IRL: Indy 500: Former winners chasing another victory

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, April 26, 2002 -- Six former winners, including 2001 champion Helio Castroneves, head the entry list for this year's 86th running of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race on May 26. It is the most previous winners to participate...

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, April 26, 2002 -- Six former winners, including 2001 champion Helio Castroneves, head the entry list for this year's 86th running of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race on May 26.

It is the most previous winners to participate since six qualified in 1993. It also is the first time the previous year's champion has returned to defend his title since Eddie Cheever Jr. sought a repeat victory in 1999.

The other former winners who will bid for a starting spot on Pole Day, May 11, are Arie Luyendyk (won in 1990, 1997), Al Unser Jr. (1992, 1994), Buddy Lazier (1996), Cheever (1998) and Kenny Brack (1999).

The only two champions missing from the past eight races are Jacques Villeneuve (1995) and Juan Montoya (2000). Both are driving in Formula One and started in last year's SAP United States Grand Prix. So they, too, are regularly returning to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of their most saluted victories.

This once again is an indication that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is where the world's greatest drivers want to be, trying to win the Borg-Warner Trophy as the winner of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

The largest number of former champions to start the Indianapolis 500 at one time was 10, nearly one-third of the starting field. That came in 1992, just before A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Rick Mears, Gordon Johncock, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan and Tom Sneva called it quits over a short period of time. Combined, the 10 drivers accounted for 20 victories.

Luyendyk is the 10th member of the above exclusive group and the only one still active. Competing now only at Indy, he will seek a third victory at age 48. If he brings his No. 5 Meijer G Force/Chevrolet/Firestone to the finish line first, he would become the oldest winner. Both Al Unser and his brother Bobby Unser earned their final Indianapolis 500 victories at age 47.

After the six returning champions in 1993, there were only five in the field in 1994 and, unbelievably, three in 1995 after Roger Penske's pair of two-time winners, Unser and Fittipaldi, failed to qualify.

Luyendyk was the only past winner in the field in 1996, the first with the race as part of the Indy Racing League schedule. There were two in both 1997 and 1998 with Luyendyk and Lazier, and three in 1999 as Cheever joined the club.

The past winners' count held at three in 2000. Brack didn't return to defend his title, and Luyendyk didn't race. But Unser returned to Indy for the first time since failing to qualify in 1995, joining Lazier and Cheever as past winners. Four winners were entered in 2001, as Luyendyk couldn't resist the lure of Indy and returned to join Cheever, Lazier and Unser.

Now the winners' club has elevated to a healthy six. Brack is returning, this time with Target Chip Ganassi Racing after winning the race for A.J. Foyt in 1999, and Castroneves is back to defend his title with Marlboro Team Penske, which moved to the IRL full time this year.

The fun-loving Castroneves has the opportunity to accomplish something that hasn't happened since 1971. That's when Al Unser scored the second of his consecutive victories. In the past, only Wilbur Shaw in 1939-40, Mauri Rose in 1947-48 and Bill Vukovich in 1953-54 preceded Unser in registering this difficult feat.

The odds, obviously, are against Castroneves to repeat. The competition will be the most intense in recent years among a number of top-notch teams and drivers.

But Brazilian ace Castroneves also has some odds in his favor. He drives for team owner Roger Penske, whose drivers have won this race 11 times. Last year, Castroneves delivered Penske a victory at Indy with one race of experience in an IRL car, while this year Castroneves is a regular in the series and already has earned a victory at Phoenix.

This just could be the year that the Back-to-Back Club gets its fifth member.

But a talented list of drivers will try to prevent that, including the five other past winners in the field.

Other top talents in the field include 2001 Indy Racing League champion Sam Hornish Jr. with Pennzoil Panther Racing; 1999 IRL champion Greg Ray, recently signed to drive for A.J. Foyt Racing; and 1996 IRL co-champion Scott Sharp, who won the MBNA Pole last year at Indy with a four-lap average of 226.037.

There are many other strong teams with impressive lineups ready to win at Indy. Gil de Ferran, last year's runner-up, returns as Castroneves' Marlboro Team Penske teammate.

Indy Racing stalwart Kelley Racing has Unser and Sharp, while 2000 Indy Racing League Rookie of the Year Airton Dare will join Ray at A.J. Foyt Racing. Rookie Tony Kanaan will accompany 2001 IRL Rookie of the Year Felipe Giaffone at Hollywood Mo Nunn Racing.

Red Bull Cheever Racing boasts a three-man lineup of Cheever and Indy 500 rookies Tomas Scheckter and Max Papis. Scheckter was the fastest driver during the Rookie Orientation Program in April at 226.055 mph.

Chip Ganassi Racing also brings strength to Indy with Brack, 1997 Indianapolis 500 Bank One Rookie of the Year Jeff Ward and Bruno Junqueira, who finished fifth last year.

Team Green has a three-driver powerhouse coming to Indy with veterans Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy and rookie Dario Franchitti. Andretti finished third last year in his first Indy start since 1995, and Tracy returns to the Speedway for the first time since 1995.

Rookie Rick Treadway will join Luyendyk at Treadway and Associates Racing.

Indy veteran Robby Gordon will attempt to race at Indy with Team Menard and then fly to Charlotte, N.C., to race in the NASCAR Winston Cup Coca-Cola 600 that evening. Only John Andretti and Tony Stewart have actually completed the "daily double" on the same day, as rain hampered Gordon's attempt to perform the feat in 1997 and 2000.

Another interesting story at Indy will be the attempt by former Formula One standout Johnny Herbert to qualify for the field. Herbert will try to make his first oval racing start with Western Union/Duesenberg Brothers Racing.

While Scheckter was the fastest of the rookies during the Rookie Orientation Program, there will be plenty of attention focused on fellow rookie George Mack of 310 Racing. Mack is trying to become just the second African-American to qualify for the race, following Willy T. Ribbs in 1991 and 1993.

INDIANAPOLIS 500 NOTEBOOK

Schedule: The 86th Indianapolis 500 starts at 11 a.m. (EST) May 26. MBNA Pole Qualifying starts at 11 a.m. May 11. Second-day qualifying starts at noon May 12. Bump Day Qualifying starts at noon May 19.

Opening Day practice starts at 1:15 p.m. May 5. Practice starts at 11 a.m. May 6-10 and May 15-18.

Pole Day practice starts at 9 a.m. May 11. Second-day qualifying practice starts at 10 a.m. May 12. Bump Day practice starts at 10 a.m. May 19. Coors Carb Day practice starts at 11 a.m. May 23.

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Tickets: All reserved seating for the 86th Indianapolis 500 is sold out. General admission tickets are available for $20 on Race Day.

All seating at the Speedway during all practice days, qualification days and Coors Carb Day is general admission, and tickets will be available at the Speedway ticket office and entrance gates. Call (317) 492-6700 for ticket information or log onto www.indy500.com.

-ims-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers John Andretti , Tony Stewart , Tomas Scheckter , Johnny Herbert , Robby Gordon , Felipe Giaffone , Eddie Cheever , Al Unser Jr. , Buddy Lazier , Jeff Ward , Scott Sharp , Arie Luyendyk , Airton Daré , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Max Papis , Bobby Rahal , Paul Tracy , Dario Franchitti , Tony Kanaan , Kenny Brack , Rick Treadway , Mario Andretti , Al Unser Sr. , Rick Mears , Bobby Unser , Danny Sullivan , George Mack , Emerson Fittipaldi , Chip Ganassi , Gordon Johncock , Bill Vukovich , Roger Penske , A.J. Foyt , Sam Hornish Jr. , Mo Nunn
Teams Panther Racing , Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing