The 96th Indianapolis 500

Memorial Day weekend. For most people it's the beginning of summer. But for motorsports fans the last Sunday in May means two things: the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. 1100 miles of racing in one doesn't get any better than that for race fans. Well, except for the true fanatics who have F1 and the Monaco Grand Prix for breakfast.

While many stock car racing fans don't care for Indy car racing and could care less about the IZOD IndyCar series, quite a few of them usually tune in to the The Indianapolis 500 as a warm-up to the Coca-Cola 600. The American institution, steeped in tradition, draws the respect of even the most die-hard NASCAR fan. With the advent of Twitter, followers see how the stars of each series interact with each other, making it easier to set aside prejudices on both sides and appreciate the successes, struggles, sacrifices of each - and the tragedies as well.

This year's running of the 500 stands to be bittersweet. The death of last year's winner Dan Wheldon during the 2011 season finale still weighs heavily on the racing community. The car he was to drive this season starts second on the grid and came within .0023 seconds of sitting on the pole. Piloted by James Hinchcliffe, the No. 27 GoDaddy Dallara DW12-Chevrolet took the top spot in the Fast Nine only to be edged out by the equivalent of about nine inches in the final qualifying session.

Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay lines up in third, with Wheldon's once-and-future teammate and close friend Marco Andretti in fourth. Two other Andretti drivers made the field, so the team will have five chances of bringing home the Borg-Warner trophy to owner Michael Andretti, who was never able to capture one as a driver. 

Hinchcliffe, native of Ontario, Canada, and fast becoming a fan favorite, revealed after qualifying that he carried a special memento with him during those runs. A pair of red racing gloves owned by one of Hinchcliffe's role models and a fellow Canadian, the late Greg Moore. Moore, whose star rose quickly in the CART series died in a crash at California Speedway in 1999. He was Hinchcliffe's inspiration, the reason he wears red gloves to this day. A mechanic who had worked for Moore gave the gloves to Hinchcliffe and asked that he take them in the car with him, since Moore never got the chance to drive at the Brickyard. Hinchcliffe said he had the gloves all week and decided to save them for qualifying. He put the gloves inside his firesuit near his heart and ran the quickest time of the Fast Nine.

Another Andretti Autosport driver who hopes to bring home that trophy carries the Andretti name. Mario's grandson, Michael's son, Marco Andretti turned the fastest practice lap of the month at 227.540 mph. In his seventh IZOD IndyCar season, Marco's two career wins have come at a road course and a short track, but he's been competitive on the 2.5 mile oval with three top fives and four top 10s in six starts.

This year's field includes three women, but will be the first since 1999 without an American woman. Andretti Autosport's Ana Beatriz from Brazil starts 13th, British driver Katherine Legge successfully completed her rookie orientation and will start 30th. Swiss Simona de Silvestro, who earned respect last year when she qualified with burns on her hands from a practice crash, managed 32nd position after exchanging a Lotus engine for a Chevrolet, boosting the car's speed significantly.

The number of drivers who  have a legitimate chance to win the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 may be larger than it's been in years, which bodes well for the future of the series.

In case you haven't seen it, here's the lineup:

Row 1  
1. (2) Ryan Briscoe
2. (27) James Hinchcliffe
3. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay
Row 2
4. (26) Marco Andretti
5. (12) Will Power
6. (3) Helio Castroneves
Row 3
7. (67) Josef Newgarden
8. (11) Tony Kanaan
9. (5) EJ Viso
Row 4
10. (8) Rubens Barrichello
11. (98) Alex Tagliani
12. (38) Graham Rahal
Row 5
13. (25) Ana Beatriz
14. (83) Charlie Kimball
15. (9) Scott Dixon
Row 6
16. (50) Dario Franchitti
17. (19) James Jakes
18. (4) JR Hildebrand
Row 7
19. (15) Takuma Sato
20. (99) Townsend Bell
21. (18) Justin Wilson
Row 8
22. (30) Michel Jourdain
23. (77) Simon Pagenaud
24. (17) Sebastian Saavedra
Row 9
25. (7) Sebastien Bourdais
26. (41) Wade Cunningham
27. (22) Oriol Servia
Row 10
28. (20T) Ed Carpenter
29. (14) Mike Conway
30. (6) Katherine Legge
Row 11
31. (39) Bryan Clauson
32. (78) Simona De Silvestro
33. (64) Jean Alesi

Raceday Schedule (Eastern times)

10:15-10:40 Grid
10:40 Champions Lap
10:50-11:00 Engine Warm-Up
11:00 Vintage/Decade Cars Lap
11:10 Military Silverado Lap
11:33 Driver Introductions
11:00 - 3:30 96th Running of the Indianapolis 500 Broadcast on ABC
12:04:35 DSYE & 12:12:35 Green Flag
5:00 Victory Celebration
The 96th Indianapolis 500 The 96th Indianapolis 500 Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Friday, May 25, 2012 Rating: 5