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Once again, Indy offers feast for connoisseur with rich driving mix


INDIANAPOLIS - Michael Andretti. Eddie Cheever. Arie Luyendyk. Al Unser Jr. Sarah Fisher. Even Winston Cup star Tony Stewart, who started his major-league career in the Indy Racing League, will line up for today's 85th Indianapolis 500. It's an all-star cast that is supposed to return the luster to the most famous race in the world.

"This year, nobody can say someone wasn't here," said Eliseo Salazar, an IRL driver who works for A. J. Foyt. "Only F-1 [Formula One] drivers aren't here, and in the 21st century, with the schedules, that's out of the question."

This edition of the 500 has all the makings of a great race. There are a dizzying number of story lines. Sam Horish Jr., 21, and Fisher, 20, lead the youth movement, seeking their first 500 win. Veteran Luyendyk, back from a two-year retirement, is trying for his third 500 victory.

Stewart will attempt double duty, racing here in the afternoon and then flying to Charlotte, N.C., for the Coca-Cola 600. Andretti, perhaps the most famous driver in the race, will try to break a family history of bad luck at the track. Roger Penske, whose cars once dominated Indy, is back with CART champion Gil de Ferran, trying to make up for 1995 when none of his cars qualified in their previous Indy attempt.

Cory Witherill, a full-blooded Navajo, will start in the middle of the last row and is believed to be the only Native American to ever compete in professional open-wheel racing.

And, today, when the drivers arrive at the speedway, it will look like a great race is about to be run. But the lead-up has been mysterious. The crowds that traditionally have clogged the streets and filled the stands with multiple thousands in pre-race activities haven't been here.

"I can't believe it," said Andretti, back for the first time since 1995. "Qualifying day, it was beautiful but there was almost nobody in the stands. That tradition seems lost. But on race day, I know it will be the old Indy."

It seems to be what everyone is thinking, when not thinking about how the split between the IRL and CART seems all but over at Indianapolis.

Last year, Chip Ganassi was the first CART owner to bring a team here since speedway owner Tony George created the IRL and sent open-wheel racing down two different roads. This year, most of the teams that open-wheel fans want to see are here.

"The tradition of Indy has been for a coming together of different schools of drivers," said CART driver Jimmy Vasser, who will start on the outside of the fourth row. "Guys came from Europe, Formula One, dirt cars and NASCAR. It's what has always made the Indy 500 a great race.

"This year, the 500 is better because all the different drivers are here."

It's been an interesting month of May. Drivers and owners from both sides have said there is no ill will between the CART and IRL drivers. And yet, seemingly harmless statements like Vasser's rub up against lingering hurt.

"To say the race is going to be better because the CART teams are here infers that the competition wasn't as strong when they weren't here," said Indy winner Buddy Lazier, who won in 1996, the first year after the split. "I don't feel that way. I feel the talent was always here, but that some guys didn't have a chance before the IRL came. I didn't.

"I mean, for so many years when I was racing before the IRL, before practice even started, you knew who was going to win the race. ... You knew, because one or two teams had dominant packages, dominant teams, dominant horsepower, cars. There were times you almost wondered why even run the race."

Eddie Cheever, who won the 500 in 1998, is quick to pick up the theme and said he still resents the way he believes CART set about demeaning drivers not in CART.

"We had a hard time for five years because the assumption was - and it was perpetrated by all the other drivers in the other open- wheel racing series [CART] - that if you don't race with [them], you're incompetent. ... " Cheever said. "I think that was wrong."

Andretti, who will start on the outside of Row 7, was one of the biggest IRL critics. But he has changed his tune. When the announcement was first made that he would be racing at Indy as part of a deal between his CART owner and an IRL team, he said, "I was wrong, in the things I said."

It is as close to an apology as anyone has come. But for some, it seems to have come too late and to others not to matter at all.

"I've got bigger fish to fry than to worry about the CART-IRL split," said Stewart, the 1998 IRL champ. "I think it's ridiculous. Fans should just enjoy the fact that there has been twice as much open-wheel racing to enjoy."

And this week George told the Indianapolis Star that the Indy 500 may never again be what it was.

"I'm not sure that we haven't diluted things by adding the Brickyard 400 and the U.S. Grand Prix," George said. "We want to keep all three events healthy, but it's more of a challenge. ... It may never be way it once was."

But, in terms of competition, today's 500 should be a great race, as great as it ever was.

NOTES: Yesterday, Andy Granatelli told a gathering of American Auto Racing and Broadcasters Association members that the 500 has lost its allure because it has lost its identity. He suggested using 87-octane pump gasoline, passenger car tires, stock engines and standard engine oil in all cars. ... There will be one crewman on the track today from Baltimore. Jeff Simon will be changing Andretti's right rear tires. ... A sign of changing times: 500 drivers gathered for an autograph session here yesterday morning. The line in front of Andretti was three people deep. Sitting next to him was Sarah Fisher. More than 100 fans stood before her.

Indy 500 facts

What: 85th Indianapolis 500, open-wheel auto race

Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

When: Today, noon

TV: Chs. 2, 7, 11 a.m.

Pole-sitter: Scott Sharp (226.037 mph)

2000 winner: Juan Carlos Montoya, now driving in the Formula One series, did not enter the race this year.

500 winners in field: Four. Arie Luyendyk (1990, 1997), Al Unser Jr. (1992, 1994), Buddy Lazier (1996) and Eddie Cheever Jr. (1998).

Outlook: The field is the closest in history in qualifying speed and talent. At least a dozen or more cars have real chances at victory and as many as 12 more could win with a bit of luck. Michael Andretti said his car felt like a winner after his final practice. Tony Stewart and his teammate, Jimmy Vasser, are driving for Chip Ganassi, whose car won last year. A. J. Foyt said any of his three cars can win, while nodding to Robby Gordon as the best of the bunch. Pole-sitter Sharp has been quietly confident. Luyendyk and Lazier are well-positioned. Sam Horish Jr. and Sarah Fisher can't be counted out.

Best bets: Stewart, Gordon and Gil de Ferran - the Penske driver has been among the fastest all month, and no one on that team has been saying anything.

Dark horse: Al Unser Jr.

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