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Wednesday, May 21, 2003
Updated: May 25, 6:14 PM ET
Indy a melting pot of world's best drivers

By Robin Miller
Special to

Robin Miller INDIANAPOLIS -- Thirteen of Sunday's 33 starters for the 87th Indianapolis 500 are foreign-born -- including six of the fastest seven qualifiers. Ditto for five of the last six Indy winners, even though '98 champ Eddie Cheever spent most of his childhood in Italy after being born in Arizona.

There are six Brazilians, four Californians and nobody from Indiana, which boasts the most (seven) Indy winners in history. Graduates from the midget and sprint-car ranks have three representatives as the rest of the lineup is comprised of road racers.

The last true American oval-tracker to pull into Victory Lane here was Al Unser in 1987.

Foreigners are flourishing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which doesn't play real well with many of the Indy Racing League faithful, but it's a trend that began back in the mid-60s and immediately raised Indy's international profile.

"Look how much better The Masters is with all the world-class golfers and the same thing happened here when (Jimmy) Clark, (Jackie) Stewart, (Graham) Hill and (Jochen) Rindt came to Indianapolis," said Mario Andretti, who conquered both worlds by winning Indy in 1969 and the Formula One title in 1978.

"Indianapolis should be a melting pot for talent.You want to compete against the best."

That was the case in the mid-80s when two-time F1 champ Emerson Fittipaldi became an Indy-car regular. F1 kings Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell also competed at Indianapolis in the early '90s, with Mansell capturing the '93 CART championship.

Indianapolis isn't just an American event, it's a worldwide event. Some of ther IRL's best drivers aren't from America, but I don't see that as a drawback. ... We've got a helluva field this month and it's diverse. Like it should be.
Eddie Cheever, 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner

By 1995, only USAC midget star Stan Fox managed to crack the lineup at Indy, as road racers dominated the rest of the field. When open-wheel racing split in 1996, IRL founder Tony George made a lot of noise about restoring the American midget and sprint racer to Indy's landscape. And seven Yankee oval-trackers graced the '96 field.

Because of the IRL's new focus and reasonable budgets in '97 and '98, perennial World of Outlaw king Steve Kinser and USAC standout Jack Hewitt were able to finally race at the Speedway in those years.

"I appreciated that opportunity," said Kinser. "It would have never happened without the IRL."

Tony Stewart, the only driver to win all three of USAC's open-wheel divisions in the same season, was given a chance to show his skills and looked like the second coming of Parnelli Jones -- becoming the IRL's poster boy those first three seasons of the all-oval track series.

But Stew couldn't get a decent salary from anybody in the IRL so he headed south for fame and fortune in Winston Cup.

And while the American oval-trackers hit a high in '98 with nine of 33 starters, that is no longer the case. The Brian Tylers and Donnie Beechlers of the world have been left behind, unable to raise sponsorship or losing the old school car owners that could afford to run them.

With major CART teams moving to the IRL in concert with Honda and Toyota, road racers again rule.

Sarah Fisher is the only midget/sprint graduate with a full-time IRL ride -- and that was shaky until AOL was secured Thursday as a sponsor for the rest of 2003. Billy Boat and Jimmy Kite, the other two USACers, are Indy-only participants.

"I've had a few calls from people about the IRL, but nothing serious, so I guess I'll have to pursue NASCAR like Tony (Stewart) and Jeff (Gordon)," said J.J. Yeley, an open-wheel USAC star who had a brief IRL fling in the late '90s that ended in some bad cars. "I guess the only way I'll run Indianapolis again is at the Brickyard 400."

Of course the foreign constituancy of this year's Indy 500 sports plenty of talent and storylines.

Helio Castroneves is trying do what Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Bill Vukovich and Al Unser couldn't pull off -- three victories in a row. What's even more special is that this 27-year-old Brazilian has never lost at the Speedway.

His teammate and countryman, two-time CART champion Gil de Ferran, is recovering from a big crash last March. Brazil's Tony Kanaan qualified in the middle of the front row with a broken left arm, while 22-year-old Kiwi Scott Dixon starts fourth with a cast on his fractured right wrist.

Englishman Dan Wheldon is a rookie starting in the middle of Row 2.

South African Tomas Scheckter, whose father Jody was an F1 champion, nearly won last year's race as a rookie and possesses that bravado and agression of his old man.

Japan is represented by ex-Formula One regulars Tora Takagi (starting seventh) and Shinji Nakano, while Shigeaki Hattori runs for Mr. America -- A.J. Foyt.

"Indianapolis isn't just an American event, it's a worldwide event," said Cheever, a former F1 driver who now owns a team with Phoenix' Buddy Rice as his driver. "Some of ther IRL's best drivers aren't from America, but I don't see that as a drawback.

"We've got a helluva field this month and it's diverse. Like it should be."