Indy 500 takes spotlight for IndyCar Series on an uptick

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis 500 was once considered one of the top sporting events of the year, an iconic, milk-drenched staple of Memorial Day weekend filled with patriotism and nostalgia, triumph and disappointment.

It is nearly impossible to maintain reverential status for 103 years, and the Indy 500, like almost everything in sports, has had its declines. Huge crowds no longer jam the grandstands to watch qualifying or Carb Day, and the economics of racing and sponsorship has pared down the entry list.

But IndyCar is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, and interest in a series largely supported by “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is slowly returning. The hype has certainly been high at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year, where a strong infield crowd attended practice days.

The race itself, which will broadcast for the first time by NBC, could be a good one. Qualifying for Sunday’s race produced the tightest Indy 500 field in history with only 1.8 mph separating pole sitter Simon Pagenaud at 229.992 mph from Pippa Mann, the slowest qualifier at 227.224.

There were 36 entrants, which meant three drivers would not make the field, and once-proud McLaren was humiliated to miss the race with superstar Fernando Alonso.

The Indy 500 will still draw at least 250,000 people — more if Sunday’s forecast didn’t call for rain — and those who show will be treated to a true spectacle. IndyCar, slow in rebuilding, is on the up, and drivers argue the on-track product is better than anything.

“It’s the most competitive racing series in the world. It’s the tightest,” said Northern California’s Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 champion as a rookie after he flamed out in Formula One. “On any weekend, you have no idea who is going to win the race.”

Rossi is starting on the third row in ninth position and is one of several serious contenders. IndyCar has had five different winners through its first five races this year. Pagenaud is the favorite to repeat his win from two weeks ago on Indy’s road course.

Team owner Roger Penske could not be more pleased. While celebrating the 50th anniversary of his first Indy 500, he is going for his 18th win in the showcase race and has four cars that are capable of winning. Along with Pagenaud the team has defending winner Will Power, three-time winner Helio Castroneves and former series champion Josef Newgarden.

“I think the good thing that’s happening in IndyCar, the races are shorter (than NASCAR), we have diversity across the field, people are racing (from) different countries, and to me, I think we’re on a good ride,” he said.

Castroneves will again go for a record-tying fourth victory, a mark he’s desperately chasing in the final years of his career. He is trying to join A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr. as four-time winners.

“Only a few guys have done that. I dream big,” Castroneves said. “I definitely want to make it happen and I won’t give up that easy. Someone can say ‘Nah, it’s never going to happen.’ As long as I have an opportunity, I’m going to keep trying.”

Jenna Fryer is an Associated Press writer.

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