One day during the long, hot summer of 1910, a man grey of beard and small in stature travelled to the orchards and pastures on the outskirts of the great Midwestern city of Indianapolis. Nobody marked the day he arrived, but having pitched his tent and laid his possessions about him, he sat cross-legged on the earth and meditated in the heat of the sun. The freemen of Indiana first gathered, then flocked around this strange man who neither worked nor said a word. At last, on a chilly October morning as the first cracked leaves fell from trees of the orchard, the man spoke before his hushed audience.
A 500 mile journey to one spot affixed
Though it be no house, yet made out of bricks
A beginning and end, though cast in a ring
Above all encrowned by a wasp with no sting.
If ye untangle this riddle by the last week of May
Then upon your fair city a blessing shall be laid.
But should my knot remain tied by the first day of June
Then a curse be upon you and everlasting doom.
Popular answers included a local dairyman who had since moved to Terre Haute, Teddy Roosevelt and the recently ratified state of Oklahoma. However these proved embarrassingly wrong and soon a depressed silence fell over the yeomen of Indianapolis. A meeting was called to assemble the city’s brightest minds, but amid recriminations and further suggestions that the answer was Teddy Roosevelt they were on the verge of breaking up, when a voice as clear as a church bell on Sunday morning made itself heard above the din:
“I shall answer the old man’s riddle and save your town from death and decay. In exchange, you will fetch me anything I desire.”
The gentleman who spoke these words drove a hard bargain, but without any better options, a resolution was passed to give him whatever he needed. They agreed to meet in the fields south of town, close by the old man’s tent, as soon as the ground had thawed. The young man requested stamps and stationery, metal surveyors’ tape, and as many bricks as could be scavenged or manufactured in the city’s workshops.
On the appointed day the city fathers presented the gentleman with the tools and materials he requested. He immediately set to work using the tape to measure out an enormous rectangle that passed through several fields. When he arrived at his original starting point, he continued round. This continued for some days, until he stopped on the two-hundredth circuit. The grass by this point had been worn down into the dirt, and he instructed the gathered workmen to pave the path he revealed with the bricks they had gathered.
While the bricklayers busied themselves with their task, the gentleman wrote letters to 33 of the nation’s best car mechanics and bravest drivers to assemble for a motor race to be held on the day of the riddle’s deadline. The workers made night joint-labourer with the day, and by the end of the month of May, the drivers and cars were assembled and a rudimentary circuit was laid down.
The townspeople went to bed wondering what this strange spectacle was all about, and whether the old man’s riddle would ever be solved, but the day dawned bright and fine and they soon forgot their anxieties in the drama of the motor race. However, the more perceptive spectators noted that the race was indeed a 500-mile journey, taking place on a structure of bricks, and though circuitous in shape, its end was fast approaching. At last, pulling out of Turn Four on lap 200 was the Marmon Wasp, and upon close inspection of its pointed aerodynamic tail, nobody could locate its sting.
The spectacle of motor race delighted the old man, and he pronounced the riddle solved and a benediction upon the city of Indianapolis. For their part, the people of the city resolved that a motor race of the same distance and ceremony would take place at the same time every year, barring disasters like war or pestilence.
The gentleman then stepped forward, his manner taking on a devilish aspect that had not occurred to the townsfolk until that point. In an unfamiliar, hissing voice, he gave his final demand:
“I require… the FACE of every BRAVE YOUNG MAN who wins this motor race.”
The people of the city fell silent at the thought of such a gruesome rent. But before they could summon the town butcher the old man hauled from his tent a gigantic winner’s trophy, as tall as he was, and covered by a fine, white cloth. Some in the crowd felt it was in poor taste to hold a trophy presentation under the circumstances. The cloth was removed, and a silver simulacrum of the winner Ray Harroun’s face stared out at the dumbstruck crowd.
With a flash of flame and smoke the gentleman sank beneath the ground, cursing mightily. The old man departed that very evening, leaving behind the trophy and careful instructions that the face of each successive winner should be cast on its surface, lest the sinister gentleman ever return.
Enough of that!
TV broadcast ceremonials get underway on Sunday at 11am Eastern / 4pm BST, in other words, directly after the Monaco Grand Prix. If you have Peacock and are in the US, a pre-broadcast broadcast actually begins at 9am, which is excellent commitment to Making A Day Of It.
We also get a bonus Friday practice session called Carb Day, for reasons lost in the mists of time and antiquated engineering practices, starting at 11am ET. (Have they got their setup right by this point? By the ninth practice session?) Anyway, no more crashes please.
