INDIANAPOLIS – This year's Indy 500 shapes up as a classic showdown of old dogs vs. eager pups.
The most familiar IndyCar drivers are aging, though not necessarily fading. Dario Franchitti turned 39 on Saturday, but has yet to reach the point of leaving his turn signal blinking. Second-row starter Helio Castroneves and third-row starter Tony Kanaan are both 37. Old-timer yet newcomer Rubens Barrichello (starting 10th) is 39 after rolling in from Formula One.
All of them could challenge in the May 27 race.
Then there are the young guys. The under-30 crowd includes first-row starter James Hinchcliffe, 25, mayor of Hinchtown; second-row starter Marco Andretti, 25, heir to the Andretti misfortunes; third-row starter E.J. Viso, 27, who skydives to add some thrill to his humdrum life of driving 220 mph; and third-row starter Josef Newgarden, 21, who is considering starting to shave.
And don't forget JR Hildebrand, 24, who should have won last year if that wall hadn't jumped out and nudged him coming out of the fourth turn.
Ryan Briscoe, 30, the pole sitter after edging Hinchcliffe by .003 mph, belongs to the younger crowd, too.
“I think it's going to be a pretty wild race,” Briscoe said. “No one will be able to pull away. There will be a lot of passing and a grueling 500-mile race. It'll be hard to predict a winner until you see him coming down Turn 4, and maybe not then.”
If I'm taking a rooting interest in who wins the race – and how can anyone watch 500 miles without a rooting interest? – I'd lean one of two ways: the overdue old guy or the fresh young face.
* The overdue old guy.
Kanaan has been a great representative for the IndyCar Series, yet always snake-bitten at Indy. He's never won here, swallowing his pride while his Brazilian countryman Castroneves has won three times. Per his usual luck, Kanaan's car failed inspection after his first qualifying bid Saturday and he had to go back out again.
Kanaan's connection to Barrichello is a cool side story, too, with the Barrichello family having become a fixture in Kanaan's life after Kanaan's father died when Tony was 13. The two drivers are unrelated brothers, and run a charity organization in Brazil.
Plus, I have to love Kanaan's honesty in why he loves Indy when the track doesn't love him back.
“I got addicted to the attention,” Kanaan said. “You get a big head when you come here. Every time I'm on a golf cart or walking around, I stop to sign autographs. It takes an hour to get back to the garage. People scream my name. It's kind of cool.”
* The fresh young face.
You can tell the age of the drivers by listening to their interview sessions. Newgarden described his run as “a little bit hairy.” Hinchcliffe called the four laps of qualification day as “the most terrifying 10 miles of your life. You're holding your breath the whole time.”
I'm pulling for Hinchcliffe. He understands the need for personality in a sport that is a niche interest except for race day in May. He hopped into the Andretti Autosport car with the GoDaddy sponsorship. Yep, he's filling Danica Patrick's high heels. No, he's not wearing high heels, but he's consider it if it would help his popularity.
Hinchcliffe's pole day time of 226.481 mph came up short by the slimmest margin to Briscoe's 226.484 mph. The difference would be virtually imperceptible if they were side by side.
“Last year, I lost fastest rookie to JR Hildebrand by four one-thousandths,” Hinchcliffe said. “So, yes, I'm going to think about that."
Hinchcliffe realizes the value of interacting with fans. His website, Hinchtown.com, captures his extroverted personality.
Saturday, Hinchcliffe had a pair of gloves of the late driver Greg Moore – both are from Canada – with him during his qualifying run. Moore was killed in a crash in 1999. You can't take this race, or this sport, too lightly. The memory of Dan Wheldon, last year's winner, reinforces that.
Hinchcliffe displays the kind of respect, and irreverence at the right time, needed to make this race more appealing to sports fans whose plates are full.
Yet while the old (Kanaan & Co.) vs. young (Hinchtown residents) has a definite appeal, there's one factor that could ruin the whole thing.
Will Power, who's not-too-young, not-too-old at 31, has won three of the four races this season. Briscoe certainly has a shot from the pole. They both drive for Team Penske, winners of more Indy 500s than any team in history.
Maybe Castroneves, getting older but still with Penske, can win his fourth Indy, a testament to getting better with age – and driving for the right team.