Indy Pole Day takes on new meaning after long-awaited merger

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indy 500 Pole Day like it used to be?

Not quite. Not yet, anyway. Give it time. This long-awaited open-wheel merger is a work in progress.

The folks in Gasoline Alley won't hold hands and sing "Kumbaya," but Saturday at the Brickyard is a moment for celebration.

Indy's official return to bliss begins when that first driver pushes the limit for four laps to try to earn that No. 1 starting spot. Indy-car racing in America is together again at the place where it matters the most.

"This is a very positive thing," said Roger Penske, the man whose team has a record 14 Indy 500 victories. "A lot of people were bruised because of the split, but now I'm seeing some momentum.

"I've told people it isn't going to be a rocket ship liftoff to the top. It's going to take time. What we're trying to do is rebuild this sport."

It's working.

For more than a decade, open-wheel racing struggled like two fat guys in quicksand. No matter how hard they tried, they weren't getting out of the mud as long as the two leagues remained separate.

The merger between the IRL and Champ Car in February was the giant leap forward, but the IndyCar Series also caught a couple of lucky breaks since then.

Graham Rahal (Bobby's son) won his first IndyCar Series start in the race in St. Petersburg, Fla. But the big news was Danica Patrick's finally earning her first victory. If she wins the pole Saturday, just declare her the Queen of Racing and enjoy the hype leading up to the 500.

No doubt Penske's two drivers -- Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe -- are among the contenders to win the pole. At most events, earning the pole is overrated. Not here, and especially not this year as far as Penske's concerned.

"The notoriety you will get over the next two weeks, you'll never have that opportunity in any other race," Penske said. "It's probably the most powerful message that you can send about the team and the driver."

Castroneves has two Indy 500 victories, but he knows this year is different. Now he has a chance to win without any perceived asterisk of missing drivers being in another league.

"To win a third time here would put me in a very exclusive spot," Castroneves said. "But on the merger now with everyone back, it's even better. It's also going to be even tougher to win."

The sad thing is the list of outstanding drivers whose accomplishments came while open-wheel was battling and bickering.

Sebastien Bourdais won an unprecedented four consecutive Champ Car titles. Sam Hornish Jr. won three IndyCar Series championships. But Hornish was no road-racing master and Bourdais didn't like high-speed ovals.

Doubts always came from the other side: "That's great, but he didn't race against everybody when he did it."

And there are others whose prime years came during the 12 seasons of the split, including Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Alex Zanardi and Paul Tracy.

Tracy should be here this month, but politics got in the way. He's under contract to Gerry Forsythe, the one major Champ Car team owner who took his ball and went home when the merger finally happened.

It's still possible Tracy will get in the show if longtime Indy-car team owner Derrick Walker finds sponsorship to back Tracy. And why wouldn't a sponsor back him?

In the eyes of many Champ Car fans, Tracy won the 2002 Indy 500 but was robbed by a controversial last-lap caution. The publicity a sponsor would receive from Tracy's return to Indy would easily justify the $2 million or so it would cost to run the event.

Tracy's participation would add to the excitement, but this Indy 500 is special with or without him. Bump Day next weekend should have at least three drivers trying to fight their way into the 33-car field.

It might have been more, but there aren't enough cars and equipment to go around. The merger meant extra chassis and parts were needed in a hurry. Some teams have only one backup car for two drivers.

That's a temporary problem. So is the 2008 schedule. Some of the better Champ Car venues (Toronto, for example) had to take a year off but will return in 2009.

The merger also came at a time when the economy is down, so finding sponsorship is difficult for many teams. Penske thinks that's also a temporary problem.

"We're going to end up in some good markets that were blacked out because one series had a date and the other didn't," Penske said. "When we look at the best markets to be in, that's going to drive things for future sponsorship."

The traditions of the Indy 500 often involve reflection and look at the past. This time, it's better to look forward.

Indy 500 Pole Day for 2008 isn't about where open-wheel racing has been. Finally, this Pole Day is about where open-wheel racing is headed.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.