Photo: Chris Owens/ INDYCAR

Event Preview: The 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil

By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer

This coming weekend the Verizon IndyCar Series hold its most prestigious event of the year, The Indianapolis 500. Race day is scheduled for May 28, 2017.

About the Race

The Indianapolis 500 is round six of seventeen for the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2017. The event is held on a paved oval track, one of six such events in 2017.

The defending race winner is Alexander Rossi. The Andretti Autosport driver won the 500 as a rookie, and it is was his first IndyCar career win. With a front row starting position, he will be looking to become the first back-to-back winner since Helio Castroneves in 2002.

The race will consist of 200 laps for a race distance of 500 miles. The Indy Lights Series will run the Freedom 100 on Friday as a support race. The Speedway will also play host to a variety of family-fun activities over the weekend including the TAG Heuer Pit Stop Challenge, a memorabilia show, autograph sessions with both past drivers and the current field, historic car demonstration laps, the public drivers meeting and live music from The Steve Miller Band, Keith Urban, The Barenaked Ladies, Clayton Anderson and Dustin Lynch.

About the Track

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was constructed in 1909, the vision of Carl G. Fisher. The track was made as a test bed for automobile manufacturers and the rectangular shape of the speedway, with four symmetrical turns, has remained virtually unchanged since day one. The front and back straightaways are 5/8 of a mile, and the turns measure 1/4 mile with the short chutes 1/8 mile each making for a 2.5 mile distance per lap. The straights are flat, with the turns banked at a mere 9.2 degrees.

The original surface was dirt and clay, covered with stone chips that were soaked in tar and oil. In late 1909, a 33 inch high concrete wall was added around the entire perimeter of the track, and 3.2 million hand-laid bricks replaced the original pavement thus giving rise to the nickname “The Brickyard.”

Over the years, the bricks were gradually replaced with asphalt beginning with the turns in 1937. By 1961 the entire track had been paved, save for a three foot section at the start/finish line now known as the “yard of bricks”.

The track has changed ownership from Fisher, and his partners James Allison, Arthur Newby and F.H. Wheeler to Eddie Rickenbacker, and then to Tony Hulman, who purchased the Speedway after WW2.

Hulman and Company maintain ownership of the Speedway to this day, and the current track is an ultra-modern facility with all the amenities one might expect. With an estimated 250,000 permanent seats and a total capacity of 400,000 the Speedway is the highest capacity sporting venue in the world.

In addition to the Indianapolis 500, the Speedway is also the site of the INDYCAR Grand Prix, the Brickyard 400 for the NASCAR Cup Series, The Brickyard Vintage Invitational, and the Red Bull Air Show. In the past, the Speedway has also hosted Formula One and Moto GP.

Event History

With 100 races in the books, the event history can fill several volumes, so, I’ll stick to the highlights.

After running several races on the grounds between 1909 and 1910, Carl Fisher and company envisioned an endurance race that would highlight the Speedway as a proving ground for the cars of the day. After much discussion, the length 500 miles was settled upon as it would offer a full day of racing, and still have fans home by the evening. Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) was chosen for the date. With a $25,000 prize announced, the entries poured in from interested drivers, teams and auto makers.

The first running was contested in 1911, with Ray Harroun coming home victorious in his Marmon Wasp, forever cementing his place in motor racing history. Harroun settled on a conservative approach with a plan to average 75 mph to preserve the car for the distance. His calculations were correct, and with help from relief driver Cyrus Patschke, he completed the 500 miles in 6 hours, 42 minutes with an average speed of 74.6 mph.

The speeds quickly climbed over the years with Rene Thomas becoming the first driver to top 100 mph in qualifying in 1919. The 150 mph barrier was broken by Parnelli Jones in 1962, while Tom Sneva was the first to record a 200 mph lap in 1977. The fastest official lap in Speedway history was recorded by two-time 500 winner, Arie Luyendyk, in 1996 at 237.498.

The race distance of 500 has remained save for 1916, when much of Europe was embroiled in WW1. With only 21 entries, and a fear that fans were becoming bored with the six hour long races, the race distance was shortened to 300 miles. The following year, with the US entering the war, the Speedway was closed for two years. When the race was revived in 1919, the distance of 500 miles was restored. The Speedway would close again between 1942 and 1945 during the Second World War.

1916 aside, there have been seven occasions where the race did not make the advertised distance due to weather. The shortest race on record came in 1976 with Johnny Rutherford being declared the winner after completing just 255 miles.

The early races at the Speedway were an open formula in contrast to today’s highly regulated races. The first sanctioning body was the AAA until 1956 when USAC took over. When CART split away from USAC in 1979, USAC continued to sanction the Indianapolis 500, although the entire CART field participated, and the event paid points toward the CART championship.

