Indy 500 field filling fast, aero kit concerns surface

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When Tony George was the boss of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he once famously said in response to a question about the potential field size of the Indianapolis 500 that “33 is just a number.”  

Well, most motorsports followers would agree it’s a pretty important number at the Brickyard in May. Not only have 11 rows of three cars made up the Indianapolis 500 field for longer than most readers of this publication can remember, it’s also a good sign of the overall health of the IndyCar Series, which is owned by the same company, Hulman & Co., that owns the Speedway.

For a number of years there has been talk about whether or not there will be enough cars to fill a full field of 33 for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. That kind of talk isn’t good for the event, and it’s not good for the sport.

It looks like we can put that to rest this year. Almost a month before the track opens, 33 entries are already secure—or at least nearly so.

Qualifications for the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 might actually have some real bump day action if the field continues to swell as some expect.

Currently, there are 26 car-and-driver combos signed, sealed and delivered for the 500. There are half a dozen deals that are as good as done and should be announced within the next couple weeks. And there are a handful of other deals that team officials and drivers are still trying to get hammered out.

With new aero kits making racing a bit more expensive this year, it could have easily turned into a struggle to fill the field. The fact that there is enough sponsor money to have 33 or more cars line up for Indy 500 qualifications is a good sign. It shows that the sport is relatively healthy and that sponsors still find the Indianapolis 500 a worthwhile marketing platform.

Thankfully for the IMS, the IndyCar Series’ biggest teams are showing up at Indy in force this year.

With the recent addition of Simona de Silvestro, Andretti Autosport has five entrants ready to roll. There were rumblings that the team could field a sixth car, but Andretti officials are now casting doubt on that.

Team Penske and Ganassi Racing are each expected to field four cars. Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing, with the recent addition of J.R. Hildebrand, will field three cars for the big race as will Dale Coyne Racing.

Four-time Indy 500 winner turned team owner A.J. Foyt is expected to field two cars for this year’s race.

It appears that there will be a nearly even split of entrants powered by Honda and Chevrolet. With deals still coming together it appears that each engine manufacturer could have 16 to 18 entries for qualifications.

There are still a few concerns for the IndyCar Series and Indy 500.

First, there are still some high-profile drivers looking for a ride this May. That could be considered a troubling sign. But it’s also part of this business.

Sebastian Saavedra, the polesitter of the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis last May and four-time Indy 500 starter, doesn’t have a done deal yet. But it appears a deal to put him in a car for the month of May is getting close.

IndyCar vets Alex Tagliani, Pippa Mann and Buddy Lazier still do not have confirmed rides.

And there is growing concern over the new aero kits. At the season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida March 29 parts of several cars’ aero kits came loose and littered the track. Perhaps even more concerning, some aero kit debris flew into a spectator area at St. Pete and a fan was injured. The series doesn’t need that kind of publicity.

The season opener prompted IndyCar champ Will Power and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan to say the new aero kits will change the way drivers race, cautioning that there must be less contact between cars.

In the wake of the season opener, Honda has been granted permission by series officials to strengthen and reinforce parts of its aero kit. Chevrolet followed suit this week saying it too would stregthen parts of its aero kit.

IndyCar teams will be using different aero kits for the Indy 500 than they did for the serpentine course at St. Pete. With the higher speeds on Indy’s 2.5-mile oval—and aero kits are supposed to make the cars even faster—all eyes will be on the performance of those kits here, not only aerodynamically but how they hold together.

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