Alexander Rossi is one of several Indianapolis 500 winners entered in the 105th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. (IndyCar Photo)
Alexander Rossi is one of several Indianapolis 500 winners entered in the 105th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. (IndyCar Photo)

Experience Matters At Indianapolis 500

There is an impressive list of former winners entered in the 105th Indianapolis 500, which would seem to tilt experience as the key factor in winning the great race.

But there is also an impressive group of younger drivers who have entered the series in recent years who probably depend more on bravery than experience.

When A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al and Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford and Gordon Johncock were the Indianapolis Motor Speedway heroes, a young Rick Mears won the Indianapolis 500 in only his second start in The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

That victory in 1979 was the first of four Indy wins for Mears and opened a new era of racing stars who would achieve glory at Indianapolis.

In the past 21 years, three rookie drivers have won the Indy 500: Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000, Helio Castroneves in 2001 and Alexander Rossi in the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016.

Other Indy 500 tyros who came close to victory included Danica Patrick in 2005, Marco Andretti in 2006 and J.R. Hildebrand, who crashed while leading on the final lap in 2011.

Also, the Indy 500 was Carlos Munoz’s first NTT IndyCar Series race in 2013. He led 12 laps, was in the mix on the final restart and finished second to Tony Kanaan, who scored his only Indy 500 victory.

Fuel strategy and running the final 36 laps on a single tank of fuel lifted Rossi to victory in 2016, but his Andretti Autosport Honda was among the fastest cars throughout the race.

With the help of Bryan Herta’s “clutch and coast” strategy, Rossi performed like a seasoned veteran and has become perhaps the most exciting driver of the current era at Indianapolis.

Will Power celebrates his victory in the 2018 Indianapolis 500. (IndyCar Photo)
Will Power celebrates his victory in the 2018 Indianapolis 500. (IndyCar Photo)

At 29, Rossi is the youngest of the former Indy 500 winners in the field. Castroneves (45), who won three times, and two-time winners Takuma Sato (44) and Montoya (45) lead the entry list. Scott Dixon (40), Kanaan (46), Ryan Hunter-Reay (40), Will Power (40) and Simon Pagenaud, who turns 37 on May 18, have all won the race once.

A strong case can be made for experience over youth when it comes to Indianapolis 500 glory.

Power, however, believes it goes much deeper.

“You have to pick the formula of the year well, because it’s always changing,” Power told SPEED SPORT. “With a different aero package this year, you’ll have to pick the formula of racing well, which is how it will race and where do you want to be on that last lap.

“It totally depends on the circumstance, as you’ve seen from the way some of those races have come down to the wire. Experience helps, but you cannot put aside bravery at times,” Power added. “It’s that fine line, that balance, that can certainly win you the race or lose you the race.

“If you step over it too much, you can end up like Takuma Sato in 2012 (crashed while going for the win on the final lap). Alexander Rossi’s battle with Simon Pagenaud in 2019 or Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves’ battle in 2014 — those were fine-line battles where a certain move wins the race.

“You have to pick that battle well.”

Power chose the right formula in 2018, knowing the aerodynamic package would make it difficult to pass the leader.

“That was the key that year and I was aware of it going into that weekend that if you led, you could keep the lead because of clean air,” Power explained. “I focused on in and out laps in the pits and that gave me a huge gap.

“In 2019, it got a little bit tighter and last year they added the aeroscreen and that made the race like 2018. But they have added downforce and I think this year will be more like 2019. It will be a draft-fest with a group of five cars battling hard at the end of the race. It will be that style of race.”

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