League expecting competitive field

Updated: May 11, 2004, 11:57 AM ET
SportsTicker

INDIANAPOLIS -- In the ever-changing numbers game at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Indy Racing League officials remain confident they'll have a full 33-car field for the 88th Indianapolis 500.

With 47 drivers passing medical exams, the IRL is hopeful the field will be filled by the end of qualifying on May 23.

For the first week of practice and qualifying, however, that will not be the case as 25 drivers took practice laps in 33 cars on Sunday, opening day. Once teams get their primary drivers into the starting lineup, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway typically becomes the world's fastest used car lot.

That's when deals are made by teams with cars and engines that can get another driver in the race.

IRL vice president of operations Brian Barnhart expects some second week deals will fill the field on race day, May 30.

"I didn't think anybody really cared anymore since this event wasn't as big as it used to be," Barnhart said sarcastically. "It's no different than the history and heritage of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 has been forever.

"This event is what it is and continues to be because as this week plays out and guys getting primary cars in is and continues to be because how this week plays out and guys getting primary cars in will lead into what happens in the second week. That's no different than what we've done and has historically not changed."

After a drivers' meeting Sunday kicked off the month of activities at the 2 1/2-mile track, word leaked out that Barnhart essentially said that no driver who completed a qualifying attempt would be bumped from the Indianapolis 500.

Not quite.

"That's not at all what I said," Barnhart said. "All I said in a generality was these guys need to look at the big picture and use their head and make good decisions on the race track all month long."

That means teams should try to drive cautiously during the first week of practice rather than go over the edge for speed because chances are there will be just enough cars to make the show.

Perhaps the biggest reason for this year's shortage is the changes that were made to cars and engines to roll back speed after five cars went airborne in crashes last year. So far, speeds have not topped 220 miles per hour after last year's 3.5-liter engines had cars exceeding 233 mph in practice.

To create a safer environment, IRL officials believed it was crucial to make cars slower. That meant new engines for the Indianapolis 500 and an engine shortage.

"Very much so because this year should have been the second year of a car-engine formula, and instead we are using the same car and had to do more of an update kit because we did 75 percent road course preparation," Barnhart said. "With the engine change from 3.5 liters to 3.0, it's made it more difficult as well from an equipment standpoint to increase the number of participants."

The IRL isn't the only series facing equipment and team shortages. The high costs of racing have led to smaller than normal entry lists in NASCAR Nextel Cup.

The Daytona 500 is NASCAR's biggest race, and this year there were only 45 cars trying to make the 43-car lineup. By comparison, the Indy 500 is not that far off.

"I do wish people would step back and look at it with a little bit more of a perspective and be a little more fair of a situation," Barnhart said. "Every racing series out there, whether it's NASCAR, (Formula One) or the Indy Racing League, is struggling for the number of participants and struggling to have more players in the game.

"The economy plays into that and the cost of racing plays into that, and we are doing everything we can to control spiraling costs."

There is only so much the IRL can do as a sanctioning body. The ultimate responsibility is left to drivers and team owners to put together enough deals for 11 rows of three cars apiece to take the green flag.

"Our entry blank says 33, and if we get to that number and nobody gets bumped like last year, so be it," Barnhart said. "If we get to 34 and only one guy gets bumped, then that is the way the cards are played.

"That is why they need to look at the big picture. To see how this first week plays out will dictate the combinations for the second week."

While quantity may be down, Barnhart believes the quality is up. With drivers like 1996 Indy 500 winner Buddy Lazier looking for a ride, there may be just enough drivers to satisfy the requirements for 33 cars.

There also are rumors that Robby Gordon may turn loose a second car next week once the Nextel Cup regular qualifies for the field.

"As difficult as we struggle to put a lot of cars on the race track, the ones that we do have are first-rate, high-quality teams and our product works well for a very entertaining race as well as a reliable and safe race," Barnhart said.

As a driver, A.J. Foyt was the first to win four Indy 500s. He won another as a full-time team owner in 1999. In some years, Foyt has had four cars in the race and always was willing to turn loose a backup car on Bump Day.

He admitted he probably won't do that this year but believes he won't have to.

"I'm quite sure we will have a full field," Foyt said. "If we don't, it will be one of the most competitive fields we have had here in many, many years. It's very competitive now. ... I've been here 47 years and I haven't seen a short field yet."

Once the green flag drops on May 30, many believe numbers won't matter.

"Regardless of the number of participants we have on May 30, and I'm confident it will be 33, we will have again for at least the second year in a row, one of the deepest and most competitive fields in the history of the Indianapolis 500 with more cars, more teams and more drivers capable of winning than this place has had in past history," Barnhart said.

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