Hamilton's return one of many compelling story lines for Indy 500

Davey Hamilton was an inch or so taller the last time he raced in the Indianapolis 500.

His diminished stature has nothing to do with gravity or old age.

It took 21 surgeries to repair Hamilton's lower legs and feet after they were mangled by the safety fencing at Texas Motor Speedway when his car became airborne and was ripped apart in a crash along the front stretch six years ago.

The former Las Vegas resident got back in an IndyCar this week for the first time since the near-fatal wreck.

"I didn't want to end my career in Texas on a fence," Hamilton said.

Damaged bones and the rebuilding process left him a tad shorter. He couldn't care less.

Hamilton has thought about crossing the "yard of bricks" to start the May 27 Indy classic since being confined to a wheelchair for several months after the accident.

Some doubted he would walk again, but Hamilton cleared that hurdle within a year. He began driving a special two-seat IndyCar to give sponsors, media and VIPs a taste of what it's like to zoom around an oval.

But Hamilton is no chauffeur.

"Yeah, I did lose hope, actually," he said of the prospect of racing again.

"You know, when you're laying in a hospital for (much of) two years, basically, and you've had 21 surgeries and not knowing how you're going to walk, it's kind of hard to know if you're going to have the opportunity."

The Idaho native and former marketing executive at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is getting his chance to compete in the biggest open-wheel race of the year. He'll try to qualify Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Vision Racing, a team co-owned by Tony George, whose family owns the famed Indy track.

Hamilton is just one reason this Indy race is compelling.

Henderson resident Sam Schmidt returns a team to the 500 for the sixth straight year. This time he'll have 1996 winner Buddy Lazier driving for him.

Schmidt, who owned the car Hamilton crashed, is always on the go despite being paralyzed from the shoulders down after an IndyCar crash Jan. 6, 2000.

Schmidt was a little distracted from racing two weeks ago when he was in Washington, D.C., to speak at a rally organized to promote paralysis research.

Racing is a means for Schmidt to stimulate interest in the cause. And he's a racer.

Henderson resident Al Unser Jr. also adds intrigue to the race. A two-time 500 winner, Unser is racing for the checkers and a fresh start after his Jan. 25 arrest on a drunken driving charge. A trial is scheduled for July 11.

A.J. Foyt is taking a chance on Unser by giving him the seat in a special No. 50 entry, which commemorates Foyt's 50th year of involvement in the 500.

Also, a record three women will try to make the show. Danica Patrick and veteran Sarah Fisher will be joined by rookie Milka Duno, a 24-year-old Venezuela native.

This year's race finally is worth watching, and enough cars should be trying to crack the 33-car field that Bump Day on May 20 will be dramatic.

Since the open-wheel uncivil war between the Indy Racing League and Champ Car World Series began 11 years ago, Indy has been nothing more than a tuneup race for the NASCAR Nextel Cup event near Charlotte, N.C., later on the eve of Memorial Day.

The most interest in Indy seemed to be when a Cup driver tried to compete in both races.

This year, the Indy 500 can stand on its own as "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

At least on one Sunday the IndyCars will outrun the stock cars.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com.