The great names were there. A.J. Foyt stood in the garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Saturday, offering last-minute instructions to his driver, Takuma Sato, before the start of qualifying for Sunday's Indianapolis 500. The silver-haired Roger Penske, whose cars have won the race 15 times, chatted with one of his drivers, Helio Castroneves, on pit road. And Michael Andretti huddled with his son Marco before his boy slid into his car for his qualifying attempt.
Yet the fact that the most identifiable figures in IndyCar are team owners underscores how far the sport has receded in the national consciousness. In the 1970s and '80s, when red-white-and-blue drivers such as Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser were competing for 500 victories, Indy racing had a strong foothold in the sporting landscape. And young kids like Tony Stewart, growing up in Columbus, Ind., dreamed of one day winning at the Brickyard, not joining NASCAR. But after the disastrous split in American open-wheel racing (into CART and IndyCar) in '96, attendance and TV ratings eroded and young, talented drivers with open-wheel backgrounds, like Stewart, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne, began to leave the sport for stock cars. In 2011, Danica Patrick became the latest big name to bolt IndyCar for a ride in NASCAR.
But to those who have been paying attention, the 2013 IndyCar season has been one of the most compelling in recent memory. Last year Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport combined to win 13 of the 15 races, which tended to be predictable, follow-the-leader, parade-style runs. This year there have been three different winners in the first four races, and in S√£o Paulo, on May 5, third-year driver James Hinchcliffe passed Sato on the last turn of the last lap for the win. "I truly believe the sport is turning a major corner," says the 26-year-old Hinchcliffe, who finished sixth at Indy last year. "We're entering a growth period. The quality of our on-track racing right now is higher than any other form of American motor sports."
Last Saturday, in the biggest upset of the IndyCar season, Ed Carpenter—the only owner-driver in the series—won the pole for this Sunday's race, outrunning the likes of rookie Carlos Mu√±oz (who'll start second) and Marco Andretti (third) from the five-car, heavyweight Andretti Autosport team. "This is just the first part of what we want to do," said Carpenter, 32. "To fight with the Penskes and Andrettis is an accomplishment in itself."
Will he take them down on Sunday? In a field that features 15 drivers with a realistic shot at the checkered flag, SI's pick is Hinchcliffe, a charismatic Canadian who replaced Patrick in the green-and-black Go Daddy car last year. He's won two races this season and has consistently been at or near the top of the speed chart during practice sessions this month at Indy. There is a sense in IndyCar that Hinchcliffe is poised to be the sport's next big thing—and a win on Sunday in front of what will be the largest single-day sports crowd in the world this year (about 300,000) will go a long way toward affirming just that.
'Tis the Season
Christmas is seven months away, but the giving spirit abounds in the sports world. Last week Tulsa Shock star Skylar Diggins got a sweet gift from her agent, Jay-Z, upon her graduation from business school at Notre Dame: a Mercedes SUV. ("I got 99 problems but a BENZ ain't one," she tweeted.) And after The Washington Post blog DC Sports Bog ran a link to Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III's Bed, Bath and Beyond wedding registry, fans bought the Redskins' QB and his fiancée, Rebecca Liddicoat, almost everything on it. (The empty boxes provided the backdrop for a picture RGIII tweeted.)
While Diggins's present was seen widely as a touching gesture—Hova can spare the cash—the largesse toward Griffin prompted some backlash. (ProFootballTalk's Mike Florio called the practice of ordinary folks buying gifts for multimillionaires they don't know "a tax on the poor and delusional.") But several fans told the Post they were happy they splurged. "I'm just not going to go out to happy hour one time during the week," said one, who bought the couple a $30 set of Brita water filters. "I mean, it's just kind of funny to say I bought RGIII a present." Mazel tov!
ROBERT LABERGE/GETTY IMAGES (HINCHCLIFFE)
OLD SCHOOLED Like every other IndyCar driver, Hinchcliffe (right) is overshadowed by legends such as Mario Andretti.
VICTOR BURNSIDE/PEFKOS/FOTOLIA.COM (HOLLY)