The Indianapolis 500 has long enjoyed a reputation as the greatest spectacle in motorsports, reducing the Coca-Cola 600 stock car race to Memorial Day weekend also-ran status.
So how come so many promising young U.S. drivers are opting not for the IndyCar ranks, but for Winston Cup racing?
The reasons cited vary, but the bottom line is that while the two races will dominate America’s sports landscape today, drawing a combined total of about 600,000 fans, the drivers give the events decidedly different flavors.
The race that’s considered to be an American icon will in fact be contested by mostly foreigners. And the Coca-Cola 600, seen for decades as an event run almost entirely by drivers from the Southeastern United States, will instead showcase several drivers who had the chance to make a career in IndyCar racing but decided against it.
Standing atop his team’s hauler in the infield at Charlotte Motor Speedway, John Andretti sweeps his arms across the garage area as he discusses his reasons for leaving IndyCar racing after seven successful years.
“This is where the future is,” said Andretti, a winner on the IndyCar circuit who is now in his second full season in NASCAR’s top series. “This is where the opportunity is.”
The numbers show that Andretti, who will start 36th in today’s 600 at Charlotte, is not alone in his beliefs.
The growing trend toward foreign drivers at Indianapolis is evident in this year’s 33-driver starting lineup. A record 19 drivers were born outside the U.S.
All 42 drivers in the Coca-Cola 600 are from the U.S., including 22 who were born somewhere other than the Southeast.
Andretti, a native of Bethlehem, Pa., who maintains residences in Indianapolis and Mooresville, N.C., is the second IndyCar driver in as many years to join the Winston Cup ranks. Davy Jones, a 1995 rookie in the stock car series, did not qualify for the 600 and will instead race at Indianapolis today.
“There’s a lot of politics in IndyCar racing, politics that I haven’t seen here,” said Jones, who was born in Chicago and lives in Atlanta. “In Winston Cup racing, you just race, and that’s basically why all of us do what we do. We just want to race.”
The return of Firestone to the front lines of auto racing after a 20-year absence has put it head to head with Goodyear in the battle for IndyCar supremacy.
It also has shattered whatever complacency Goodyear might have enjoyed as the series’ only tire supplier for two decades.
Firestone was on 48 winning cars in the Indianapolis 500 - including every winner from 1920-66 - before the company dropped out of Indy racing in 1974 for financial reasons. In 1988, Bridgestone Corp. of Japan bought out Firestone and five years later announced its return to Indy cars, starting this season.
Scott Pruett spent much of last year testing the new Firestone Firehawk radials with Patrick Racing. He is the only driver to finish among the top 10 in each of the five races so far this season and goes into the Indy 500 as the series leader. Eight of the other 32 starters also will be on Firestones, including Scott Goodyear, who will start alongside pole winner Scott Brayton and Arie Luyendyk on the front row. Imagine the publicity if Goodyear - the driver - wins on Firestones.
Wet weather predicted
The forecast for rain for the Indy 500 is falling under scrutiny from the nation’s capital to California.
“It’s probably the day in which the forecast gets the closest scrutiny,” meteorologist Eric Zimmerman of the National Weather Service in Indianapolis said. “It doesn’t make the forecast any harder, but you’re aware in the back of your mind that a lot more people are looking at it.”
The forecast was causing much consternation among the estimated halfmillion people that the race attracts. Others hoped to capitalize on it: Some merchants advertised rain gear Saturday.
The average age of the starting field is 33 years, 6 months, the youngest in the modern history of the Speedway.
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