NDIANAPOLIS — INDIANAPOLIS -- Remember 1994, when Bobby Rahal, a previous winner and three-time national champion, failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500? Or the next year, when Roger Penske's drivers, defending 500 winner Al Unser Jr. and two-time winner Emerson Fittipaldi, couldn't get in the race?
Nothing like that will happen this year.
Anyone who shows up with a chassis and an engine is nearly guaranteed a place in the 87th version of "the Greatest Spectacle in Racing," the $9-million race May 25 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Pole qualifying is set for today and there is serious concern that there may not be 33 cars trying to earn places in the starting field.
As practice ended Friday, Robby Gordon had the fastest lap, 231.362 mph. Gordon is driving as a replacement for Dario Franchitti, who was injured in a motorcycle accident in Scotland last month, in one of the Andretti Green Racing team cars.
Fastest of the week was rookie Dan Wheldon of England, another Andretti driver, at 232.202 mph. Wheldon is the designated replacement when Michael Andretti retires after the 500.
Lap speeds are not necessarily meaningful in predicting qualifying speed, considering that the driver might have been on a tow in the draft of another car. Qualifying speed is the average speed of four laps around the 2.5-mile rectangular oval -- one car at a time. The record of 236.986, set by Arie Luyendyk in 1996, will not be approached as it occurred in the final year of turbocharged engines here.
There also will not be a repeat pole winner. CART driver Bruno Junqueira, last year's fast qualifier at 231.341, is not entered in this Indy Racing League event.
Only 28 driver-car combinations are committed at the moment. There are 30 cars assigned pits, but one of those belongs to CART's Jimmy Vasser, who is racing in Germany this week and will not attempt to qualify until bump day a week from Sunday.
The Johnny Lightning Special, winner of the 500 in 1970 and 1971, was wheeled onto the track Thursday with four-time 500 winner Al Unser in the cockpit as part of the track's historical promotion. No sooner had the car appeared than they were joking in Gasoline Alley, "They're getting it ready for bump day."
If more cars don't materialize this weekend, bump day may be little more than Vasser posting a speed to determine where he will start.
There are two reasons for the paucity of equipment. First is the economy, which makes it difficult to find a sponsor willing to cough up $300,000 for a chassis and $125,000 for an engine for one race, even if it is the Indianapolis 500. The other is that new IRL regulations for 2003 eliminated the possibility of bringing an older car to the track and putting it in the field.
Often, the winning car has been an older model, updated with the latest trick parts. Cars in this year's field will have new engines and new transmissions in new chassis, and because it is the first year of a three-year regulation, engines are at a premium, even if teams have the money.
Toyota and Honda, which were building turbocharged engines for CART before bolting to the IRL, are in their first year of creating naturally aspirated V-8 power plants and only so many can be built in a year.
Toyota is supplying five teams and 12 cars, Honda five teams and nine cars.
Chevrolet engines won 14 of the 15 IRL races last year, but Chevy had to build a new power plant as well to adhere to 2003 regulations. There are nine Chevy-powered cars to supply and no spare engines to sell to anyone else.
Infiniti, the only other IRL engine supplier since the league's formation in 1996, dropped out this year.
Toyota -- Team Penske (Helio Castroneves, Gil de Ferran), Kelley Racing (Scott Sharp, Al Unser Jr., Tony Renna), Ganassi Racing (Scott Dixon, Tomas Scheckter), Mo Nunn Racing (Luyendyk, Felipe Giaffone, Tora Takagi), Foyt Enterprises (A.J. Foyt IV, Shigeaki Hattori).
Honda -- Team Rahal (Kenny Brack, Vasser), Andretti Green Racing (Michael Andretti, Tony Kanaan, Wheldon, Gordon), Super Aguri Fernandez (Roger Yasukawa), Access Motorsports (Greg Ray), Beck Motorsports (Shinji Nakano).
Chevrolet -- Panther Racing (Sam Hornish Jr., Billy Boat), Team Menard (Jacques Lazier, Vitor Meira), Cheever Racing (Buddy Rice), Hemelgarn Racing (Buddy Lazier), Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (Sarah Fisher, Robbie Buhl), PDM (Jimmy Kite),
The two chassis manufacturers, Dallara and G Force, appear to be evenly matched. So evenly that Roger Penske, winner of 12 Indy 500s as an owner, is sending Castroneves out to try for an unprecedented third consecutive 500 victory in a Dallara and De Ferran in a G Force.
"That probably is a pretty good validation that we have two solid car manufacturers supplying chassis to teams that are very, very competitive," Penske said.
This year's entry may be short on numbers, but not on competitiveness. In Friday's final practice before pole qualifying, there were 18 cars within one second, remarkable for a 2 1/2-mile racetrack.