Indy is still an event like no other

INDIANAPOLIS -- Each May, for decades, the words have rung true for people named Andretti, Foyt, Mears, Penske, Rahal, Unser ... and now they resound for those named Castroneves, Franchitti, Dixon, Ganassi ...

Back home again in Indiana

From Texas to Brazil, from New Mexico to New Zealand, Pennsylvania to California, Ohio to Australia, Canada to Mexico they have come, for the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500. Now they're all back home again in Indiana -- all except two, a man from England and a woman from Illinois.

Dan Wheldon, who won the 500 last May, was killed last October. The entire 33-car field will be a speeding tribute to him for all of Sunday afternoon: The new cars are designed with partial fenders, to avoid the interlocking of wheels that launched Wheldon into the catch-fencing at Las Vegas.

Danica Patrick, the fastest, best, most glamorous woman driver ever at Indy, has gone full-time to NASCAR and is racing at Charlotte this weekend.

Now, the Indy 500 gets to prove it can go on without the woman many felt was keeping the grand but worn old race afloat since 2005.

Now it stands alone again as the centerpiece of the biggest motor racing weekend of the world. First on Sunday comes the Grand Prix of Monaco, then Indy, then the Coca-Cola 600.

And it seems that I can see

A.J. Foyt has been coming here since 1958, and won the Indianapolis 500 for the first of four times in 1961, and yet every race day when he walks down Gasoline Alley to the pits, "I get the same feeling," he said this week. The only difference is, "The first few times, I was always very scared. I'm not scared no more."

The gleaming candle light, still shining bright

"My rookie year here, I finished third," Mario Andretti remembers of 1965. "And I was national champion [of the old USAC series]. I was the youngest [25] to do it at the time.

"I'm on the Johnny Carson show and I was proud as a peacock, you know, national champion and all that. That's what I had on my mind.

"And I was introduced as 'Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year.' [Carson] never mentioned the championship.

"That pissed me off to no end. But also it told me something: How important this friggin' race is. ...

"I don't think you can name another race, even including the Daytona 500, that's as important as the championship [of its series]. ...

"That's what this race still possesses."

Through the sycamores for me

But if grandson Marco Andretti, 25, wins the 500 on Sunday, will he have won an event of the enormity Mario won in 1969?

"That's always the big question," Mario acknowledged, referring to the devastating split in Indy car racing of 1996-2008 between CART and the Indy Racing League that undermined the prestige of what, since 1911, had been the greatest motor race in the world.

"I don't think you have the audience you had then," Mario said. "But it's still there. If a more recognizable name wins it [such as Marco Andretti, or Graham Rahal, son of 1986 winner Bobby Rahal], it's going to spark a lot of things, in my opinion.

"Will it ever be what it was? That's hard to say."

The new-mown hay sends all its fragrance

Would the headline, "Andretti wins Indy 500" flash across the world, jump-starting, recharging, renewing this old race?

"All I can say is, I hope so, man," said Marco Andretti. "I think this sport deserves so much more right now. With what we endured through the '90s with the split and everything -- I think I'm happy with where we're at right now.

"But it's not where we need to be right now. We all know that."

Said Graham Rahal, 23, "I genuinely feel, No. 1, that it would be great for an American to win it [that hasn't happened since 2006 with Sam Hornish Jr., and has happened only twice in the last 13 years]. But it would be an even better thing if it's a recognizable name. As much as I think it's no secret that I really don't want to see Marco win, at the end of the day it would be good to get one of our names back there in the sport. It would mean a lot."

From 2005 through last year, there were two classes of drivers at Indy: Danica Patrick and all the rest. She drew the brunt of the media and fan attention, even though she didn't win the race.

What of her absence now?

"It's a great thing," said Rahal, "because No. 1, we can get back to just racing, and No. 2, we've got so many other guys here who deserve a chance. Who have a story. Who have a personality. If she were here, you probably wouldn't be talking to them too much."

There still are three women in the field, Ana Beatriz, Simona de Silvestro and Katherine Legge. But none has sparked anything like the Danicamania of the past here.