In 1996, the Indy Racing League split away from CART and held onto the 500 as the centerpiece race of the fledgling new series. The CART teams stayed away from the Speedway, but began to migrate back in 2000. Chip Ganassi was the first CART Team owner to enter the 500 since the split, and Juan Pablo Montoya brought home the win.

This opened the floodgates for other CART Teams to cross over to the IRL, eventually shifting the upper-hand of the power struggle in the IRL’s favor, paving the way for reunification in 2008. The split years were damaging to the 500, and the sport as a whole. While all the wounds are not yet healed, the post-reunification 500s have produced tremendous racing, and the crowd’s have begun to return culminating in a sell-out for the historic 100th Running in 2016.

In all, 70 drivers can claim the title of Indianapolis 500 winner. This includes the years 1924 and 1941 when co-winners were named. While the use of a relief driver was commonplace in the early years, these two instances are the only times that it was determined that the victory should be shared.

Nineteen drivers are multiple 500 winners with three men sharing the record with four wins. A.J. Foyt won his fourth in 1977, and was joined in the four-timers club by Al Unser exactly ten years later. Rick Mears is the most recent member of the club, taking his fourth victory in 1991.

About the Field

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series Field represents one of the strongest, talent-packed, top-to-bottom lineups in all of racing.

33 cars will take the flag at the 101st Indianapolis 500. 20 of the 21 full-time Verizon Indycar Series drivers will be among them, with Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais being sidelined after suffering injuries during a qualifying crash. James Davison will fill in for Bourdais, and start from the 33rd spot on the grid.

The field will feature seven former Indy 500 winners including three-time winner Helio Castroneves in the Shell Penske-Chevrolet. The only other multiple winner on the grid will be his teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya in an Indy-only effort sponsored by Fitzgerald Glider Kits. Looking to win a second 500 are Scott Dixon, who starts from pole, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan, Buddy Lazier, and last year’s winner Alexander Rossi.

The drivers joining the regulars include two-time Formula World Champion Fernando Alonso who has dominated the racing headlines this month. Skipping the Monaco Grand Prix, Alonso will start fifth on Sunday in an Andretti Autosports Honda backed by McLaren.

Two teams will make their first start in the 500. Juncos Racing will field Spencer Pigot (who is available due to his road-race only contract with Ed Carpenter) and Sebastian Saavedra. Harding Racing will debut in IndyCar with Gabby Chaves behind the wheel of their car. Other Indy-only entries this year include Pippa Mann, Sage Karam, Jack Harvey, Oriol Servia, Jay Howard, and Zach Veach.

The reigning Series Champion is Simon Pagenaud, who drives for Team Penske. Pagenaud, who hails from Poitiers, France, is in his third season with Team Penske, and 2016 marked his first series title.

Drivers in the series represent twelve different countries around the globe, making it a truly international field.

About the Series

The current Verizon IndyCar Series was born out of the Indy Racing League, which absorbed the rival ChampCar World Series in 2008. In the years since the reunification, the series has seen steady growth in attendance and television ratings.

The positive growth in recent years bodes well for the Series that is owned by Hulman and Company. The centerpiece of the series is the Indianapolis 500, which will run for the 101st time in May. Mark Miles is the Chief Executive of Hulman and Company, and Jay Frye is the President of Competition and Operations for the Verizon Indycar Series.

Teams in the series use a common chassis, the Dallara DW-12, named in honor of the late Dan Wheldon, who did much of the development testing of the car. The chassis has aerodynamic components that differ according to the engine manufacturer. The 2017 rules called for a freeze on aero-kit development, in anticipation of a common aero package for 2018.

Chevrolet and Honda are the engine partners for the Series with each supplying a 2.2 Liter V-6 turbocharged engine to the teams that are capable of producing over 700 hp at 12200 rpm. All cars in the series run Firestone Firehawk tires.

Where and When to Watch

Tickets for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented bu PennGrade Motor Oil can be purchased here. Limited tickets still available in the price range of $78.00-$118.00. General admission tickets are $40.00 and may be purchased at the gate.

Television coverage of the race will be provided by ABC-TV.  Race coverage will begin at 12:00 noon EDT on Sunday May 28. Other coverage options include Sirius XM radio (Sirius:209, XM:212), the Verizon IndyCar Series You Tube Channel, Facebook Page or at Fans can also keep up with all of the action on the IndyCar Mobile app provided by Verizon Communications.

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A life-long racing enthusiast, Santoroski attended his first live race in 1978, the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen. Following graduation from Averett College, Santoroski covered the CART series through the 1990s and 2000s for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports in addition to freelance writing for various print and web sources. He produces a variety of current and historical content for Motorsports Tribune and serves as the host for the weekly radio broadcast,Drafting the Circuits,