, starts second. The two-time Indy pole sitter has never finished better than fifth in 13 previous starts, but it wouldn't shock me if he pulled off the win. The Indianapolis native usually runs well, but he has yet to put it all together. Could this finally be his year?
JR Hildebrand nearly won at Indy as a rookie in 2011 but crashed in the final turn of the final lap. The California native, who starts sixth, would love nothing more than to redeem himself with a win. With four top-ten finishes in six previous Indy starts, it certainly isn't out of the question.
The first of the three powerhouse teams, Team Penske is going for its 17th Indy 500 win with a five-car roster. The team struggled in qualifying, but you never count out Penske's team at Indy.
Will Power was the team's highest qualifier and starts ninth. Power has had a mixed bag at Indy with five top-ten finishes in nine starts. If his team minimizes issues in the pits, the 2014 series champion has a chance to become the first Aussie to win at Indy.
Juan Pablo Montoya had a miserable race last year, finishing last after winning for a second time in 2015. The Colombian, who is not running a full season schedule, starts 18th. Of all the part-time drivers, Montoya has the best shot at winning.
Helio Castroneves starts 19th in his bid for a fourth Indy title. The Brazilian has only three finishes outside the top ten in 16 previous Indy starts and last won there in 2009. He's off to a hot start this season and was fastest in final practice Friday, so he could join Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser in the four-time Indy winners club.
Josef Newgarden starts 22nd in his first trip to the Brickyard as a Penske driver. The Tennessee native won last month in Alabama in only his third start with the team. If Newgarden can get a few breaks in the race, he could become the first American winner for Penske since Sam Hornish Jr. won in 2006.
Defending series champion Simon Pagenaud has two top-ten finishes in five Indy starts. The Frenchman, who starts 23rd, won the only other oval race yet this season in Phoenix. With his bright yellow Menards-sponsored machine, Pagenaud will be hard to miss and will likely be a contender.
Andretti Autosport has won at Indy four times since 2005, including two of the last three. The defending race-winning team's six-car armada is the most of any team in the field.
The defending race winner, California's Alexander Rossi, starts third. Rossi's team shocked everybody last year by playing a strategy game that saw him stretch his fuel mileage to an improbable win as an Indy rookie. I don't think he'll be able to win two years in a row, but he should get a good result.
The “rookie” Alonso has exceeded nearly everybody's expectations by showing such speed and skill which is all the more surprising considering he'd never driven an Indy car nor driven on an oval until about three weeks ago.
Alonso starts fifth, so the big question is how will he fare at the start when eleven rows of three roar towards the green flag? Luckily, he's in the second row, so if he can make it through the first lap unscathed and has clean pit stops, he could be the second rookie in as many years to win.
Japan's Takuma Sato has never finished better than 13th in seven starts, but he is starting a career-best fourth. Sato nearly pulled off a win in 2012, but crashed on the last lap while battling eventual winner Dario Franchitti. I think Sato is too inconsistent to pull off an Indy win.
Marco Andretti came tantalizingly close to winning in '06, only to be passed in the final 400 feet from the checkered flag, losing by 0.0635 seconds. The Pennsylvania native starts eighth in his twelfth start and is always a threat to win. Could this be the year an Andretti gets to victory lane for the first time since Marco's grandfather Mario won in 1969? I wouldn't be surprised.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion and 2014 Indy winner, starts tenth. It's been either feast or famine for Hunter-Reay in the 500, and the Florida native is coming off his first winless season since 2009. Unfortunately, I don't see him adding a second Indy win today.
Rookie Jack Harvey starts 27th. It'll be good for the Brit to get some laps in, but I don't think he'll be a factor. Harvey, whose ride is a partnership with sports car regulars Michael Shank Racing, crashed in practice and later blew an engine.
Chip Ganassi Racing
Ganassi's team is going for its fifth win at Indy since 2000 and will do so with four drivers, including two former race winners.
Britain's Max Chilton and American Charlie Kimball will start 15th and 16th, respectively. California's Kimball has four top-ten finishes in six starts while Chilton finished 15th in his rookie start last season. I don't see either of them getting to victory lane today.
Tony Kanaan, the 2013 race winner and 2004 series champ, starts seventh in his 16th Indy start. The Brazilian hasn't won an IndyCar race since 2014, but is still one of the most consistent drivers in the field and certainly knows his way around Indy. Kanaan could add a second Indy win today before likely riding off into the sunset at the end of the season.
New Zealand's Scott Dixon sits on the pole after qualifying with an average speed of 232.164 mph, the fastest since 1996. This is Dixon's third pole at Indy and he has only four finishes outside the top ten in 14 starts.
Dixon, who won in 2008, is one of twenty drivers to have won from pole, so I wouldn't bet against him this year. I think the four-time series champion dubbed “the Iceman” will do exactly what he needs to do to add another Indy win to his vast collection.