Alonsomania Sweeping 101st Running Of Indy 500

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 27 2017

The biggest story in Indianapolis this May has been that of two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso and his bid to win the 500. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

INDIANAPOLIS – It hasn’t been easy trying to upstage Fernando Alonso this Month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Alonsomania is running WFO _ Wide. Flat. Open.

Scott Dixon breathed in whatever air was left swirling around inside the venerable “Cathedral of Speed” last Sunday, when he qualified on-pole for the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 at 232.164 mph. Dixon, winner of the 2008 Indy 500 and a four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion with Chip Ganassi Racing, will pace the field Sunday into Turn 1 for a 200-lap sprint that he believes eventually will include _ who else? _ Fernando!

“Yeah, for sure. For the majority of the drivers to win on Sunday you’re going to have to beat, I think, an Andretti car,” said Dixon, referring to Alonso and his No. 29 McLaren-Honda fielded by Andretti Autosport.  “I think he (Alonso) has shown that he’s adapted very quickly and he’s got great people around him. He obviously processes things quickly and he’s one of the greats in motor racing in the world. I think he’s done a helluva job so far, and to possibly win on Sunday you’re going to have to beat him and several of his teammates.”

Indeed, the racing Americanization of Alonso will come full-circle at IMS, where one of the world’s premier road-racers has emerged as a bona fide contender to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Alonsomania is rampant at the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road, similar to the

Pole-sitter Scott Dixon says Fernando Alonso will be a contender in Sunday’s 500. (RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

buzz created in 2005 by rookie Danica Patrick’s fourth-place start/finish and the launch of Danicamania. Alonso No. 29 caps were sold-out at most Speedway gift shops Friday…with the promise of more on the way for the weekend. Alonso t-shirts also are moving fast. Want a souvenir die-cast of Alonso’s papaya orange McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda? Forget about it…his late entry into the race last month precluded production of a popular collectible. Maybe if he wins?

A two-time Formula One World Driving Champion, Alonso is classified as a rookie at IMS. Admittedly, the 35-year-old Spaniard still is adjusting to the totally American form of racing an open-wheel car on an oval surrounded by concrete walls at speeds in excess of 230 mph. But following an incident-free month that has taken him from orientation into practice and through qualifying, Alonso has declared himself and his car good-to-go.

“It was great. I mean, it was very smooth,” Alonso said after Friday’s one-hour Carb Day practice, the last time the 33-car starting field would run on the 2.5-mile IMS layout until Sunday morning. “The car felt the best so far in the last two weeks. Today, I think we put all the ticks in all the boxes and extremely happy. You know, all the main guys they have little tricks here and there I will hopefully learn through the race. But yeah, I feel ready.”

Alonso’s self-confidence stems from a hot lap of 226.608 mph during Friday’s practice, good for fifth overall on the chart. Alonso qualified fifth during last Sunday’s Fast Nine Shootout, logging a four-lap/10-mile average of 231.300 mph. Fernando ran 32 more laps Friday, raising his total for the month to 484 and 1,210 miles. All. Trouble. Free.

“So, (I’m) lacking experience, for sure, because it’s my first time in everything that’s going to happen _ the rolling starts and (pit) stops _ all these things,” Alonso said. “But at the same time, I’ve worked very, very hard this last month so I cannot be better prepared than what I am. Maybe it’s not enough, but I could not do anything more than this.”

Alonso, who drives for McLaren F1 in the FIA’s Formula One World Championship, is sixth on that series’ all-time list with 32 victories. His world championships were scored in

Papaya orange has been the color du jour every day at Indy Speedway this month. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

2005 and 2006 with Renault F1. Alonso shocked the globetrotting F1 community on April 12, when he announced he had corporate permission to vacate his non-competitive No. 14 McLaren-Honda at the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix to compete at IMS in a car provided by Michael Andretti, former Indy car star but F1 flop with McLaren.

Alonso collaborated with Californian Zak Brown, the new executive director of McLaren Technology Group, to compete at IMS as the second rung of a personal Triple Crown quest. Already a two-time winner at Monaco, Alonso is looking to add victories in the Indy 500 and sports car endurance racing’s 24 Hours of Le Mans in France to his bulging resume. Englishman Graham Hill is the only driver to have won all three marquee events.

