Preview: The world's greatest race is back

Things have changed at the Indianapolis 500 this year. Instead of talk and controversy about the drivers who aren't in the field, this year the focus is on the drivers who are in the world's biggest race.

Preview: The world's greatest race is back

Ever since 1996, when CART teams decided they would not compete in the Indianapolis 500 because of their opposition to the Indy Racing League, a tremendous amount of attention has been placed on the drivers who weren't in the event. Names such as two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr, Michael Andretti, Jimmy Vasser and the most successful team owner in Indianapolis 500, Roger Penske, were not in the race.

Well, five years later, those names are back. Combine that with the continued growth of teams in the IRL, which have grown in professionalism and competitiveness since the inaugural season in 1996, and this year's Indianapolis 500 may be the deepest, most competitive in years.

In fact, it is better than in the pre-1996 Indy 500s, when - with a few exceptions - the line-up was the entire CART series, plus whoever Team Menard and Hemelgarn Racing had entered in the event. Team Menard and Hemelgarn Racing only competed in the Indianapolis 500 in the years before the creation of the IRL, but have gone on to become championship teams in the Indy car series.

This year's Indianapolis 500 has the best in the IRL, the best in CART and perhaps the best driver in NASCAR Winston Cup racing in Tony Stewart. The driver from Rushville, Indiana, who won the 1997 IRL season title will attempt to drive in both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowes Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina for the second time in his career. He is one of four drivers for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing - a CART team that is the defending winner of this race after Juan Montoya led 167 of the 200 laps in last year's 500.

About the only driver missing from this year's field is Montoya, who has moved on to Formula 1 but will race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the United States Grand Prix in September.

"Like I've said before, the more the merrier," said two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, back from a one-year retirement in an attempt to become a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner. "For years, I've said the race is an open invitation and whoever showed up is who we are going to race against. Whoever didn't show up, it's their loss.

"If they stay home this weekend, it's their loss."

Team Penske has brought a full-scale operation to the 85th Indianapolis 500 with defending CART champion Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves adding further lustre to the traditional event.

While sceptics and critics have loudly attacked the Indy 500 since the time of the split, saying the event had lost its claim as the greatest race in the world, Penske strongly disagrees.

"There is no race bigger than Indy, don't let anybody kid themselves," Penske said. "The benefits that accrue out of winning Indy for our company and our people over the years, you can't add it up. The Daytona 500 is a great race, but there is only one Indianapolis.

"In NASCAR and in Formula 1, there is nothing that has the crowd, that has the two weeks ahead of it with the qualifying drama. To me, it's the biggest race. That is why we decided as a group that we want to go back there and compete again."

Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George created the Indy Racing League in 1996 to help create opportunity for other teams and drivers to race in the Indianapolis 500.

Eddie Cheever is a former Formula 1 driver who has also raced in CART before joining the IRL in 1996. Cheever won the 1998 Indianapolis 500 in a hard-fought battle against 1996 Indy 500 champion Buddy Lazier.

Cheever believes it's about time that some of the drivers from CART have realised the importance of the Indianapolis 500.

"How can you be racing open wheel racing and not compete in the Indianapolis 500?" Cheever asked. "I could win at Texas 10 times in a row and not have half the value of being on the pole in the Indianapolis, much less winning the race.

"All of racing in America, and most of the racing in the world, generated from this race - the Indianapolis 500. I never have to explain to anybody in the world what is the Indianapolis 500. It really isn't that complicated to participate. All you have to do is go out and buy a car and go out and buy an engine."

When it comes to defending the IRL, Cheever is its most articulate spokesman. He has strong views and opinions on why the IRL is getting some momentum and why the Indianapolis 500 has returned to glory.

"I'm not embarrassed to admit that I'm very biased towards the IRL," Cheever said. "I believe Tony George's vision is a correct one. Tony George is a very quiet man. IRL drivers had a very hard time for five years because the assumption was, and it was done by all the other drivers in other open wheel series is that if you don't race with us, you are either incompetent or you can't find a good enough drive to go drive somewhere else. In that category, they were putting all of the NASCAR drivers, the IRL drivers, anybody who was not competing in their series.

"I think that was very short-termed and it was wrong. Even amongst thieves, there is a little bit of honour. For one racing driver to say the other one is not competent, I think is really silly."

It's the Indianapolis 500 and this year it has proven to be bigger than any one series or any one driver.

"I am glad the focus is on the drivers and it's going to be an exciting Indianapolis 500," Cheever said. "I think the entries from the other open wheel series will be formidable and will be very hard to beat as you have drivers here. I've raced against a lot of people in my life from Ayrton Senna to Alain Prost to AJ Foyt to Rick Mears. I can categorically tell you that one of the hardest, most aggressive racing drivers I have ever raced against is Buddy Lazier. He is really tough.

"Sam Hornish Jr looks like he can't make a mistake right now. We all know how good Michael Andretti is and the Penske team. There are a lot of different stories out there. I think the fans will gain the most for it, but I think our principles are correct and the principles that guide (CART) are wrong. Our guiding light is equal access to technology, make sure you put the driver safety first and make sure the fans have a race that you don't know who will win."

One thing is certain, however - the CART teams that have returned to the Indianapolis 500 are doing so on George's terms, which means no team or driver in the field has an unfair advantage.

"This is going to be one of the strongest races in the last 10 years, for sure," Luyendyk said. "In 1990, when I won, there were the chosen few that had the Ilmor Chevy engines. In those days, that's what you knew was going on. There were 15 guys who didn't have that motor and if they were really lucky, they could win, but probably not.

"You don't have that now. Because of the equipment, everybody has what the other guy has and that makes it more competitive. The fact everybody runs on the same tires makes that competitiveness higher."

With some of the glamour teams of the sport competing in the race, along with the hard-chargers of the IRL, Sunday's Indy 500 underlines just how important this race really is.

"It only enhances the importance and aura of this race," Luyendyk said. "Michael Andretti has always voiced this, I don't want to call it grief, but he's always been kind of ticked off that he hasn't been driving here so now he is finally back and he's really happy. The lure of this race is always there for the teams and the drivers so you can't discount that. If just goes to show that this is the race that everybody wants to be at and wants to win. It has such a history, and everything about it. Last year, when Ganassi came here, it said to the other guys, 'OK, I think we have to go back there.' It always takes one time or one person to take a step in a certain way.

"It's only good for the sport. I have a great love for open wheel racing and anything good for open wheel racing is good for me."

During the IRL era, Lazier has been one of the most successful drivers at Indianapolis. His victory in 1996 came just two months after breaking his back in a crash at Phoenix International Raceway. It continues to stand as one of the most heroic victories in Indianapolis 500 history.

"There's no other race like the Indy 500," Lazier said. "It certainly would not feel like this at any of race. It's just that big of an event and there's just that much on the line. As soon as I strap in the car, I feel good.

"I'm ready to go."

And, so is the Indianapolis 500 - ready to continue as the biggest auto race in the world.

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