SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Sting Ray Robb, racing since he was a tyke, has seen a lot on track in his 21 years, but there is one thing he has yet to experience from the inside: the start of the Indianapolis 500.
Robb will be piloting one of 33 cars when the 107th 500-Mile Race commences a bit after 11 a.m. Central time. He is in the last row. Thirty cars will be in front of him, churning up multiple vortices of turbulence in front of more than 300,000 spectators while speeding toward, and ideally through, Turn 1 of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
There will be dust, exhaust fumes, bits of asphalt, maybe a hot dog wrapper or two, all flying about as the cars in front of him maneuver for an open space that may not be open when they get there.
All he has to do is follow them and get through unscathed.
“Survive is the name of the game,” Robb said. “Be ready for anything.”
“Survive is the name of the game. Be ready for anything.”— Sting Ray Robb, Dale Coyne Racing
Robb has been advised by Dale Coyne Racing teammate David Malukas, who finished 18th last year in his first 500, and Coyne himself about the frenzy of the start and of the race morning buildup, when a sea of aluminum seating suddenly is filled to the brim with kaleidoscopic color.
“He said it feels like you’re in a wind tunnel,” Robb said. “It’s a blender of air from different directions. And being back on the last row, I’m sure it’s going to be a lot worse.”
“The track has a very different feeling when all the people are in the grandstands,” Malukas said. “You get more of a tunnel vision. The racing speed is slower, because people are trying to hit fuel targets. And the race is extremely long.
“Whatever you think long it is, times it by 10.”
Robb and Malukas will be chasing a dream difficult to accomplish. Usually, the big teams dominate the 500, although Helio Castroneves’ fourth 500 victory for Meyer Shank Racing two years ago proved even those without gold-plated wrenches can win. (Castroneves starts 20th this year in chasing a record fifth 500.)
Coyne’s Honda-powered, Plainfield-based team has struggled this season, with one exception. Malukas’ best 2023 finish is fourth at Texas, the only oval race before this weekend, while Robb’s is 16th at the series opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.
“Chevy had a good spell when it came to qualifying,” Malukas said. “Honda’s going to be dominant when it comes to racing and fuel [economy]. Maybe the field found something we didn’t find, but when we qualified, we were jumping up and down like we go the pole.”
As they were for Robb. As for his first name, Robb’s Chevrolet-loving parents named him Sting Ray after both the car and the nickname of their ancestral Scotland home, and his grandfather.
At the front of the field sits Spain’s Alex Palou, who also leads the series standings. His qualifying speed of 234.217 mph is the fastest pole speed in 500 history, and the field average of 232.184 mph also is a record, with 16 cars within 2 mph of Palou.
That equates to a tightly packed field, and in theory, a good deal of passing within the pack, if the aerodynamics of the car allow. Last year they did not, but the Dallara IR-18 has been tweaked a bit to improve the possibility.
Palou and Ganassi Racing teammates Scott Dixon, Takuma Sato (fastest in Friday’s final practice) and Marcus Ericsson, the winner last year, are considered the co-favorites with the Team McLaren quartet of Felix Rosenqvist, Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi and Tony Kanaan, for whom this race is a retirement run.
But it would be foolish to count out the drivers of Team Penske (Will Power, Scott McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden) or Andretti Autosport (Kyle Kirkwood and Romain Grosjean), even though Power is the highest starter at 12th on the grid. Too much can happen.
Monday’s practice might have been a hint. Katherine Legge crashed into Stefan Wilson, sending him to Methodist Hospital and out of the race. Graham Rahal, bumped from the field Sunday, was signed to replace Wilson, moving from Honda power to Chevrolet for the weekend.
“We’ll tell him position one, two, three, four,” teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay said of Rahal’s fuel instructions. “That’s the extent, because next week he’s back at Honda.”
Then there’s hard-charging Santino Ferrucci, a former Coyne driver running for A.J. Foyt who starts fourth, the best start in the 500 for a Foyt car since Robby Gordon started third (and finished 21st) in 2001. He’s finished in the top 10 in his four 500 starts, including fourth driving for Coyne in 2020, but knows how capricious fortune can be.
“You can have this race won all day long and not win this race,” Ferrucci said.
Thursday, track president Doug Boles said there were only 5,000 seats left out of about 230,000, the briskest sales since the sold-out 100th running in 2016. Practice and qualifying crowds have been larger this year.
In a post-pandemic world and under the ownership of Roger Penske, the 500 seems to have rebounded well.
A few years ago, McLaren chief Zak Brown decided to get back into IndyCar, adding it to the firm’s Formula One operation. Why?
Said Brown on Friday, “I don’t think there’s a bigger race in the world than the Indianapolis 500.”