Drivers impressed with fans' knowledge

INDIANAPOLIS – Well over 100,000 fans will attend Sunday's United States Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Compared to the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400 at the same
facility, F1 draws less than 50 percent of the fans than the two races on
the oval do.

Does that mean that F1 still does not have a firm foothold in the United
States or that the Grand Prix is not a success at Indianapolis?

Far from it. This is the sixth season that Indy has hosted the premier F1 series and once again it will draw one of the biggest crowds of any track
on the 19-race worldwide tour. That's pretty impressive when 1) It's said that Americans don't like F1 and 2) Indy gets bigger crowds than F1-crazy countries like Italy and Germany that also have a much denser population base.

When current F1 drivers talk about F1 and Indianapolis, they almost
invariably mention the passion, enthusiasm and knowledge that the fans here have for F1.

"There is a good atmosphere at Indianapolis," Jacques Villeneuve told ESPN.com. "It looks like it's not full; it looks empty but that's because
the grandstands aren't filled in. But it's still a huge crowd. It's a
racing area and people come to see racing."

The drivers also have a feeling for the history and prestige of the
Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mild Seven Renault driver Fernando Alonso, age 23, has four wins this season and leads the World Championship heading into Sunday's race. He has raced four times at Indy but so far never finished.

"I always had very bad luck at Indy," he said. "A lot of
mechanical problems. So this year, with everything going well and all the luck with me, I really hope to finish. Indianapolis is a famous track, a very historic track, and I really want to do well there and get on the
podium if I can. I approach the 2005 race in Indianapolis with more
motivation than ever."

After winning the season opener for Renault, Giancarlo Fisichella has had a string of bad luck. The most recent problems struck in Montreal, where a hydraulic problem forced him out of the lead.

There is a big history around Indianapolis," Fisichella said. "F1 is
getting more popular year after year in America, which is very important.
I really like that weekend, and I hope to do well."

But while Renault dominated the early part of the season, the momentum has switched to West McLaren Mercedes and Kimi Raikkonen, a three-time winner this year, and Juan Pablo Montoya, who has shown moments of speed intermingled with all sorts of woes.

"For sure, the car will be good in the USA because so far every car
[McLaren brought to Indianapolis] has been pretty strong here," Raikkonen said. "I think Indy should suit our car better than Montreal."

Raikkonen believes that the F1 fan base in the U.S. is steadily growing.

"Last year, there were already more people than before," he said, "so I
think it's going to pick up every year. More and more people are coming
and getting more interested."

Montoya, of course, earned a huge fan base in North America after winning the CART championship in 1999 and the Indy 500 in 2000. Add to that the strong contingent of Colombians who always come to the Speedway to cheer for Montoya, and he is definitely one of the fan favorites.

A large group of Colombians always sits in the grandstand opposite Montoya's pit, cheering his every move.

"It is great," Montoya said. "At Indy every year it is pretty
much out of control, but it is cool. It is nice to see that. It is nice
to see the fans going a bit wild."

After his strong performance in Canada, where he was leading but ended up getting disqualified for running a red light, Montoya really wants to set things right with a win in the U.S. Grand Prix.

"As I won the Indy 500, to have the two wins in Indianapolis would be
really special," he said.

Michael Schumacher has won three times at Indianapolis and Ferrari
teammate Rubens Barrichello also has a victory here. So far this season,
however, Ferrari has yet to score a single win. But Ferrari definitely has
the largest fan base at the U.S. Grand Prix.

"I think we have great enthusiasm at Indy," Schumacher said, "sometimes more than at some European races, honestly, because you find that there are a lot of spectators who are foreigners living in the States who don't have
a chance to go to European races. They are so hot to come to that race
that it's sometimes more difficult to get into the circuit than elsewhere.
So I look forward to the atmosphere. It has been going well in the past,
and I hope for a good race, as well, this year."

On Thursday, Schumacher participated in a Bridgestone press
conference at the track that was open to the public. He fielded questions
from the fans on everything from his dogs to his thoughts on retirement.

"There were some quite interesting questions today, great audience," he
said later. "It's sort of interesting when you think America, every time
we talk about it, sort of doesn't know F1. But if you see the audience we have here, at least those guys here are very well informed."

Schumacher admitted that Ferrari's chances of winning on Sunday were not huge but added "we are here to win."

McLaren Mercedes and Renault have the best chances of winning at Indy.

The next group, which includes teams and drivers that have an outside
chance of winning and a very good chance of a top-three finish,
incorporates about half the field: Ferrari (Schumacher and Barrichello),
Lucky Strike BAR Honda (Jenson Button and Takuma Sato), Williams BMW (Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld) and Panasonic Toyota (Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher).

"I have always liked Indianapolis," Heidfeld said. "I've always had good
results there in the past, so I'm looking forward to going back there again and hopefully getting another good result for the team. The place itself is outstanding, particularly because of the grandstand in front of the
pits. I hope there's another good crowd to give us a great atmosphere."

Like the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400, the U.S. Grand Prix attracts fans from virtually all 50 states. The F1 race also draws in a diverse
international crowd made up of folks who are either living in the U.S. or come for the event.

This year, for the first time since Eddie Cheever drove in the 1989 United
States Grand Prix at Phoenix, an American driver will be participating in
official practice sessions for his home Grand Prix.

Some teams are allowed to run a third car and driver on Friday, and
Californian Scott Speed was nominated to that role for the Red Bull team at Indianapolis.

"To drive an F1 car in my home country will be such a thrill," he said. "I
can't wait to get back in the driving seat."

So who is going to win the 2005 edition of the United States Grand Prix?
And who will be celebrating on the podium? Over 100,000 people will be heading to the Brickyard to see it all unfold live.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.