Turn on the television, listen to the radio or simply step outside and it’s immediately apparent that 2020 isn’t like any year before it. Felt far and wide, the impact of the pandemic that currently grips the world is inescapable, yet perhaps an escape is just what’s needed. The green flag will fall on the biggest race in the world, and it will make history just like it has for its previous 103 runnings not because it’s being run during a global health crisis but because it’s the Indianapolis 500.
For all the change around us — masks in public places, social distancing, baseball games without fans in attendance — some things remain constant. We’re still able to be in public, we’re still able to interact with friends and family and we’re still able to watch baseball, yet it’s all just a little different. The same goes for the Indy 500. An event built on tradition, it has marched headfirst into the month of August as if it were May. Even with one less day of practice and a few less entries that what we’ve come to expect, the storylines have been plentiful as the only double points-paying event on this year’s NTT IndyCar Series schedule has set itself up to be one for the record books.
It hasn’t quite broken any records yet, and it might not in the most technical sense, but it will certainly have its place among the Indy 500 pantheon if only for the big-ticket headlines that have emerged out of the 2.5-mile oval at 16th and Georgetown since Aug. 12.
It became clear as practice began that Honda appeared to have an advantage over Chevrolet, at least as far as the top of the speed chart was concerned. The dominance of the Japanse brand was nearly overshadowed by the lack of pace from Team Penske, whose four drivers seemed saddled with poor-handling race cars throughout practice and qualifying. Yet Penske’s woes fell to the wayside when just one Chevrolet-powered car made it to the the second day of qualifying. No, it wasn’t a car owned by Roger Penske. It wasn’t three-time pole winner Ed Carpenter, a local and perennial favorite at the Speedway. It was Carpenter’s Dutch rookie Rinus VeeKay, the same first-year driver that crashed twice in his debut IndyCar weeekend at Texas Motor Speedway in June.
As if nearly locking Chevrolet out of the Fast Nine except for last year’s runner-up in the Indy Lights championship wasn’t enough of a hook for fans to tune into NBC’s coverage of Pole Day, the rest of the qualifying lineup surely added to the allure. Four representatives from Andretti Autosport, five-time series champion Scott Dixon, both of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s full-time drivers and Dale Coyne Racing’s rookie completed the group. Unsurprisingly, Marco Andretti’s constant presence near the top of the timesheet throughout practice and his breakout qualifying run on the first day of time trials made him a clear favorite for the pole, yet 2008 “500” winner Dixon appeared ready to challenge the third-generation driver for supremacy. It all came down to Andretti’s four-lap attempt, the final one of Pole Day, as he nearly matched Dixon’s speed lap for lap. Concluding his 10-mile run just a fraction of a second quicker than Dixon, Andretti did what his father was unable to accomplish and set up yet another story to follow over 200 laps on race day.
Whether the “Andretti curse” can be broken and a member of the family can drink the winner’s milk for the first time since Mario Andretti in 1969 will certainly draw in many, both hardcore IndyCar fans and casual viewers alike. Yet for Andretti to survive 500 miles, he’ll need to overcome one of the staunchest fields of 33 in the race’s history as measured by qualifying speed. From first to 33rd, the 2020 field averaged 229.339 mph, second only to the 229.382 mph average achieved in 2014. Not only are there fast drivers and cars from the first row to the last, there are winners dispersed throughout the starting lineup, with four — Dixon, Takuma Sato, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi — starting within the first three rows. The other winners start further back but will undoubtedly look to make their way to the front, including Will Power and Tony Kanaan in Row 8, Simon Pagenaud in Row 9 and Helio Castroneves in the 10th row.
In the face of such stout competition, Andretti’s saving grace could be fears of difficult passing coming to fruition. With the Aeroscreen being one of the changes in 2020 that didn’t result from COVID-19, it’s still largely unknown how well the drivers will able to negotiate traffic in race conditions. While Carb Day practice showed large trains of cars able to do a fair amount of slicing and dicing, it’s not entirely representative because of cars entering and leaving the pits causing speed differentials that won’t occur in quite the same way on race day. If passing is indeed at a premium, the driver that starts the race out front in clean air may end up having an insurmountable advantage, at least until the leader reaches backmarkers. As the pole sitter, Andretti will control the pace prior to the green flag, but the traditional three-wide start means that fellow front-row starters Dixon and Sato have a similar chance to get out front early.
Part of the allure of the Indy 500 is uncertainty. Watching the race play out wouldn’t be much fun if the winner was already known. Still, Andretti has set himself up for the possibility of success. Execution will be key, as will out-dueling all of those previous winners who want to put their face on the Borg-Warner trophy for a second — or, in the case of Castroneves, fourth — time.
Whatever happens, the race will become the stuff of legend just like those that came before it. Whether Andretti is able to break the curse, or Dixon increases his championship lead with a significant double-points haul and launches himself into his sixth championship, or a rookie like VeeKay or Alex Palou manages to make it to victory lane, or Fernando Alonso secures racing’s Triple Crown for only the second time in history, one thing is certain: the Indy 500 is more than just a race. It’s an escape into a world where speed, bravery, luck and teamwork play equal roles in determining who succeeds and who falls short, and it’s exactly what we need now and every year.
Ben was hooked after witnessing Dario Franchitti's victory at the 2009 Iowa Corn Indy 250 and began providing media coverage from IndyCar events in 2015. If IndyCar is on track, he can be found live-posting and updating The Apex's Race Reports from his iPad Pro.