Well, the Brickyard's there to crucify anyone who will not learn.
I climbed a mountain to qualify, I went flat through the turns...
But I was down in the might-have-beens, and an old pal good as died
And I sat down in Gasoline Alley and I cried.
-Mark Knopfler, "Speedway at Nazareth"
The last 20 years at Indianapolis, there have been few months of any intrigue. Largely identical cars, a largely set field of drivers, and a remarkable safety record that seemed to take the edge off of the month.
There will be none of those complaints about 2015. The debut of aero kits brought full-scale war back to the Speedway, and with it came secret parts and hidden tricks. What also came, unfortunately, was increased danger. Helio Castroneves tested special extra low-drag sidepods on his Chevrolet, it snapped around, and after hitting the South Chute wall went airborne rear-first, and landed on it's roof. The next day, Josef Newgarden, same type of sidepods, went over sideways after contact. And later in the week, his teammate Ed Carpenter, also with those sidepods, made heavy contact in Turn 2, rotating the car onto it's roof via the catchfencing, similar to Rick Mears' infamous 1991 wreck. After the 3rd flip of the week, IndyCar made big changes - you had to qualify with your race aero setup, which meant Chevy had to abandon the special aero pieces, and the additional boost that had been added to speed cars up during qualifying was taken away. A shortened qualifying session had no incidents, and the field was set.
Monday morning seemed to bring some reassurance that the cars were in a manageable range again and the drivers would be safe if any more accidents occurred. That assurance was shattered in that day's practice session, when a suspension rocker broke on James Hinchcliffe's Honda, sending the car spearing into the SAFER barrier at over 220 MPH. A brutal impact wiped out the right side of the car (sending it, too, briefly upside-down), and impaled Hinchcliffe with a suspension arm. Critically wounded, IndyCar's excellent Holmatro Safety Team cut him out of the car, and quickly got him to a nearby hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery. Today, he's out of the ICU and on the road to a full recovery, but with chilling stories now out about how close he came to death, there's still a specter hanging over the 500.
Racers race, however, so that will not stop the 2015 Indianapolis 500 from going green on Sunday, with 33 drivers taking part. Up front, expect two major stories to dominate the day. First, the weather, which currently looks somewhat iffy in Indianapolis on Sunday, meaning Race Strategists may have to adjust to a rain shortened event. More prominent, however, will be the aforementioned aero kits. Chevy has had a clear advantage throughout the month, and took a full 9 of the top 12 starting positions, including locking out the front row. But qualifying speed often betrays race pace, and if the Hondas can handle traffic better, or get better mileage, then all bets are off.
Another thing to look for with the aero kits is the "tow", or drafting and slipstreaming capabilities the cars possess. The last 3 years with the Dallara kits have seen Indianapolis turn into a sort of Talladega-Lite, where cars line up one after the other, and trade positions on a lap by lap, and even corner by corner, basis. While we may not see the insane duel that last years 500 provided, expect the updated cars to still be able to close up and slingshot past quite well.
Calling an actual winner in this one is almost impossible at this point. The cynics have this wicked month closed out with a boring race, and a virtually flag-to-flag walkover by 2008 winner Scott Dixon. I'm not saying this isn't possible, especially with a Chip Ganassi car, but the field is far too close for that, and honestly, you get the feeling that if he was going to win another 500 he would have it already. A safer bet is 3 time winner Castroneves, who could very well mirror Mears in having the scary wreck in practice, only to drink the milk for the fourth time that same year. Dixon's teammate, 2012 winner Tony Kanaan is also a legitimate threat from 4th. Despite their speed through the month, front row starting Penske drivers Will Power and Simon Pagenaud are probably mild longshots, simply because they've never had much success here in the past. Pagenaud's been impressive in practice, however, and has Mears guiding him, so he could surprise. Juan Pablo Montoya, who dominated the 2000 race, mystifyingly qualified mid-pack, but his race pace won't be much of an issue. The CFH Racing trio of Newgarden, Carpenter, and J.R. Hildebrand have all been incredibly fast and have solid records on the ovals; they will be legitimate threats and could all be in contention at the end. Sebastien Bourdais is with KV Racing, who won with Kanaan, and that alone would give hope to a driver who has not been as successful on the ovals. Townsend Bell will inevitably be there at the end, whether or not this one-race-a-year team can compete with the powerhouses is another question. Charlie Kimball will be Charlie Kimball and near the front when you least expect it, but not really in contention for the win. Sage Karam, Sebastian Saavedra, Stefano Coletti, and Bryan Clausen...well, they're in the race.
On the Honda side of things, Andretti Autosport comes loaded for bear with defending champ Ryan Hunter Reay, arguably Honda's best shot at a win despite a deep in the pack start, Marco Andretti, who is cursed, Carlos Munoz, who could compete if he can channel his aggression, Simona de Silvestro, who is the woman with the best shot at a win, and fastest qualifying Honda Justin Wilson, who is Justin Wilson and will be further up the field than you think. Graham Rahal didn't qualify great, but his killer instinct seems to be back, and Indianapolis would be a perfect place for a second win. His teammate Oriol Servia is a one race ringer but has been quick all month. SPM replaced Hinchcliffe with former Penske driver Ryan Briscoe, by far the best and most qualified candidate available. Alex Tagliani and Takuma Sato are probably faster than what they've shown so far. James Jakes and Alex Tagliani, are probably destined to run mid-pack, and Conor Daly, Jack Hawksworth, and Gabby Chaves are essentially just hoping to learn something. Dale Coyne Racing? Well, Carlos Huertas was decently quick, but him, Pippa Mann, and James Davison are likely destined to be, well, might-have-beens.
The dangers of auto racing, specifically open wheel formula car racing on an oval, have been on clear display this past month. But for the 33 men and women who will take the green flag on Sunday, that is no deterrent. Indianapolis is the greatest prize of them all, a chance to grasp immortality and place one's name amongst the all-time greats.
The 99th Indianapolis 500 is this Sunday at 12PM EST.