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Who will win Indy 500? My money is on the Scotsman

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Dave von Falkenstein
Sunday, May 29, 2011

The mere mention of the Indianapolis 500 brings to mind memories of the excitement , the speed, the glory and the danger of races past.

Some people treat the Super Bowl as their oneday sporting party of the year. Others have NASCAR’s Daytona 500 or the Kentucky Derby. For my dad and me, it’s always been the Indy 500.

For us, it’s like Christmas morning for a 5-year-old. From Jim Nabors’ pre-race performance of “Back Home Again in Indiana” (something he’s done most years since 1972) to the winner chugging milk in victory lane (a staple since the 1930s), it’s easy to see why it is considered the world’s largest single-day sporting event.

Monday will mark 100 years to the day since the inaugural running of the Indianapolis 500. American Ray Harroun won that race, driving a Marmon chassis and engine with an average speed just under 75 mph over the nearly seven-hour race. For his achievement, Harroun was awarded about $14,000.

In comparison, Scotland’s Dario Franchitti, driving a Dallara chassis with a Honda engine, averaged just less than 162 mph over three hours to win last year’s race. He received more than $2.7 million.

Over the last century, 67 men from 11 countries have won the acclaimed race, while Americans A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears have each won it a record four times. Speaking of Foyt, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Super Tex’s first Indy 500 title. Thanks in part to that milestone, Foyt will drive the pace car before today’s race.

The 33 drivers racing today will try to avoid embarrassment, like in 1982 when frontrow starter Kevin Cogan lost control on the approach to the green flag and took out race-day favorites A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti.

They will try to avoid heartbreak, like in 1992 when Michael Andretti led 160 laps only to have his fuel pump fail on lap 189.

The safety aspects of Indy-Car racing in 2011 will most certainly help them avoid disaster, like in 1964 when drivers Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs were killed in a fiery accident on Lap 2. Racing is still a dangerous sport, however, and anything can happen.

This year’s lineup has drivers from 13 countries, including five rookies, five former Indy 500 winners and five for- mer IndyCar or Champ Car Series champions. They all would like to add their names to the prestigious list of winners that includes such names as Unser, Meyer, Shaw, Clark, Rutherford, Johncock, Fittipaldi, Luyendyk and Villeneuve.

In memory of my friend and former colleague, the late John McPoland, let’s do something he did nearly every Indy 500 race day and see who in the field is most likely to get his or her likeness added to the Borg-Warner Trophy. As John always did, we’ll weed out the losers first.

Throw rookies out

Eight drivers have won the race on their first attempts. This year’s rookie crop of Americans J.R. Hildebrand and Charlie Kimball, England’s Jay Howard and Pippa Mann, and Canada’s James Hinchcliffe will not be added to that list.

England’s Alex Lloyd finished fourth last year, but that will be difficult for him to duplicate with a starting position of 31st.

Belgian Bertrand Baguette will be lucky to finish in the top 20, even with a starting spot of 14th.

Japan’s Takuma Sato, an ex-Formula One driver, doesn’t quite have the oval technique down. He’ll have a hard time keeping it off the wall.

Three Brazilians have won the race in the past, but it won’t happen this year.

Of the four Brazilians, Helio Castroneves may be the favorite, but we’ll get to him in a moment.

Tony Kanaan has led 214 laps since his Indy debut in 2002, and any IndyCar fan would concede that the speedway owes him a victory. Unfortunately, in what is his first season with KV Racing, Kanaan will have to wait at least another year.

As for the other two, Vitor Meira has five top-10 finishes in eight starts, so look for him to run strong. Ana Beatriz, the slowest qualifier, won’t see the end of the race.

Venezuela’s E.J. Viso is the favorite to bring out the first caution. To borrow McPoland’s adage, Viso couldn’t drive a nail into a snow bank.

The oldest driver at 48, Idaho native Davey Hamilton, will look to better last year’s finish when a first-lap incident relegated him to the 33rd and final finishing position.

The tallest driver, 6-foot, 3-inch Englishman Justin Wilson, would like to improve on his seventh-place finish of a year ago, assuming he doesn’t park it in the wall as he’s done twice previously.

