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Indy 500 this year is about more, more, more

INDIANAPOLIS -- Big is back at the Indianapolis 500.

Hobbled for the past decade by the open-wheel racing split, Indy placed second to the Daytona 500 in the hearts of America's race fans.

But as practice opens for the 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500
(ABC, May 25 at noon ET) there's finally the sense that Indy is on the brink of a comeback.

Optimism and buzz surround IndyCar racing right now in the lead up to what is expected to be the most exciting Indianapolis 500 since … well, since the stars and the cars of the CART series set off for Michigan International Speedway for a demolition derby on Memorial Day weekend back in 1996.

The demise of the Champ Car World Series had added 10 full-time entries to the 2008 IRL IndyCar Series, resulting in the Indy 500's largest prerace entry in five years. With participation up, attendance and television ratings are expected to follow suit, continuing a season-long trend.

For the competitors, the most important thing that has gotten bigger at Indy this year is the prize money. The purse has been upped for the 500 by a whopping 25 percent to $13.4 million.

The winner's share is expected to grow by 40 percent to $2.5 million or more, second place should net more than $1 million and third could bank $750,000.

Suddenly, Indy means something to everyone again. It could mean everything to some.

This running of the Indianapolis 500 is really just the kickoff to a three-year celebration culminating in 2011 for the centennial anniversary of the first 500-mile automobile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"We're approaching some very unique milestones in our history," said IMS president and chief operating officer Joie Chitwood.
"2009 will be the centennial, the hundredth anniversary of the property itself, and 2011 represents the hundredth anniversary of the Indy 500.

"It's only appropriate we also strengthen the incentive to compete and participate and win 'The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.'"

Just like in the 1970s, when a chart of the Indy 500 purse was as flat as an Indiana cornfield, Indy's prize money has stagnated and the increases barely covered the cost of inflation -- not to mention the cost of racing in an increasingly expensive series.

As the cost to compete went up, the number of entries went down. In 2000, 51 car/driver combinations made practice runs; by 2003, that number was down to 35, which doesn't make for a lot of drama in terms of filling a 33-car field. Especially over four days of qualifying.

So while 40 cars and 34 drivers doesn't sound like much, it's an improvement over recent years, when only 25 or 27 drivers were confirmed prior to the start of practice. There will be more action on the track, and more compelling reasons for fans to come to the track.

IMS continues to provide top-level off-track entertainment as well.

Carb Day's move from Thursday to Friday to create a rowdy atmosphere for race weekend has been well-received; this year's headline band is Stone Temple Pilots.

"Carb Day is about having fun," Chitwood said. "There's a party element to it, and I think that's important for the fans of the Snake Pit back in the day. There's that element of people watching and enjoying yourself. So I think the Carb Day concert takes on a more current or little more fun approach.

"The great thing is, even though we're around for the 92nd running, we have a chance every year to improve what we do and try and tweak here and there."

From a competitive standpoint, the strongest contenders to win the race are two-time Indianapolis champion Helio Castroneves of Team Penske, Tony Kanaan of Andretti Green Racing and the Target/Ganassi Racing duo of Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon, another former Indy winner.

Dixon and Kanaan are both former IndyCar Series champions, but they have never won at Indianapolis. Dixon arrives at the Speedway this year as the man to beat, who arguably should have won three of the four races in 2008.

"We've been pretty unlucky [at Indianapolis] in some years when we've had good cars and we've come up short," Dixon said. "And last year with the weather I think everybody was trying to work out what to do.

"It's just that fact that you only get a chance to do it once a year.
A championship is different; you can work towards it. But if you come up short on the day [at Indy], you don't win."

An intriguing second tier of potential winners includes Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti. And the progress of the ex-Champ Car contingent will no doubt be a popular story line.

"I just think it's going to be a continuation of what we've already seen this year and that's an increased depth of field in terms of quality teams and drivers," said Indy Racing League president of competition Brian Barnhart. "We have really got a lot of good car/driver combinations and what you've got to really be excited about is the fact that we've got second- and third-generation drivers with the names like Rahal, Andretti and Foyt and you're excited about the future moving forward.

"It's ironic they're now challenging the old guard with Castroneves, Wheldon and Kanaan. If that's an old guard, those guys are probably young 30s. It shows the depth of the field and the excitement moving forward."

After opening ceremonies the first two days of practice are reserved for the 13 rookie drivers entered in this year's race. Veteran drivers take the track on Tuesday, with Pole Day slated for Saturday (ABC, 3 p.m. ET).

ABC, ESPN2 and the IMS Radio Network are combining for more than 50 hours of live coverage throughout the month of May.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.