With 101 days until the milestone 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, attentions are already focused on this most historic race.
The 2016 “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” takes on greater significance because the driver who wins will be forever regarded unlike any past winner other than perhaps the man who captured immortality by winning the very first Indy 500 in 1911, Ray Harroun.
Four rising stars of the Verizon IndyCar Series – James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and Josef Newgarden – are race winners at other series events, but haven’t tasted the milk at Indianapolis Motor Speedway yet. Each has an interesting take on what it would mean to win the legendary 100th running this May.
Hinchcliffe has score to settle with Indianapolis Motor Speedway
At 29, Hinchcliffe is the oldest of the four. The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver has made four career starts in the 500, with a best finish of sixth in 2012.
“In a lot of ways I think (winning the 100th) would be the same as winning the 94th or the 105th,” Hinchcliffe said. “It's the greatest race in the world. Is it cool to say you won the 100th? Yeah. But does it really matter? No. We try to win it every May.”
Hinchcliffe has extra incentive. He wants to return and conquer the track that almost took his life in a serious practice crash last May.
“I won’t have full closure until I come back here and race in May,” he said.
Andretti realizes significance of the 100th running
Andretti – who turns 29 on March 13, the day of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – has the greatest number of starts (10) and the best overall finishes of the “young guns,” including runner-up in his Indy 500 debut (2006) and third-place showings in 2008, 2010 and 2014.
“I want to win it every year,” said Andretti. “There's something to be said about Ray Harroun, the first one (to win the 500),” Marco said, “but the 100th one would be a milestone and set the tone for the next 100 years. If there's a year to do it, it's a good one.”
Andretti, of course, is the third-generation racer whose grandfather, Mario, won in 1969 but suffered numerous heartbreaks when another Indianapolis 500 victory seemed well in hand. Marco’s father, Michael, also was in position to win Indianapolis on several occasions and has led more Indianapolis 500 laps (431) than anyone who has not won the big race.
Marco, though, doesn’t think about lineage when it comes to winning the Indianapolis 500.
“It's killing me not having a win,” Marco said. “It doesn't matter if my last name was Smith or Andretti, I want to win.”
Rahal looks to continue 30-year family tradition
Rahal turned 27 in January. He has eight previous Indianapolis 500 starts, with best finishes of third in 2011 and fifth in 2015. The prospect of winning this year has a special meaning for the son of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing co-owner and 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal.
Graham has made it a pattern of following his dad’s key achievements 30 years later. Graham was the Formula Atlantic national champion in 2005, 30 years after Bobby. Graham was part of the winning team in the Rolex 24 At Daytona sports car race in 2011, again 30 years after Bobby. In 2015, 30 years after Bobby won the Indy car race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Graham did the same.
“For me, the Indy 500 is the race that transformed the Rahal name forever in 1986 and that was 30 years ago,” Graham said. “So to win 30 years after that … I hope the tradition continues.
“You want to win it every season, but the 100th would be pretty damn cool.”
Newgarden appreciates longevity of the race
Newgarden, 25, will drive in his fifth Indianapolis 500 this May, coming off a best career finish of ninth in 2015.
“I think we all feel the same way about it,” Newgarden said. “You want to win it regardless of the year. It doesn't matter.
“There's going to be a certain magnitude of it with it being the 100th running. How many sporting events have gone that many years? There's not many you're going to be able to count. It's a very special deal to be part of.”
‘Old guys’ rule Indy in recent years
Winning the Indianapolis 500 has been all about experience in recent years. There hasn’t been a champion under 30 years old since Scott Dixon won at age 27 in 2008.
“I think it would be cool for somebody under 30 to do it,” Rahal said. “At the same time, you have to appreciate the guys that are currently doing it. Scott Dixon, no matter how you look at it, he's going to go down as the best ever, certainly one of them. Guys like (Will) Power, Helio (Castroneves), (Juan Pablo) Montoya. These guys have been champions for a reason. You're competing against the best to ever do this.
“It's cool for guys like us. We're still young guns, I suppose, but you're getting the opportunity to race against guys that, quite frankly, I watched as a kid.”