INDIANAPOLIS, May 23 (UPI) -- A day before the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500, excited race fans hobnobbed with drivers and celebrated racing great Al Unser, all under the shadow of a spate of airborne crashes that have some questioning drivers' safety at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Concerns hang over the race after drivers Helio Castroneves, Ed Carpenter and Josef Newgarden experienced death-defying crashes that flipped their cars, in some cases with vehicles sliding dozens of yards. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver James Hinchcliffe suffered life-threatening injuries in one of the crashes.
The tension is bound to bring the 200,000 spectators to a fever pitch as they watch 33 drivers compete for IndyCar's top prize.
"No matter how safe we make it, it's always going to have an element of danger," Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles said. "What you don't want to have happen is a problem that's going to occur more than just once."
While no one denies driving at speeds in excess of 190 mph is dangerous, the unusual proliferation of crashes this year has raised concerns over new aerodynamics kits that push the cars even faster. IndyCar officials saw the problem as so serious they shut down practice after Hinchcliffe's crash for an in-depth investigation.
Even with this, fans gathered Saturday to meet their favorite drivers, including four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser. Unser, 75, was honored during Legends Day. The Albuquerque native was just 24 years old when he entered the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Two years later, he began racing himself into legendary status with four Indy 500 victories -- 1970, 1971, 1978 and 1987.
"It's a great honor," he told the Albuquerque Journal. "I didn't think I'd live this long."