Indianapolis 500 hoping to recapture lost luster
Juan Pablo Montoya was goofing off during a news conference at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His smartphone suddenly lit up with four text messages from friends.
Unbeknownst to the Team Penske driver, his interview was being streamed on an app, broadcasting his swashbuckling persona to a massive fan base he has built while racing around the globe.
For Montoya, it was another sign he'd made the right decision in switching to the Verizon IndyCar Series this season and ending a 14-year absence from the Indianapolis 500.
"I do believe the future is very bright for IndyCar," he told USA TODAY Sports. "They're definitely on the way up. They really want to put it back where it was."
This will mark the third consecutive season since Danica Patrick left IndyCar for NASCAR, and it's the first time in six years three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti (who retired after a head injury) will be missing from the Brickyard.
But the returns of Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve are among many storylines that could restore some of the luster the Greatest Spectacle in Racing has been struggling to recapture over the past two decades. Sunday's 98th running of the race — with Ed Carpenter on the pole — also will include 2004 NASCAR champion Kurt Busch, who will aim to become the fourth driver to run the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, and 19-year-old rookie Sage Karam, a rising star from Nazareth, Pa., whose team turned his Gasoline Alley stall into a makeshift Prom Night setting.
Villeneuve won the 1995 Indy 500 - the last 'real Indy 500 before a civil war between team owners and former Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George caused the formation of a rival series that effectively locked out the sport's biggest names from the Indy 500. IndyCar popularity suffered greatly as fans were angered and confused while NASCAR stepped into the breach and expanded its audience while siphoning off sponsors and driving prospects.
Montoya's emergence came after the split, but he still was a lingering success story of the era — winning a title in 1999 and then dominating the 2000 Indy 500 as the first crossover from the CART Series before moving to Formula One.
Now a pair of drivers with worldwide cache and renown have another chance to reinvigorate the showplace. Montoya, 38, is 15 pounds lighter, and Villeneuve, 43, is sporting a bald spot, but their return to the Brickyard essentially can be viewed as an endorsement of the circuit's slog toward reclaiming relevance six years after the circuits were unified under the IndyCar banner.
"There's always been some questions when the two series separated, and basically that destroyed open-wheel racing in North America," said Villeneuve, who had turned down offers to race Indy in recent years because he wasn't enamored with the circuit or its cars. "Now it's rebuilding. Just look at the state of IndyCar now compared to a few years ago. It's been going in a very positive way. That made it exciting to come back."
And while the Colombian and Canadian were away from IndyCar, they both raced in Formula One and NASCAR, keeping them on the radar of U.S. fans.
"There is no negative when you have guys who have won the 500 before but also races and championships in other series," 14-year IndyCar veteran Oriol Servia said. "When they move around, they create more fans paying attention. So now when these guys come back, you have fans who know them that at least are going to watch this one race. If they like it, they'll watch more."
Said ESPN analyst and 1998 Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever: "It's phenomenal, exceptional. Montoya brings a lot of people back to watching open-wheel racing. Villeneuve, I can't repeat it enough, was a Formula One champion. The history (and) the energy they bring is tremendous to anything they participate." USA Today