Veterans Day Celebration
May 15, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
The IRL's Sam Hornish and Sarah Fisher are talented young drivers, and they may one day add an Indy 500 win to their resume. But don't count on it in 2001.
The victory lane menu might be milk, but youth won't be served.
Promising youngsters, even the most talented with the strongest of teams and cars, don't have much of a chance with the experienced heavy hitters entered in this year's race.
Car owner Chip Ganassi, a veteran himself, knows the odds as well as anybody. Ganassi chased an Indy 500 win for several seasons before the race became part of the Indy Racing League. Staying with CART, which had sanctioned the Indy 500 before the new circuit, Ganassi missed the race for four years until 2000.
Last year, Ganassi entered his two CART drivers in the event. Juan Montoya won, while Jimmy Vasser came in seventh. But this year, his regular CART drivers were a couple of rookies, Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian.
Ganassi wasn't comfortable with the pair, so he hired a couple of Indy gunslingers: Vasser and NASCAR hotshot Tony Stewart, a former IRL regular. "I just thought this was my best chance at a win," Ganassi said.
Ganassi had seen the entries and knew what his team was up against.
Especially with Stewart's coming on board, the Indy 500 resembles an all-star event as drivers have come from all walks of racing life to compete. Most of them know their way around the Indianapolis oval.
Buddy Lazier, Eddie Cheever and Kenny Brack have won the Indy 500 since it became an IRL race. Roger Penske, who has 10 wins at Indy as a car owner but has been racing on the CART circuit, has entered cars for his CART drivers, Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves. Al Unser Jr., a two-time Indy winner, is an IRL regular.
Former winner Arie Luyendyk is coming out of retirement for the race. Scott Goodyear, who has finished second twice and could easily have won three Indy 500s if the breaks had gone his way, plans to just race at Indy this season. Robby Gordon, like Goodyear, is an Indy veteran without a full-time ride for 2001.
And don't forget Michael Andretti, who has led enough laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for almost two races worth of Indy 500s. Yet, because he still doesn't have a victory in the famous event, Andretti has entered this year's race.
It's not impossible to win at an early age and with little experience at Indy. All you have to do is be a great driver with a great team. Jacques Villeneuve finished second as a rookie in 1994, then won the next year. Just last year, Montoya dominated in his first attempt.
But this year's field makes it difficult, and almost everyone realizes it. Ganassi isn't the only car owner who wasn't ready to enjoy any Indy youth movement.
On the eve of qualifying, McCormack Motorsports dropped its regular driver, Brandon Erwin, just for Indy. Team officials went with Jimmy Kite, an Indy veteran, over the rookie Erwin.
Dick Simon has fielded cars for Stephan Gregoire at five Indy 500s, but that wasn't enough experience for him. On Thursday, Simon hired Roberto Guerrero to not only help Gregoire set his car up, but to try and qualify on his own. Guerrero is a major threat at Indy, having finished in the top four in each of his first four Indy 500s starts and still owning qualifying records for the race from 1992. He shared rookie of the year honors at Indy in 1984, about the time that youngsters Hornish and Fisher were in preschool.
Getting in the field is crucial, one of the main reasons why many of the teams have turned to veterans. But the experience of the driver isn't the only factor in all of these talented veterans being Indy favorites. They are also driving for top teams with great sponsors, many of which are spending major bucks on their Indy effort. So much of the sponsorship game is exposure, and the rate of return can be pretty good for the Indy 500. "There is no bigger race than the Indy 500," Penske said.
For many of these veterans, their teams only exist for the Indianapolis 500. Even the ones that run all season long, their primarily goal is winning the Indy 500.
Just ask Unser. "The minute one Indy 500 is over, I start thinking about the next one," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, the rest of the season is just to get ready for the 500."
And as far as the youngsters are concerned, they should just keep on celebrating birthdays and Christmas. They actually have a better chance of a visit from the tooth fairy than winning at Indy on Memorial Day weekend.
They'll have to buy their own milk for at least another year.