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Winner of Sunday’s 100th Indy 500 will become a legend

Mario Andretti takes the checkered flag as

Mario Andretti takes the checkered flag as he wins the 53rd running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1969. Credit: AP

INDIANAPOLIS — Graham Hill, arguably the quintessential British Formula One racer, merely is the answer to a trivia question at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Who won the 50th running of the Indianapolis 500?

Hill was an Indy 500 rookie and part of the “British Invasion” of the early 1960s that introduced rear-engine race cars to the Speedway when he outran Scotland’s Jim Clark by 41.13-seconds on May 30, 1966. Fast-forward to Sunday, when the hoopla surrounding the race’s historic 100th running will spike with someone among the 33-car starting field emerging to take the traditional swig of milk from a bottle in Victory Circle.

“Yeah, for sure, I think the guy that’s going to win Sunday is going to become a legend,” said Frenchman Simon Pagenaud, winner of three consecutive Verizon IndyCar Series races. “Hopefully I’m that guy. Is it my goal to be a legend? No, my goal is to win the race because I’m a racer. Second doesn’t matter in the Indy 500, you just want to win. It’s definitely the jewel of racing. I mean, I know it’s an American sport but it’s a worldwide event and it’s great to be part of it.”

Driving for iconic team-owner Roger Penske, Pagenaud is among a handful of pre-race favorites for Sunday’s 200-lapper around IMS’ 2.5-mile oval. The buzz around the track located at the intersection of 16th Street and Georgetown Road was evident during Friday’s Carb Day practice, when a crowd estimated at 100,000 turned-out for a one-hour practice, the Indy Lights Freedom 100 race, the annual pit stop challenge and a concert featuring Journey.

On Wednesday, IMS officials announced the first sellout in Indy 500 history. All suites, reserved seating and infield general admission tickets are gone. Local TV affiliates have been touting attendance figures on Sunday of 400,000 — a number that prompted ABC-TV to lift its long-standing practice of blacking-out the live broadcast here. Sunday will mark only the third time “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” will be broadcast live on television in Central Indiana, and the first time since 1950.

“I feel like every Indy 500 comes with a load of attention and anticipation and hype — rightfully so,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won the race in 2014 for Andretti Autosport. “This one for sure, you can feel it’s ratcheted-up. The knob is turned up quite a bit. It’s great though. I absolutely love this race. I love this facility, Indianapolis Motor Speedway. So it’s great to see it’s getting the recognition it deserves with a sellout crowd. It’s going to be amazing to see that on race morning.”

Juan Pablo Montoya, the two-time/reigning Indy 500 champion from Colombia, said interest has been on the rise the entire month of May. “It’s hard not to pay attention when you walk in the garage and you have twice the crowd you had last year,” said Montoya, who is Pagenaud’s Penske teammate. “You notice it. It’s good for INDYCAR.

“It’s a hell of an event, it’s our biggest race of the year, it’s the 50th year (of Roger Penske’s team) . . . there’s a lot going on. And when you talk about it, yeah, cool, whatever. But at the end of the day, it’s a freakin’ race, you know?”

Every driver whose face is sculpted onto the 80-year-old Borg-Warner Trophy knows he will be introduced as an Indy 500 champion for the rest of his life. Only three drivers have won four times: A.J. Foyt Jr. (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977), Al Unser (1970-71, 1978, 1987) and Rick Mears (1979, 1984, 1988, 1991). Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves will attempt to join that exclusive club Sunday.

Castroneves said walking to his car on the grid for his first Indy 500 in 2001 gave him chills. “It was like going to a rock concert and you were waiting for that moment to start,” said Castroneves, who won that race and in 2002 and 2009. “The only difference is I was part of the show. And every time I go on the track on race day it feels the same.”

Hunter-Reay, Montoya (2000 and 2015) and Castroneves are among six former winners competing Sunday. The others are Buddy Lazier (1996) of Lazier/Burns Racing and teammates Scott Dixon (2008) and Tony Kanaan (2013) of Chip Ganassi Racing Teams.

“Everybody remembers the first, Ray Harroun, winning in 1911,” said Dixon, the four-time/reigning series champion. “But I would be quite all right winning next year as well, and the year after that.”

The race’s generational impact extends from the massive grandstands into Gasoline Alley, where the surnames Meyer, Shaw, Vukovich, Unser, Andretti, Rutherford, Fittipaldi, Wheldon and Rahal are sacrosanct.

“The Indy 500 is the coolest race I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to Le Mans, the Daytona 500, a lot of them,” said Graham Rahal, whose father, Bobby, won the 1986 Indy 500. “Nothing compares to the Indianapolis 500. It’s the most insane month of the year. The best month of the year. It’s awesome.”

Mario, Michael, John, Jeff and Marco Andretti have made a combined 69 Indy 500 starts since 1965. Mario’s victory in 1969 remains the lone Borg-Warner moment — testament to the “Andretti Curse” at IMS. Marco, grandson of Mario and son of team-owner Michael, said winning this race in his 11th start would be borderline cathartic.

“I think you wouldn’t be able to stop the three of us from crying if that happened,” Marco said, “because all we would do is think of all the past years and all the wins that have escaped us as a family. So it would make up for a lot of it. I have to stop myself from thinking how cool it would be.”

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