That said, Alonso has fully embraced the history, traditions and American-style public relations obligations connected with IMS. “I think there are a few things that are very unique here,” said Alonso, who visited a local elementary school earlier this week to play LEGOs and work science projects with surprised students. “First, a sports event that hosts 350,000 people is a one-and-only event. This is the Indy 500. Not even the Super Bowl can achieve those numbers in that moment, live, as an event.

“The 101st edition _ I don’t think there are many events in the world that reach that number _ so there is a history behind this name, this race. There are big names that have won this race as well, and it’s so different of what I am used to drive _ these cars, this place, oval racing _ to come here and to be racing with them is just a big thing for me.”

Paul Kelly, IMS senior communications manager, said Alonso has made his suave self available, and charming as ever, during all at-track interviews in the language of your

A field of 33 drivers will push their cars over the 230 mph mark just to get a drink of milk on Sunday. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

choice. He has posed with fans for selfies, signed countless autographs and rolled his “r’s” in a manner that would make Fernando Lamas _ that 1970s purveyor of Chrysler Cordobas featuring rich Corinthian leather _ envious. All part of this all-American adventure, Alonso said.

“But the thing that I enjoy most is racing,” said Alonso, whose F1 salary reportedly is $35-million per year. “Being in the car, driving, that makes me happy. All the other things are extras and you accept that because this is a one-off. All the media attention and all the things I have to do that are extra things here because I’m new to this place…but the thing I really enjoy is racing.

“I think in Formula One, the spare time when you are not in the car you are talking with engineers and preparing the strategy. The cars are very complex, the technology is very complex and you have to make sure that everything is under control. Here, because the cars are not that complex, all that extra time you spend with the fans and the media, which is a little bit better than engineers.”

Andretti’s six-car armada includes reigning Indy 500 champion Alexander Rossi and 2014 race-winner Ryan Hunter-Reay. Rossi, a native Californian who abandoned his F1 dream to compete in this series, won the Indy 500 as a rookie last May in his second oval-track start.

Rossi acknowledged his return to IMS largely has been overshadowed by Alonsomania _ and that’s OK. “Getting to work with somebody I grew up idolizing and having a huge amount of respect for…just to be able to kind of work with him on the same level for a couple of weeks has been a very, very cool experience,” said Rossi, driver of the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts – Curb Honda. “Gotten to know him off the track as well. He’s a great guy and I hope we see more of him in the future.”

That remains the overall sentiment among Gasoline Alley’s “main guys,” as Alonso has tabbed the drivers he expects to be racing during the course of 200 laps. “I think he’s done a really good job,” said Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, a two-time Indy 500 champion and former Formula One regular driving the No. 22 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevrolet for Team Penske. “He’s still got to go through the race and figure out what happens. I think he’ll be fine. I want him to be OK _ not as good as me _ but OK.”

American Graham Rahal, son of 1986 Indy 500 champion Bobby and a keen student of IMS history, said it’s been great watching Alonso operate at all levels. “He’s enjoyed himself _ and he’s got a really good shot to win it,” said Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. “Hopefully one of us will beat him. Obviously he’s a great driver, I don’t think that changes the game too much. But for sure _ look around here (on Media Day) _ there’s a lot more international media and people are paying more attention, which is phenomenal.”

Informed that he has been installed among the pre-race favorites by Las Vegas oddsmakers, Alonso was asked if that expectation was a fair. “Probably no,” Alonso said with a smile. “I mean, I know this is a race everyone has a chance to win it, it’s an unpredictable race. Guys that start maybe 24th will lead the race after 50 laps or wherever. That’s the good thing about this race, that we all have possibility.

“I think I have a lower chance than some of the big names because I’m lacking that experience. But if I have a chance I will go for it. I’m prepared. I will try to compensate that lack of experience with good motivation, good racing speed and out of respect for everyone, out of respect for the race. But if they want to bet and they put the money on myself, I will try to make them happy.”

Brazilian Tony Kanaan, the 2004 Verizon IndyCar Series champion, scored an emotional and popular victory in the 2013 Indy 500 in his 12th Brickyard start. Kanaan, 42, believes Alonso truly is in his element and ready to drive WFO.

“I mean, he is Fernando!, man,” said Kanaan, driver of the No. 10 NTT Data Honda fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing. “I think in a way he helped us a lot to grow the name of this series outside the United States. A lot of people kept wondering if he’s going to have any problem. But he’s a big contender for Sunday; 100 percent _ 100 percent _ I think he can win.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 27 2017
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