Switzerland’s Simona De Silvestro, who already has crashed this month and suffered second-degree burns on her hands, is poised for a good finish, even though her specialty is road and street courses.

Tracy’s likely last time

Canadian Paul Tracy is still adamant that he was the true winner in 2002, but officials ruled that a caution on the last lap came out before Tracy passed declared winner Castroneves. Tracy will do better than many expect, but his probable swan song at Indy won’t be the tune he wants to hear.

South African Tomas Scheckter, son of 1979 Formula 1 champion Jody, has led the most laps in two previous races at Indy, but he is signed on only for this race, and his team doesn’t have the experience to pull off an upset.

Neither Arizona native Buddy Rice (winner in 2004) nor England’s Dan Wheldon (winner in 2005) will see victory lane for a second time. Both Rice and Wheldon surprised many in qualifying, but they are also signed on only for this race, and then it’s back to the salt mines for both of them.

Americans Townsend Bell and Ed Carpenter have shown flashes of brilliance at Indy over the years and also surprised many with their strong qualifying runs this year.

Bell has one top-5 finish in five starts, but it will take a lot of luck for him to better that. A good finish could help quiet the critics who say Carpenter gets a ride at Indy simply because he is the stepson of Indy Racing League founder Tony George. If Carpenter can hold it together, he has a chance for a decent finish but certainly not a win.

Canadian Alex Tagliani, this year’s polesitter, is part of the feel-good story of the month. Tagliani is driving for Sam Schmidt, a former Indy-Car driver who was rendered a quadriplegic after a testing crash at Walt Disney World Speedway in 2000. Tagliani had the misfortune in 2001 to be involved in a horrendous accident during a CART race with Alex Zanardi, which caused Zanardi’s legs to be amputated. Tagliani’s pole-winning performance marked him as one of the dark horses in this year’s race.

Spaniard Oriol Servia was another surprise during qualifying and will start third. Servia is driving for Newman/Haas Racing, the team started by the late Paul Newman and Carl Haas. The team has had much success at Indy, though no wins to show for it. Servia hopes to change that, but it will be a tall order.

Only three of Andretti Autosport’s five cars actually made the race with Americans Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick and John Andretti.

Marco has three top-3 finishes in the last five years and has the best chance to pull off an upset. Patrick, a native of Roscoe, Ill., may be a factor in what many believe will be her last Indianapolis 500 as a full time IndyCar driver before she moves to NASCAR for 2012. With five top-10 finishes in six starts, she stands to get a solid finish. John Andretti, in the team’s third car for Indy only, has not finished in the top 15 in his last four attempts.

American Ryan Hunter-Reay, who got bumped from the field by his teammate Marco Andretti, got a lastminute reprieve when his team owner, Michael Andretti, was able to buy him a ride through A.J. Foyt’s team. That means Brazilian Bruno Junqueira, who originally qualified a car for Foyt’s team, is out of a ride for the race. Hunter-Reay will have to start at the back of the pack and will have his work cut out for him.

You’d be crazy not to pick a driver from either Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing to win. After all, car owner Roger Penske, 74, has won the race 15 times since his maiden victory in 1972 with American Mark Donohue. Between the Penske and Ganassi teams, they’ve won seven of the last 10 Indy 500s.

Penske’s Castroneves has three wins and has finished out of the top 10 only once since 2001. Castroneves will again be a factor, but his season hasn’t gone the way he’s wanted, and today will be no different. His Australian teammates, Will Power and Ryan Briscoe, will run well but won’t get the finish they want.

Chip Ganassi Racing has its two Team Target entries of New Zealand’s Scott Dixon, the 2008 winner, and Franchitti, defending race and IndyCar Series champion. Ganassi is also running the aforementioned rookie Kimball and second-generation American star Graham Rahal. While Rahal would love to duplicate his father’s trip to victory lane 25 years ago, it won’t happen today.

Dixon and Franchitti have the best chance to win, but Franchitti has the momentum and confidence to win his second consecutive Indianapolis 500 and his third overall.

Look for him to be kissing the bricks as well as his wife, actress Ashley Judd, after the race.

Dave vonFalkenstein is a webmaster/entertainment clerk for the Gazette, and an auto racing fan.

Last updated: 5:06 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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