Is it May yet?
OK, maybe the sudden urge for spring weather has something to do with the polar vortex deep freeze that left much of the U.S. and Canada shivering this week, but it’s still difficult to stop thinking about the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
The latest teaser is Conor Daly, who announced Wednesday that he'll be driving a fifth Andretti Autosport car — the No. 25 U.S. Air Force Honda — in the 2019 Indianapolis 500. That brings the confirmed drivers for the race to 29 and that doesn't include at least one more to come from Carlin, which has not yet announced full plans for its second car, and perhaps two from Juncos Racing.
Essentially, with less than four months to qualifying weekend, as few as one spot in the field of 33 remains unfilled. More drivers are trying to put together programs for the race, which has some experts predicting as many as 40 hoping to earn a spot in the race on May 26. One is most certainly Pippa Mann, who tweeted her congratulations to Daly after the announcement and added: “Hopefully I’ll get to join you back out there this May.”
Full field and bumping aside, there's the added intrigue of two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso returning to Indianapolis Motor Speedway after a one-year hiatus. The Spanish driver will arrive in Indianapolis hoping to succeed in his second attempt to capture the last jewel in motorsport's Triple Crown. The only driver to win all three — the Indianapolis 500, Monaco Grand Prix and 24 Hours of Le Mans — is the late Graham Hill.
The Indianapolis 500's debut on NBC also creates anticipation, as the NTT IndyCar Series' exclusive television partner in the U.S. plans to promote the race as part of its flagship sports stable that includes hockey's Stanley Cup, horse racing's Triple Crown and tennis' French Open. The network will serve up “unparalleled support surrounding the 103rd Indianapolis 500,” something that gives fans at home even more reason to tune in to the world's largest single-day sporting event.
On-track action notwithstanding, one of the most compelling reasons to want May to arrive is its historical significance. The 103rd Indy 500 weekend marks the 50th anniversary of racing legend Mario Andretti's 1969 triumph, the only driver win at the famed 2.5-mile track for the famous motorsport family.
The man voted “Driver of the Century” by the Associated Press scored a welcomed and incredible victory in 1969 after a problem with a wheel on his first pit stop meant he couldn't change his right rear Firestone tire for the entire 500-mile race.
“It held out and we did it,” Andretti said.
“I was running up front, so I didn't want to sit there and lose a lap because they were trying to take the freaking tire off. I kept looking at it in my rear-view mirror and if I would have seen big time cords (on the tire), I would have come in.”
The win was doubly amazing because Andretti started the race in his backup car after a huge practice crash totaled his primary vehicle. Although luck was with the 1978 Formula One champion that afternoon in 1969, it escaped him at every other Indy 500 and Andretti drank the milk only once in 29 attempts.
Fittingly, IMS is going all out to celebrate Andretti's only Indy 500 victory, including a special exhibit opening May 1 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum that includes several historic cars he drove in his illustrious career.
Andretti's win is the also focus of the 2019 IMS bronze badges, available for purchase allowing fans access to Gasoline Alley throughout May, except on INDYCAR Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 race days. In addition, a special artwork of Andretti's 1969 victory will grace the cover of the Indy 500 program, as will a commemorative logo created to mark the anniversary. IMS gift shops will also have many officially licensed Mario Andretti items for fans to take home.
While May is still months away, the good news is that the cars will hit the track in less than two weeks for NTT IndyCar Series Spring Training, the two-day open test at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. It’s the first official gathering of all full-season entries plus a few part-timers as well. The first day of the test, Tuesday, Feb. 12, will stream live on IndyCar.com.
Just three weeks after that is the season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10. And all the excitement of May won't be far behind.