As usual we have a full grid of 33 runners, divided into 11 rows of 3. They will make a token effort to all get lined up on the front stretch before the flag guy waves the green flag, and then this nice order will get irrevocably and entropically mixed up. So! Enjoy the absence of change while you can.
Row 1 – Alex Palou | Rinus Veekay | Felix Rosenqvist
Pole row is headed by Indycar’s greatest ever Spaniard and last year’s very fast Alex Palou, back again to not drive through the pits as it closes and then pit again while it’s still closed to take on emergency fuel. In spite of that, he looks confident. Ganassi have a car in each of the first four rows, so he has good reason to be. In the middle is Robin to Ed Carpenter’s Batman, Rinus Veekay, who spells his name with a capital (Kapital) K. He was also fast last year but crashed on lap 39. On the outside is the indomitable Swede, Felix Rosenqvist, one of many quick McLaren drivers and out to push his stock to the moon with a good performance on Sunday.
Row 2 – Santino Ferrucci | Pato O’Ward | Scott Dixon (W)
Row 2 is led by AJ Foyt’s controversial Sicilian-American (NOTE: check if Sicilian) Santino Ferrucci, back in full-time Indycar ride after two years of filling-in. Santino has done plenty of controversial things in his life, like shooting Garibaldi (NOTE: check if he did this) and rigging a bomb to blow up Michael Corleone’s car (NOTE: was this him?). Could he win? Yes. Second McLaren Pato O’Ward is in the middle, and will be looking to follow up three second-place finishes already this season with
Row 3 – Alexander Rossi (W) | Takuma Sato (2W) | Tony Kanaan (W)
Top qualifier on row 3 is new McLaren driver Alexander Rossi, who left Andretti Autosport last year and probably does not regret it. The 2016 winner is famous for his wide range of emotions, running the gamut from “intense” to “withering” to “quietly satisfied”. He rarely has an uneventful race at the Brickyard so expect him to experience all three. Alongside him is Racing Comments BFF Takuma Sato, who has signed with Ganassi to add a third(!) Indy 500 victory to his impressive list of Indianapolis-based achievements, and McLaren’s Tony Kanaan, another part-timer who may or may not spent the rest of the year guarding the fountain of eternal youth, or if not youth, certainly ability to qualify well at the Indy 500.
Row 4 – Marcus Ericsson (W) | Benjamin Pedersen ( R ) | Will Power (W)
Last year’s Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson starts tenth as the last-placed of the admittedly very highly placed Ganassi team. He will move forward, as he always does, and will probably meet Other Swede Felix Rosenqvist in around 6th place on lap 45 or so. In the middle is Foyt’s very impressive Benjamin Pedersen, who I will admit I had never heard of until he was involved in an extravagant first-lap crash at St Petersburg back in March. A.J. Foyt, as the TV cameras repeatedly inform us, is at the Speedway this month and his cars are looking strong. Outside of row for is top Penske and last year’s series champion Will Power, who is no longer the wild and reckless not-quite-youth of yore but has some ground to make up after his team had a fairly indifferent weekend of qualifying.
Row 5 – Ed Carpenter | Scott McLaughlin | Kyle Kirkwood
Row 5: Row Of Contrasts. Ed Carpenter has reason to feel hard done by after his step-grandparents sold the speedway to Roger Penske, leaving him a dispossessed malcontent with a Chevy engine deal. He’s put it to good use although his best days (2018) are probably behind him. I also have a distinct memory of him threatening actual physical violence towards James Hinchcliffe in a TV interview one year after being taken out late in the race. In the middle is Indycar’s Vice-Kiwi and premier former minicab driver Scott McLaughlin, who needs a good result to prevent Alex Palou disappearing with the championship, and on the outside is another driver who’s already won this year, Andretti Autosport’s second-year guy Kyle Kirkwood. Fact: Kirkwood has only finished an Indycar race inside the top ten at Long Beach. Fact #2: the Indy 500 is not Long Beach??
Row 6 – Conor Daly | Josef Newgarden | Ryan Hunter-Reay (W)
An all-American sixth row is headed by motor racing’s least glamorous nepo baby, Conor Daly. It had totally passed me by that he is a full-time driver once again, but that is, in fact, the case. He’s some way off his Carpenter teammate’s pace, plus ca change. In the middle is the last of Penske’s three drivers, Josef Newgarden, who I imagine is furious and will obviously not intend to protect his 18th spot. His best result at Indy is still the very competitive third-place finish he scored for Ed Carpenter in 2016, which is somewhat baffling. Part-time team Dreyer and Reinbold Racing is represented on row 6 by 2014 Indy 500 winner, 2012 series champion, and winner of the last-ever CART-sanctioned race in 2003, Ryan Hunter-Reay. I assume he no longer brings his children along in miniaturized race suits, but I’ll tune in to the driver introductions to check.
