INDIANAPOLIS — Every Indianapolis 500 is a sporting event unto itself, but today's 70th anniversary race is something special.
For the first time in history, the entire 500 miles--more than three hours of 200 m.p.h. racing around the ancient 2 1/2-mile rectangular oval of Indianapolis Motor Speedway--will be televised live (Channel 7, 9 a.m., PDT).
The 500, before a crowd anticipated between 350,000 and 400,000 and a nationwide TV audience, will showcase the fastest field in racing history.
Rick Mears, a two-time winner from Bakersfield, will start on the pole with a record 216.828 qualifying speed for 10 miles, but the quality of the 33 starters is underlined by these facts: The average speed for all the cars of 210.358 is faster than the pole sitter just two years ago. And the slowest qualifying speed of 207.082 by Geoff Brabham, a transplanted Australian now living in nearby Noblesville, Ind., would have won him the pole in 1983.
As in any race, among the starters are a group of heavy favorites, another group of finishers and a group generally known as back-markers, ones not expected to challenge for the lead.
This is how they line up today:
If this were the Kentucky Derby instead of the Indianapolis 500, the Roger Penske entry of Mears, Danny Sullivan and Al Unser would be strong favorites. Or maybe they would be taken off the board.
Rarely has one team fielded such an array of talent.
Mears, the winner in 1979 and 1984, has recuperated from a terrifying accident in September of 1984 that sidelined him for nearly 18 months with injuries to both feet. He has consistently been the quickest driver here this month as well as the smoothest.
Sullivan, the defending champion, could become the first back-to-back winner since Al Unser in 1970-71 in the Vel's Parnelli Jones Colt-Ford. Sullivan won the final race in 1985 at Miami, and this month only his teammate Mears has upstaged him. He will start in the middle of the front row.
Unser, a three-time 500 winner, is the national champion after starting out in 1985 as a backup driver for the injured Mears.
"I've heard some of the other drivers say that Danny or I might run away from the field," Mears said, "but I can't see it happening. There are too many fast cars out there. I would say there are 10 teams with a chance to win.
"One thing I know for sure, and that is that it will be quick. I expect to see laps during the race between 208 and 209."
What happens if the race comes down to Mears and Sullivan, or perhaps Unser, in an all-Penske finish?
"When the flag drops, it's every man for himself," Mears said as Sullivan listened, nodding his head in agreement. "We race as hard, or harder, against each other as we do against anyone else. And we all know that Roger would like nothing better than to see us coming down to the line together after 500 miles."
It happened once. Penske cars, driven by Bobby Unser, Mears and Mario Andretti, finished 1-2-3 in the 1979 California 500 at Ontario.
THE CHARGERS The most exciting moments during the race may come early as three former winners come charging up through the field.
Andretti, the 1969 winner who has suffered one frustration after another here in the 16 races since, will be coming from the 10th row. He originally had a spot on row 2, just behind son Michael, but when he destroyed his Newman-Haas Lola in a practice accident, he had to take another car and start in the rear.
A.J. Foyt, the 500's only four-time champion, will be coming from the seventh row in one of the fastest cars here. Foyt qualified fifth fastest at 213.212 m.p.h., but because he didn't do it on the first qualifying day, he has to start behind slower first-day qualifiers.
Tom Sneva, who won in 1983 and came from 33rd to finish second in 1980, will be moving from the third row. No one can pass in traffic like Sneva, so it will be interesting to see how long it takes him to get to the front.
THE KIDS Father-and-son combinations have become almost commonplace in auto racing, but even their families have been surprised at the manner in which Michael Andretti, 23, and his longtime friend, Al Unser Jr., 24, have moved to the forefront of Indy car racing.
Young Andretti won the Long Beach Grand Prix last month for his first Indy car win, and young Unser lost the national championship by a single point to his father last year.
Michael out-qualified his father and will start on the front row with the Penske twins. Little Al is back in the third row, just behind his dad.
Other under-30 drivers, all winless in Indy cars, include Scott Brayton, 27, and Mexico's Josele Garza, 24; Colombia's Roberto Guerrero, 27; and two Brazilians, Raul Boesel, 28, and rookie Roberto Moreno, 27.
THE SOLIDS The Penske trio notwithstanding, it would surprise no one in racing circles if today's race was won by Bobby Rahal, Emerson Fittipaldi, Geoff Brabham, Kevin Cogan or Pancho Carter.