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Indy 500’s 100th anniversary of race brings hope for new relevance

INDIANAPOLIS — When Alex Tagliani leads the 33-car field into the first turn of the Indianapolis 500 today, he’ll be tugging along a century’s worth of triumphs, thrills and tragedy.

But in this, the 100th anniversary of America’s most famous race, the focus is clearly on the future.

The IndyCar series is showing signs of emerging from 15 years of irrelevance, a period of darkness that began with an open-wheel war between two feuding series and ended with a peace agreement hardly anyone noticed.

The sport that produced such giants as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Rick Mears found itself relegated to niche status. There were even empty seats at the Brickyard, a sight no one could have envisioned a couple of decades ago.

“There was almost a lost generation,” Andretti moaned. “There were those 15 years where things were precarious, at best.”

Now, there’s a semblance of hope. Two new manufacturers will enter the series in 2012, powering a futuristic new machine. The field for this year’s 500 is undoubtedly deeper and more talented than it has been since the glory days. Sponsorships are up, attendance is improving and an energetic new leader seems willing to try anything that might bring more attention to the sport.

In a sense, today’s race can be seen as a jumping-off point to a new era.

“I’m proud of the series for what we’ve done, for all the hard work we’ve put in,” said Danica Patrick, who has just one win in her career but remains the only driver widely known outside of IndyCar circles.

Of course, the fact that everyone is wondering whether Patrick will bolt to a more profitable gig in NASCAR next year shows there’s still plenty of work to be done.

A third of the field is composed of part-time drivers, most of whom are doing Indy-only deals and hope it leads to something bigger

Look at Dan Wheldon, a former race winner who should be in the prime of his career. He was squeezed out of his last job, and this is the only sure thing on his schedule in 2011.

Look at Townsend Bell, who has finished as high as fifth at Indy and will start from the inside of the second row. Asked what’s on his schedule for the rest of the year, he replied, “Well, there’s Christmas. And New Year’s, I guess.”

Good line, but not good for IndyCar.

“I stopped many years ago trying to rationalize or problem-solve the racing industry,” Bell said. “I’m resigned to the fact that if I just go out and win the damn race, everything else will probably take care of itself.”

Randy Bernard, who was brought in from the Professional Bull Riders series to bring some pizazz to IndyCar, has certainly shown he’s willing to shake things up. One of his changes — double-file restarts, which are used in NASCAR — has drawn the ire of drivers. They see them as impractical with the high-speed, open-wheel machines, which can’t go banging into each other like the good ol’ boys.

Tagliani, the surprising pole winner, was one of the most outspoken critics. He fears the race could turn into a gruesome crashfest. He went so far as to raise the possibility of debris flying into the stands and injuring someone in the massive crowd of more than 200,000.

“I don’t want to be responsible for that,” the Canadian said. “If our wheels touch while we’re racing side by side, all of a sudden cars are going to be flipping.”

IndyCar officials have promised extra sweeping in the corners during caution periods to provide a wider racing groove, but they appear unwilling to back off from the double-file concept. If nothing else, it has given people something to talk about, which might have been the main purpose all along.

“It’s brought a lot of new controversy and attention to the sport, in a good and positive way,” Bernard said.

There are other positive signs:

— Tagliani was part-owner of a financially challenged team that appeared on the verge of folding before the season. Then it was bought by Henderson’s Sam Schmidt, a former racer who became a car owner after a 2000 crash left him a quadriplegic.

The joyful celebration between Tagliani and his wheelchair-bound boss when the No. 77 car stunningly captured the pole will remain one of the most heart-warming memories of this May, no matter who wins.

Schmidt has reveled in the attention that goes with putting a car on the pole, especially one that beat out powerhouse organizations run by Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi.

Considering the personal side to the story, the team’s qualifying run is even more inspiring.

— Helio Castroneves will make another attempt at his record-tying fourth win.

He struggled during qualifying, managing only the 16th-best speed, but look for him to make a quick charge through the field. He’ll likely be joined by others starting farther back than expected, such as defending champion Dario Franchitti (ninth) and Ryan Briscoe (26th).

“I think those guys will be up front pretty quickly,” said Will Power, another of the favorites.

— Patrick could be making her final start at the 500 if, as many expect, she moves full time to stock cars in 2012. While coy about her future, she denied a report that a tentative NASCAR deal was already in place and insisted she has not made a final decision.

“We’re very far from the finish line on any of that,” she said.

Patrick has always run strong at Indy, most notably her fourth-place finish as a rookie in 2005, but don’t look for any DanicaMania this year. Her Andretti Autosport team has struggled all month to get up to speed.

In fact, two of the team’s four regulars didn’t even qualify on bump day, leading to a deal that put Ryan Hunter-Reay in a car Bruno Junqueira actually qualified for rival A.J. Foyt Racing.

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