The Indianapolis 500 is the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and one of the biggest sporting events in the world. The IndyCar series hopes that stage can serve as a spotlight to display its next big star.
Their last star is over 500 miles away, preparing for a NASCAR race in Charlotte, N.C.
Danica Patrick ditched the series where she made her name for a more lucrative career in America’s most popular racing series. For years, she has been the only real household name in the IndyCar series.
You can’t blame her for taking the money, but it really was like racing’s equivalent to LeBron James leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the glitz and glam of South Beach.
Just because Danica has left the series doesn’t mean the female factor in IndyCar is gone. In fact, there are three women who qualified for this year’s race, which marks the 35th anniversary of Janet Guthrie becoming the first woman to run in the Indy 500.
Ana Beatriz, Katherine Legge and Simona De Silvestro will compete with the boys Sunday. Sarah Fisher will also continue writing her legacy at Indy. Now retired as a driver, Fisher has the most Indy 500 starts of any woman (nine) and in 2008 became the first female team owner. She has two cars in this year’s race.
Patrick’s departure has created an opportunity for the rest of the drivers to breakout and emerge from behind the overshadowing presence of the woman who had as many race wins as appearances in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition.
Of course, the series is also still morning the loss of the immensely popular Dan Wheldon, last year’s Indy 500 winner. He died in a 15-car accident last October at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Wheldon, who was just 33-years-old, was infatuated with Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a track that loved him back. The Englishmen was a two-time winner of the Indy 500, finished second two more times and had two other finishes inside the top-5. Much of the weekend’s festivities and traditions will include attempts to honor his memory.
Without Wheldon, there are only three former race winners in the field: Helio Castroneves (winner in 2001, ‘02 and ‘09), Dario Franchitti (2007 and ‘10) and Scott Dixon (2008).
One of the big stories to follow will be how the new car model and engines will fare in the expected 95 degree heat. IndyCar has gone to a new, safer body design and now has three engine manufacturers. So far, Team Penske has won all four races and all five pole positions behind Chevy power, with driver Will Power having taken the checkered flag at the past three races heading into The 500.
The front row of Ryan Briscoe, James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay will lead the field to the green flag of the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 at 11 a.m. ET Sunday.