Indy Rookie and two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso enters the second turn on his qualification run during Pole Day Shoot Out qualifications at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 21, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Alonso will start his first Indy 500 from the 5th position at 231.300 MPH. File photo by Larry Papke/UPI | License Photo
INDIANAPOLIS -- The motorsports mania is about to begin in the heartland, and it's not all tied to Fernando Alonso, the two-time Formula One champion tackling the Indianapolis 500 for the first time.
This open-wheel event being held for the 101st time on Sunday makes icons of its winners. A.J. Foyt said the 500 made him famous, not the other way around, and Mario Andretti agrees. It was Al Unser Jr. who, after winning his first 500 in 1992, famously said: "You just don't know what Indy means."
Many, like Alonso, are learning.
Alexander Rossi wasn't much more than a driver with an F1 career losing traction until he reached victory lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year. Earlier this week, the 24-year-old Californian was paraded through New York media outlets like a young prince returning to his castle.
Alonso accompanied Rossi on that Big Apple bonanza, and there weren't all that many questions about his F1 career. Rather, the focus was on Indy and his indoctrination of the famed race which rolls off shortly after noon Sunday (12:21 p.m. ET green flag, ABC-TV).
Could Alonso win in his Indy debut?
"Yes," he said, politely. "But a lot of things must come my way."
The same can be said for so many Verizon IndyCar Series drivers in this 33-car field. Even by conservative estimates, half the drivers have a legitimate chance to be handed a ceremonial bottle of victory milk.
There are seven former winners in the field, including Helio Castroneves, who has won three times, and Juan Pablo Montoya, who has won twice. Scott Dixon (2008), Tony Kanaan (2013), Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014) and Rossi are other winners who must be dealt with. Buddy Lazier won the race in 1996, although he doesn't have much of a chance against this stacked lineup.
Dixon will lead the field to the start, having won the pole in dramatic fashion last weekend -- his four-lap average was 232.164 mph, the fastest posting since Arie Luyendyk set the track record in 1996 at 236.986 mph. Dixon happens to be the same driver robbed at gunpoint at a Taco Bell near the track later that evening; fortunately, he and his passengers -- wife, Emma, and three-time race winner Dario Franchitti -- escaped without injury, and the teenage suspects were apprehended by police.
The other front-row occupants will be Ed Carpenter, a two-time Indy pole winner, and Rossi.
Count Carpenter among the co-favorites along with his Ed Carpenter Racing teammate JR Hildebrand. They are part of the Chevrolet contingent which includes Team Penske's impressive lineup: Castroneves, Montoya, series champions Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, and team first-timer Josef Newgarden, who finished third last year.
Honda's lineup is impressive, with Andretti Autosport winners of two of the past three 500s. Michael Andretti's group includes his son, Marco, Hunter-Reay, Rossi, Alonso, Takuma Sato and rookie Jack Harvey. Dixon and Kanaan give Chip Ganassi Racing a legitimate chance to win, with Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton the other two drivers in the stable.
Honda also expects strong runs from Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) and James Hinchcliffe (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports). Honda has the other strong rookie to watch: Ed Jones, who will carry Dale Coyne Racing's flag in the months without four-time Champ Car World Series season champion Sebastien Bourdais, who suffered pelvic fractures and a broken right hip in a ferocious Turn 2 crash during last weekend's Indy qualifying.
Bourdais, who hit the wall at 227 mph and more than 100 Gs, left an Indianapolis hospital Wednesday on crutches. His backup car will be driven by sports car racer James Davison, who has two previous Indy starts.
The 100th 500 was a smashing success, with every seat sold and the local television blackout lifted for the first time in history. IMS probably won't see an estimated 350,000 people again, but it should very well be the second-largest ever for the event, with a crowd totaling more than 300,000.
The number of eyeballs on Sunday's race could be eye-popping based on the attention Alonso, a Spaniard, has drawn. When he tested alone on May 3, more than 2 million people watched a six-hour online streaming show. As impressive was that a large percentage of those viewers were under the age of 35.
Alonso expects all of Spain to be watching. For starters, the 500 begins only a short time after F1's Monaco race concludes, but he said the country completed its national soccer tournament last weekend while Indy was qualifying.
"It was like half the people were watching (soccer), the other half was watching Indy," he said. "Now, everyone is excited to watch Indy."
It certainly figures to be a show at better than 220 mph. Castroneves seeks to join Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as a four-time winner of the event, and there hasn't been a new member to that club since Mears in '91. Rahal and Andretti hope to join their family members into victory lane, and a win by Carpenter would be noteworthy since his family owns the track.
Could there be a surprise winner, as Rossi showed last year with masterful fuel strategy? Absolutely.
"This is a race where you don't pick a winner," Kanaan said. "The race picks you."
In this case, there's a lot to choose from.