Row 7 – Romain Grosjean | Helio Castroneves (4W) | Colton Herta
By the time we get down into row seven I am beginning to doubt the likelihood that a winner will come from its rank. Not that there’s anything implausible about these three: starting off with 19th-place starter Romain Grosjean, who has been Andretti Autosport’s main guy this year but is still lacking an Indycar win. Andretti have given him good cars this year but not during practice week. In the middle is a guy who hasn’t received a good car this year, 2021’s winner Helio Castroneves, who is still with Michael Shank Racing and still of indeterminate suitability for the grind of the Indycar circus. He’ll probably move forward if the situation is favourable. Finally, Grosjean’s teammate and rival for Michael’s affections, Colton Herta. He hasn’t won a race for over a year, which hasn’t happened to him since USF2000 in 2014, when Colton was in his early teens.
Row 8 – Simon Pagenaud (W) | David Malukas | Marco Andretti
2019 winner Simon Pagenaud heads up the eighth row, and which unfortunately is more or less where you’d expect him to be. It’s been a steep decline for the Frenchman since winning the big race four years ago, and he comes into this race with a best finish this season of 15th. Dale Coyne’s impressive young American David Malukas is starting from a less-than-impressive 23rd position, though I will observe that amidst these disappointing sub-depths are a disproportionate number of Honda runners (what are Ganassi doing right?) On the outside, last year’s Superstar Racing Xperience champion (anyone?) Marco Andretti, driving as always for his dad, is keeping the Istrian-American flag (there is no such flag) flying above Speedway for another year.
Row 9 – Devlin DeFrancesco | Agustin Canapino ( R ) | Callum Ilott
Andretti’s last (and least) driver Devlin DeFrancesco heads up the third-to-last row of the grid, where he’s joined by the two Juncos-Hollinger drivers, the minicab veteran from the Argentine Agustin Canapino, and former champion karter and Ferrari junior Callum Ilott, who is probably wondering how he ended up here, though not as much as Canapino did at Long Beach when Ilott materialized directly ahead of him while leading the field away for a restart. There’s nothing like a couple of drivers from a midfield team who appear to genuinely dislike each other. Why not join the entire nation of Argentina by obsessively eavesdropping on their radio channels?
Row 10 – R.C. Enerson ( R ) | Katherine Legge | Christian Lundgaard
The fact that R.C. Enerson is here at all is remarkable, as his Abel Motorsports team came together close to the deadline and was generally pencilled in for the 34th-and-not-starting spot by the opinionated and the reckless. More on that spot anon. But he is. I have no idea what would count as a successful run, although keeping the car out of the wall and collecting some prize money would be a start. Middle-lane starter Katherine Legge has already not done that, but her car has been repaired/replaced (delete as applicable) and she starts with the slightly sad distinction of being Bobby Rahal’s fastest driver. Bobby Rahal’s second-fastest driver, Christian Lundgaard, starts on the outside. Two weeks ago he qualified well for the road course race and faded in the race. If the pattern is reversed he, and Bobby, will be delighted.
Row 11 – Sting Ray Robb ( R ) | Jack Harvey | Graham Rahal
First position in Row the Last is populated by the excitingly-named Sting Ray Robb, who turned up at Dale Coyne’s BBQ Pit to general glee and delight this year, but has regrettably spent a lot of his time in this neighbourhood. Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Jack Harvey, whose career prognosis was not extensive even before he bumped the boss’s son out of the big race on Sunday, set the slowest time of the qualifiers but lines up 32nd. The final position was set after a dramatic day of bumping last Sunday, but nullified in the next day’s practice session. Actual qualifier Stefan Wilson tangled with Katherine Legge on Monday and in the ensuing wall collision received serious enough injuries to put him out of the race. (Un)fortunate son Graham Rahal, last seen failing to qualify a dismal Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan chassis, was signed up by Wilson’s Dreyer and Reinbold team faster than you could say “nikah mut’ah”. Of course, he’s going to win now, just watch him.
And that is your grid. Please post whatever you want below. I advise you start with a spotter's guide, or the Youtube video of Delta Force. Carb Day practice is soon. Soon!