LOS ANGELES — Practice for the 96th Indianapolis 500 is under way with Pole Day set for Saturday.
The traditional 33-car starting lineup was in doubt earlier in May after Newman-Haas Racing withdrew. The winning Michael Shank team from endurance sports car racing could not obtain an engine from the three manufacturers. Other entries joined the field and it reached 33 or 34 cars.
The most surprising entrant was a new Indiana-based, Lotus-powered Indy Car team co-owned by two-time Indy 500 driver Tyce Carlson (a USAC veteran) and three partners.
Their driver is Jean Alesi, a 47-year old FIA Formula One veteran with no oval track racing experience. He has 201 F-1 starts for six teams during 13 years (last start in 2001). He scored one F-1 victory (for Ferrari). Alesi is a Lotus contract driver/ambassador who most recently raced German Touring Cars Series events and the 24 Hours of Le Mans (2010) French classic.
One has to wonder why he is making this attempt in a much different racing discipline and for a brand new IZOD Indy Car Series (IICS) team. The black and gold No. 64 Fan Force United team, which has raced two Indy Lights cars recently, hired Indy 500 experienced personnel, including team manager Greg Beck and 500 winning team engineer Tim Wardrop.
Despite concerns by some about the 2012 Indy 500, the race has many intriguing elements. They include the new 2012 chassis for all teams, three V-6 turbocharged engine manufacturers, an interesting field of eight rookie Indy 500 drivers, talented depth in the 500 driver field with numerous series champions and race winners from various racing series (including Champ Car), dominant Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi teams on opposite sides of the Chevrolet-Honda engine battle, plus the Indy 500 is round five and the first oval track race for the new car/engine package.
Additionally, close finishes and late race lead battles have been the Indianapolis 500 norm this decade and the 2012 race should continue that trend. The exciting Sam Hornish pass of Marco Andretti at the checkered flag to win the 2006 Indy 500, and the surprising 2011 Indy finish when apparent winner J.R. Hildebrand hit the turn four wall and coasted across the finish line second behind winner Dan Wheldon are two of the most exciting and memorable Indy 500s in history.
Eight American-born drivers are in the field dominated by foreign-born drivers. The 2012 Indy field includes three prior Indy 500 winners — Castroneves (3), Franchitti (2) and Dixon (1).
• New IICS race director Beaux Barfield has replaced long-time Indy Car race director Brian Barnhart in that job for all 2012 IICS races including the 500. With speeds down this year, officials recently announced an increase in turbo boost by 10 from 30 to 40 for practice and qualifying, but not for race day. It is expected the increased boost will supply 40-50 more HP.
• Ex-Lotus, now Chevrolet team Dreyer-Reinbold (No. 22 Oriol Servia) and Panther (No. 4 J.R. Hildebrand) have joined forces officially and moved under the same Panther Racing roof. That should make the sixth-place and second-place finishers from the 2011 Indy 500 even stronger as a dual, cooperative entry instead of single-car operations.
• A 2013 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 will pace the 2012 Indy 500. It is the most powerful GM production car. The 6.2-liter engine produces 638 horsepower and accelerates from 0-60 mph in 3.4 seconds. Top speed is 205 mph. This year is the 60th anniversary of the first year Corvette paced the 500 field in 1978. The 2012 pace car driver is Guy Fieri, a Food Network TV host.
• Actor-singer Jim Nabors, 81, is having heart valve surgery this month and will be unable to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” in person on race day. A TV production crew from Indianapolis will fly to Hawaii (Nabors’ home) soon to record him singing the beloved Hoosier song. The tape will be played on race day for the expected 250,000-plus crowd and for the massive ABC-TV audience. Nabors began singing the song at the 500 in 1972; he has sung the Hoosier anthem each year since 1987. He missed only one year (2007) because of poor health.
• Retired Indy Car driver A. J. Foyt IV, 28, and his wife Casey Irsay Foyt (daughter of NFL Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay), married in July 2009. They are awaiting the July 21 birth of their second child, a son, and Jim’s fourth grandchild. Their first son, A. J. Foyt V “Cinco,” was born Sept. 18, 2010. The dapper 19-month old youngster reportedly loves football, golf and cars and sleeps with a die-cast Indy car. Casey and her two sisters are vice presidents/owners of the Colts.
A.J. IV serves as a Colts scouting assistant for his father-in-law. AJ IV or “Quatro” is a six-time Indy 500 starter from 2003-09 for three teams. He missed the 2006 race because of an injury. He did not make the 2010 field after trying to qualify the car on day one and relinquishing the ride to another driver. He did not race in 2011.
• Ana Beatriz, 27, (full name is Ana “Bia” Beatriz Caselato Gomes de Figueiredo) is one of three female 500 drivers this year. Swiss-miss Simona de Silvestro is the other Indy 500 veteran. England’s Katherine Legge is a 500 rookie for Jay Penske’s Dragon Racing. She has two years Indy Car experience with Champ Car in 2006-07.
Female drivers in the 2011 Indy 500 missing from the entry list this year are: Pippa Mann, a 2011 Indy 500 rookie from Britain, and of course Danica Patrick, a 2005-11 Indy veteran now busy in NASCAR’s two top divisions – Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series.
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