Does this 33-car field have anything to prove -- i.e., that the show can go on and still draw an audience, still be electrifying, without Danica?

Two-time winner Dario Franchitti of Scotland rolled his eyes.

"I think you're doing a disservice to the Indianapolis 500 by even asking that question, to be honest," Franchitti said. "It's bigger than any one person. It's a privilege for any of us to get to race here."

"The race lived for, what, 89 years before she showed up? And it's going to live without her," Rahal said.

Actually it lived for 94 years and 88 runnings before Danica arrived in '05.

Indeed, this race has survived two world wars, the Great Depression, the devastating 12-year war in open-wheel racing and now the Great Recession. It was suspended only for the war years of 1917-18 and 1942-45.

It has survived even the surge of NASCAR, the stock-car racing deluge of open-wheel racing nationwide. Last year's Indy 500 drew more than 250,000 people in May, compared to barely 100,000 in attendance for the Brickyard 400 in July at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Through the fields I used to roam

Out of farmland northwest of Indianapolis, Carl J. Fisher built his rectangular track in 1909, and ever since, it has pretty well lived up to its billing, "Greatest Race Course in the World."

Whether the 500, conceived and run by Fisher in 1911, is still the greatest race in the world is a faded question now. There really is no single greatest race in the world anymore.

But last year, for the Speedway's Centennial celebration, a slogan was devised by the marketing staff. It already has been discarded officially, but it resounds with truth, and it can accurately be used in perpetuity:

"The most important motor race in history."

The echoes resound through these most massive grandstands on the face of the earth ...

"Gaahddamn, we did it!"

That was Foyt in 1977, upon becoming the first driver to win four 500s. To make sure his words were recorded for posterity, he told some reporters straggling in, "Some of you boys might not have heard what I said. I said, 'Gaahddamn, we did it!'"

And then the raging-bull Texan, the larger than life legend, bowed his head like a Sunday school boy and muttered, "I ought not take the Lord's name in vain. He's been awful good to me today."

That was Indy. This was Indy: Al Unser Sr., Big Al, the man the family called "Dry Ice -- so cool he burns" -- breaking down, sobbing, not over any of his four 500 wins, but the first one for his son, Al Jr.

The notoriously stoic Big Al's voice broke almost rhythmically: "To love something as much as I love racing, and to win at this place, and then to have your son come along and win here, is ... the greatest feeling there is."

This is Indy: Former Ferrari star Rubens Barrichello is the latest in a long line of Formula One drivers to come try his hand and nerve on the high-speed oval that is so foreign to, so feared by, so many Grand Prix racers.

When F1 came to Indy for the U.S. Grand Prix in the early 2000s, Barrichello's teammate, Michael Schumacher, would laugh and smirk in a "no way, no how" manner when asked if he had interest in driving on the oval in the 500.

Barrichello, on the other hand, was disappointed that "when we raced on the inside [the infield road course] they would never let us go around" the oval.

"It's dangerous and fascinating," Barrichello said this week. "Every time you go into the car, you say, 'Jesus Christ, this is fast!' At the same time it's fascinating and dangerous and then you have this mixed emotion all the time, all the time, all the time.

"It makes it worthwhile."

When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash

"It's an eerie place," this year's pole-sitter, Ryan Briscoe of Australia, says of motor racing's most hallowed ground.

"I think with experience, you get used to it a little bit. But it never takes away from that electric feeling you get when you come in on race morning and the stands are filling up. It's just unlike any race I've ever been to. I've been to Monaco before. And it's a different deal."

Historically, some of the worst crashes at Indy have occurred soon after the start, in the first and second turns, seconds after the green flag.

Briscoe, with a four-lap qualifying average of 226.484 mph for Roger Penske's team, will lead the field to the line. But beside him on the front row will be the Andretti Autosport cars of James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay, with Marco Andretti starting right behind Briscoe.

Is Briscoe concerned that the Andretti squadron might mount an aggressive start?

"We all know we've got a 500-mile race ahead of us," he said. "If someone wants to go balls-out on the first corner, they can have it. I want to lead the last lap."

Then I long for my Indiana home.