INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis 500 has been stripped almost to the bone for the 104th running of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
The iconic test of man and machine is too important to Roger Penske, the racing icon and new owner of both the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to cancel in the year of the coronavirus pandemic. Its importance to the survival of IndyCar teams meant the race had to be staged — even if it meant postponing from its traditional Memorial Day weekend date and closing the gates to fans for the first time in the race's long, storied history.
"Virtually every sponsorship you have is tied to this event. It's the 800-pound gorilla," said Bobby Rahal, owner of three cars entered in Sunday's race. "I think the idea of not having the Indy 500 would have been disastrous to probably every team. It would have been a death knell to some teams, so, yes, this race had to happen."
Penske, the 83-year-old billionaire businessman and veteran team owner who closed his purchase of the national landmark speedway and the series in January, will host the marquee race practically out of pocket. The Indy 500 was canceled only during World War I and World War II, and Penske's staff has gone to extreme lengths to make the race still feel like a world-class event even without fans.
It's cachet improved last weekend when Marco Andretti won the pole, a feat not accomplished by his famous family since Mario Andretti did it in 1987. Marco was just 2 months old when his grandfather won his last Indy pole, and Marco's father Michael, uncle Jeff and cousin John all failed to duplicate the effort.
Mario's victory in 1969 is the only Indy 500 win for five Andretti drivers covering 74 starts. It was Marco, as a rookie in 2006, who last came closest to ending the so-called "Andretti Curse" when he was beaten at the finish line.
This is his time, a full 15 years later, and Andretti is up for the challenge. The family will be honored before the race as Mario drives Michael around the speedway in a two-seater before Marco takes the green flag.
"I feel good, and I'm not stressed out. My grandfather and I even talked about it — there's something about our family that lives for this type of good pressure," Andretti said. "I feel at home. I feel in my element. Feeling pressure means you are playing for something."
His top competition seems to be his very own Andretti Autosport teammates as the Honda-powered cars trounced Chevrolet in qualifying. The Andretti camp has four drivers in the first three rows of the starting grid, while Honda took all but one of those nine slots.
The front of the pack includes a pair of rookies. Alex Palou is in a Honda for Dale Coyne Racing. Rinus VeeKay, the lone Chevy driver to crack the fast nine, is a 19-year-old who drives for Ed Carpenter Racing and is mentored by two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, a fellow Dutchman.
The Chevy contingent is mostly stuck near the rear of the 33-car field, which filled up late. DragonSpeed Racing with driver Ben Hanley announced its entry just last week and missed almost two full days of practice getting a car prepared.
The back of the field includes Penske's entire four-car fleet, which includes the past two Indy 500 winners in Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, 2019 series champion Josef Newgarden and three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
For Castroneves, it just might be the winding down of his 20-year relationship with Penske. The sports car arm of Team Penske is taking a break in 2021, and that will leave Castroneves without a full-time job. He very much wants to return to IndyCar next season.
"The situations may be with another team," Castroneves said. "Who knows?"
Both he and Tony Kanaan, two wildly popular drivers, face uncertainty after Sunday. Kanaan knew he would not run a full IndyCar season, but his five-race farewell tour has been ruined by the pandemic and he wants to be back next year. As the two Brazilians work on their schedules, they have been among the first competitors revealed for NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart's upcoming all-star series for veteran drivers.
Fernando Alonso is back for a third attempt at closing out the Triple Crown of Motorsport, having won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2018 and 2019 and the Monaco Grand Prix in 2006 and 2007. The two-time Formula One season champion did not make the Indy 500 last year, and he plans to return to F1 next season and will miss the Indy 500 the next two years.
He said if he wins Sunday he will have achieved his goal, but the Arrow McLaren SP team's cars had only been mediocre leading into Friday's final practice. It was only then a flicker of hope showed with Pato O'Ward topping the final speed chart. Alonso, the only driver to crash during Indy 500 practices, was 23rd.
Somewhat under the radar of the Andretti-led Honda challenge of Chevy is five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, who will start second alongside Andretti. The 40-year-old New Zealander has been phenomenal in this abbreviated season with three wins and four podium finishes. He has a cozy lead in the IndyCar season points standings and will try to add a second Indy 500 win to his stacked résumé.
Dixon was genuinely pleased for Andretti after the 33-year-old American knocked him from the pole, but the fun is over when the green flag drops.
"I hope it's us winning the Indy 500," Dixon said. "That's what we're thinking about. It's honestly all just thinking about us trying to win the race and be best prepared."