INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — 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 despair.
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 and large groups of teens roamed the grounds as part of school field trips.
The race itself, which will be 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 2.8 mph separating the 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 two-time Formula One champion nearly salvaged McLaren's return to Indianapolis when he gallantly held it wide open for four desperate laps in an overhauled car worked on until the last moment. But the car didn't have the right gear ratio on a run that should have gotten Alonso into the 33-car field, and mighty McLaren was bumped by tiny Juncos Racing and young American driver Kyle Kaiser.
Kaiser, winner of nothing of national note, and Mann, driving for the Clauson-Marshall team that races sprint cars the rest of the year, are both in the race. Alonso, needing only the Indy 500 to complete his quest for auto racing's Triple Crown, and an actual Formula One team went back to Europe.
"It's a big missed opportunity. It clearly says, 'This isn't something you show up and can easily do,'" said Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., which owns IndyCar, the Indy 500 and the speedway. "So it says: 'This is complicated, this is hard.'"
The Indy 500 will still draw at least 250,000 people — more if Sunday's forecast didn't call for thunderstorms — and those who show up will be treated to a true spectacle in the push to drink the victory lane milk. IndyCar, slow in rebuilding after the open-wheel split in the 1990s, is on the up, and drivers argue the on-track product is better than anything else.
"It's the most competitive racing series in the world. It's the tightest," said Alexander Rossi, who won the 2016 Indy 500 as a rookie after he flamed out in Formula One. "On any weekend, you have no idea who is going to win the race."
IndyCar has had five different winners through its first five races this year, but Pagenaud might be the first repeat winner after triumphing two weeks ago on Indy's road course. His job with Roger Penske is on the line — Pagenaud knows it — but he is on the pole Sunday and Penske could not be more pleased.
The venerable owner, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his first Indy 500, is going for his 18th win in the showcase race. He is Pageanud's biggest fan, even as Team Penske goes into the race with a quartet of cars capable of winning. Along with Pagenaud, the team has defending winner Will Power, three-time winner Helio Castroneves and former series champion Josef Newgarden.
Penske is bullish on everything right now, especially IndyCar.
"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.
The 103rd running of the 500 is especially rich on story lines.
Chevrolet has had more speed than Honda and swept the top four spots in qualifying with Pagenaud followed by the trio from Ed Carpenter Racing. The highest-starting Honda driver is rookie Colton Herta, who became IndyCar's youngest winner earlier this year just days before his 19th birthday.
The son of former IndyCar driver Bryan Herta has been spectacular around Indianapolis — he drives for Harding Steinbrenner Racing, a team partially owned by the grandson of late New York Yankees owner George S teinbrenner — and is a legitimate contender.
"He's tremendously talented and not fazed by a lot, and that definitely shows he's Bryan Herta's kid," said Marco Andretti, who is starting 10th on Sunday. "He's very even-keeled and doesn't get excited a lot. He's just a natural and fast, you know? He's a fast rookie and not afraid of anything."
The Herta entry has an alliance with Andretti Autosport, which has been a bit under the radar during the month of May. Rossi is probably the strongest of the Andretti group, but Conor Daly, in a fifth entry, has been fast in the best car of his life. Daly doesn't have a single race planned after Sunday, and he needs a huge payday to get back in a car this season.
Chip Ganassi Racing also has been quiet. Five-time series champ Scott Dixon starts 18th and rookie Felix Rosenqvist struggled to qualify after the Swede was rattled by a crash in practice.
Honda has a few other promising candidates in Sebastien Bourdais, driving a new car purchased specifically for this race by Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan, as well as Oriol Servia, the oldest driver in the field at 44 and the final entrant announced the night before opening day.
The time it took to put the deal together has not slowed Servia, who has been the strongest of the trio from Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. James Hinchcliffe crashed the first day of qualifying and had to bump his way into the race — an improvement on last year, when he missed out entirely.
Castroneves again will go for a record-tying fourth victory, a mark he's desperately chasing in the final years of his career. Penske moved him to sports cars but keeps bringing him back to Indy, where 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."