Saturday, May 3, 2003 Updated: May 7, 4:16 PM ET
Officials expect full field at Indy
By Robin Miller Special to ESPN.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- Last May it took a speed of 227.096 mph to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. This year, it may only take four laps.
When practice opens here Sunday afternoon for the 87th running of Indy, only 28 car/driver combinations are definite and only two teams currently have entries without drivers.
Michael Andretti speeds out of the pits on the opening day of practice at Indianapolis.
"We've got a new Dallara, the new Chevrolet cylinder heads, Tim Wardrop as our engineer and we only need $200,000 to run but nobody seems to have any money," said Paul Diatlovich, whose PDM Racing team originally had rookie Scott Mayer but he failed to pass his rookie test.
"I'm hearing some teams want $600,000 to $1 million to run another car but if we're not getting any takers at $200,000, it makes you wonder."
Like Diatlovich, Greg Beck has the other driver-less car at the moment but is hoping to have a deal in place to run Shinji Nakano.
New chassis and engines (Honda and Toyota) have driven up the price of Indy-car racing and several of the old guard IRL owners have fallen by the wayside. There are only 16 cars owners in Gasoline Alley and six of them (representing 14 cars) have come over from CART.
The last time less than 33 cars started the May classic was 1947 when 30 cars took took the green flag. But Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials feel confident there will be 33 by the time qualifying ends May 18.
It will be up to teams like Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, Eddie Cheever and possibly A.J. Foyt to run extra cars to insure Indy of its traditional 11 rows of three cars come May 25.
But, considering the tenuous condition of some drivers and teams, everything needs to run smoothly for the next couple of weeks.
"We don't need any more drama, that's for sure," said Michael Andretti, whose Andretti-Green Racing team has been decimated by injuries and crashes to teammates and relatives. Dario Franchitti's services were lost in a motorcycle accident, Tony Kanaan is healing from a crash in Japan that broke his left arm and Mario Andretti walked away from a spectacular wreck while testing Kanaan's car late last month.
"So much has happened in the last few weeks I haven't had time to think about retiring. This place has been a madhouse."
The 40-year-old second-generation star, who is retiring following the May 25 classic, hired NASCAR's Robby Gordon to replace Franchitti, is also running rookie Dan Wheldon and hopes Kanaan will be cleared to drive by next week.
"My wrist is getting stronger every day. I still haven't been cleared to drive, but I hope Dr. (Hank) Bock will clear me by the end of next week," said Kanaan, who has led a season-high 185 laps, earned two poles and one victory in his initial Indy Racing League season.
"I can't wait to get back in the car but I know I've got three strong teammates so we'll be in good shape for qualifying."
Kanaan's chief competition so far in 2003 has been Scott Dixon, another ex-CART driver who is also among the walking wounded. The 22-year-old Kiwi suffered a fractured right arm and pelvis when he tangled with Kanaan going for the lead at Japan.
"I've been cleared to drive and that was great news. I need to thank Dr. Scheid and Dr. Fisher for doing such a great job in healing my hand and wrist," said Dixon, who's led 132 laps and captured the season opener at Homestead, Fla.
"I have full motion now. I'll just have to wear a small splint while I'm in the car. I'm hoping to get in the car during the first week of practice to get some laps and see how it feels."
While Helio Castroneves shoots for IMS history with his third consecutive win, teammate Gil de Ferran is recovering from a broken neck and concussion suffered in an accident last March at Phoenix.
"Indianapolis will be like a second start to my season. It will be the first time I get back in a car since Phoenix, and I'm quite anxious to get going," said the 35-year-old Brazilian, who incurred a season-ending concussion in 2002.
"From a physical standpoint, I'm nearly at the same level of fitness I was prior to the start of the season."
Castroneves, who gave owner Roger Penske his 12th Indy 500 win in last May's controversial finish with Paul Tracy, is two-for-two at the Speedway but understands the odds.
"Obviously, Indy is a very special place to me and I just hope to keep this thing rolling," said the 27-year-old Brazilian. "This is going to be interesting because I'm going to start off the month in a Dallara and Gil will be in a G-Force.
"We'll have to decide quickly which chassis we think is best for race day."
Castroneves won in a Dallara last year, while Bruno Junqueira captured the pole position in a G-Force and, before crashing in oil spilled by Junqueira's blown engine, Kanaan's G-Force was the quickest car in the race.
There are five rookies entered but only one with the pressure of being A.J. Foyt's grandson and driver.
Anthony Foyt IV, who turns 19 years old on race day, is trying to keep the Foyt tradition moving forward at the track where his grandfather won four times.
"A.J. keeps telling me to make sure I am ahead of the car, that I should be driving the car and not have the car driving me," said young Foyt, who crashed out of two of the three races so far in 2003 but recently ran 228 mph here in testing.
"He tells me to make sure that the car is doing what I want it to do, make sure it feels good every moment, and if it doesn't, to come into the pits right away. At these speeds, too much can happen too quickly to take chances."
Besides Andretti's swan song, Castroneves going for a three peat and the car count, the other big story will be the engine wars. Chevrolet has captured the last six Indy 500s but has yet to win a race this season as Toyota and Honda have dominated -- with an estimated 40 more horsepower. Two-time IRL champ Sam Hornish Jr. has yet to lead a lap in his Chevy and the pressure is on General Motors to catch up this month.
As for the guys looking to help fill the field:
Alex Barron, who subbed for de Ferran in Japan and recently tested here, could be in line to wheel a third Penske car and former IRL regular Jimmy Kite might wind up in the PDM entry. Airton Dare and Eliseo Salazar are hoping to convince Foyt to run more cars while veterans Max Papis, Robby McGeehee, Jeff Ward, Memo Gidley and Donnie Beechler are available.