Opening practice for the 105th Indianapolis 500 starts on Tuesday, bringing with it a huge stride toward to a more ‘normal’ Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Crowds will be back, the Month of May is happening in actual May rather than August, and autograph collectors looking for that elusive Rocky Moran Jr signature to complete their 2015 season collection will again be able to scour the memorabilia show. RACER’s Robin Miller and Marshall Pruett discuss some the subplots they’ll be following over the next couple of weeks.
MARSHALL PRUETT: Well, before we get into all of the other hot topics, the first one we need to acknowledge is one that has nothing to do with teams or drivers. It’s engines. Especially after Honda caught Chevy by surprise last year and owned the Indy 500 from start to finish. We rarely see that kind of domination, so I’m left wondering if and how much Chevy has caught up with its speedway engine package ,and if the 18 Chevies in the field will be on equal footing, at minimum. Or was Honda’s advantage so big that it would be nearly impossible to bridge that gap since August? The Open Test last month suggested there wasn’t much to choose from both engines, but what do you think?
ROBIN MILLER: You also cover IMSA where the engines never show their hand in testing for fear of being cut back, but I honestly think Chevy and Honda looked to be about as close as they’ve ever been coming off last month’s test. I suppose the key will be fuel mileage, so we’ve got the next two weeks to see who’s done a better job.
MP: Whatever Chevy had and Honda had last year going into qualifying didn’t change by the race when a lot of new latest-spec motors were installed, so this weekend should tell us a lot. What are the other big themes you’re tracking coming into the 500?
RM: My season preview for RACER said the kiddie corps would be taking over, and after five races we’ve got three new winners in Palou, O’Ward and Veekay, and Herta also in victory lane, so it’s the young-uns 4-1 (Dixon has the other win), and we’ll see if this trend continues in the biggest race of the year. Indy is usually about experience, but these kids are on a fast learning curve. And did I mention that Team Penske is winless in 2021? Does that end May 30th?
MP: Let’s dive into the expected contenders. I’m loving the momentum Ed Carpenter Racing is bringing into the 500. Graham Rahal is looking really strong at Rahal Letterman Lanigan. His teammate Takuma Sato, our most recent Indy winner, less so. Chip Ganassi’s drivers – all four – were impressive at Texas and Kanaan really seemed to love his possibilities. Scott McLaughlin goes second on his oval debut for Penske and Josef Newgarden backs it up with another second the next day. The Andretti team has been all over the place. Arrow McLaren SP were beasts in the one oval we’ve been to so far. What do we make out of teams and drivers going into the 500, and who are you expecting to be factors?
RM: Dixie is the 4-1 favorite for a reason, and showed at Texas he can still be in another time zone on ovals. Rahal was quick in the test and at Texas, and I think Indy is his kind of race. Newgarden needs to put his face on the Borg Warner Trophy and he’s always at the front. It’s about time for Rossi to return to form, and what better place than the track he seems to love. Power is a wildcard, just like Sato, and you know they’ll be fast, but you don’t know if they’ll be fast enough. O’Ward has Craig Hampson in his corner so I expect him to be a contender, and Palou and VeeKay have to merit attention. Ditto for Herta.
MP: I have no feel for which Indy-only entries are going to run well. Any of them that you like?
RM: Kanaan had fast time in practice at Texas but had to start in the back when qualifying was postponed, and you know he knows this is his best chance in a long time. And Ferrucci will be fun to watch because he’s back in his element. Just don’t have a feel for JPM and Helio and how they’re going to gel with their new teams.
MP: Montoya had a forgettable debut with the AMSP team, but wasn’t discouraged afterwards. Hampson’s in his timing stand, so we shouldn’t sleep on those guys. And Simona De Silvestro’s back in a car owned and engineered by Team Penske, which is the dream scenario you and I have spoken about a hundred times since she exploded onto the IndyCar scene. And we can’t forget the super American combo of JR Hildebrand and the Foyt team. Wish I could tell you who I thought is destined for a happy result.
Changing gears, we did a story last week on the teams and drivers in need of miracles. I really think Ed Jones is going to get his mojo back and deliver for Dale Coyne and James Sullivan and Jimmy Vasser. They can turn the season around with a solid run. Who are the other drivers you’re watching and have marked as ones who can use the 500 to lift their fortunes?
RM: Edward Carpenter. He’s only a couple Mays removed from fighting Power for the victory and people say he’s too old (40), but nobody gets around IMS better and I look for him to make a major rebound. Obviously, Rossi is 14th in the points standings and a podium or better at Indy is imperative to his having any chance at a championship.
MP: How about the ones who might get nowhere close to the Fast Nine, or might be resigned to qualifying on the last few rows? Not everybody has an awesome 500.
RM: Dalton Kellett and Max Chilton will likely start deep like they did a year ago.
MP: So, the ugly end of the business. There are 35 entries for 33 starting spots, which doesn’t fit, but this isn’t everybody-gets-a-trophy racing, so two are going home at the end of the coming weekend. If I’m worries for two entries, it’s Dennis Reinbold and his No. 24 Chevy for Sage Karam, and the No. 75 Top Gun Racing Chevy with RC Enerson. The Dreyer & Reinbold Racing guys have really struggled in recent years, even with an oval ace like JR Hildebrand in the second car. Going down to one car with Sage is smart from a focus and concentration standpoint, but that’s also half the data to look through and find whatever speed might be missing.
And with Top Gun, they’re so far behind everyone else. To their benefit, they hired Roy Wilkerson, who’s been in IndyCar forever, as their crew chief, and Roy knows how to do things properly. So they have a chance, just like everyone else, but man, new team, new car, rookie driver, no laps at the Speedway, and starting this Tuesday, they have a couple of days to get the car sorted out, get Enerson through ROP, get up to speed, and then knock off two veteran teams to make the field of 33.
I’m not saying it’s impossible though. How’s this: If the No. 75 Chevy makes the show, it would bump Juncos Racing and Kyle Kaiser booting McLaren and Fernando Alonso from the show in 2019 down to No. 2 on the list of modern upsets. Who are your ‘Be smart and book early flights home after qualifying just in case you need them’ twosome?
RM: Enerson. You figure Top Gun is the longest shot with zero experience. And after that, I have no idea.
MP: You pissed off Marco Andretti with your story recapping his full-time IndyCar career after announcing he’s only doing the Indy 500 this year. He’s the defending polesitter, obviously, but does his absence from the first five races – I know he did the Open Test at Indy – help or hinder his chances this month? Does the mental break bring him closer to that life-altering win?
RM: Who knows? How can you win the pole and never be a factor on race day? Does the time off ease the pressure and make things more fun? We know he’s fast and he’s always run well at Indianapolis, but none of us know what’s inside that helmet.
MP: Is there a driver you look at and put into a ‘If the Racing Gods care, they’ll make sure this person gets their first Indy 500 win, or deserves another win?’ I know I have my same pick for the last decade-plus.
RM: Carpenter, Andretti, and Rahal.
MP: I’ll add in Dixon for the umpteenth time. It would be strange to have him retire with a single victory and a gaudy number of championships. So, let’s close on what’s got to be the biggest positive: We have fans back at the 500. Even the memorabilia show is back. I won’t be there, unfortunately, but you will. How ‘normal’ do you think it will feel?
RM: It looked normal at the road race and I’m sure if will feel like Indy on race morning. Why don’t you send me a credit card so I can go spend your usual $500 at the memorabilia show?