The Brickyard is no stranger to World Champion drivers.
Jack Clark won in 1965, followed by Graham Hill the next year. Mario Andretti returned to USAC/IndyCar duty after he won his Formula One crown with Colin Chapman and Lotus. Emerson Fittapaldi won twice, once beating Nigel Mansell for the carafe of milk.
There is a certain buzz coming from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week. Not because it is the month of May and that the 101st running of the 500 is just a few weeks away. It is because of another Formula One champion arriving at The Brickyard for his turn at one of the greatest motorsport venues in the world.
The arrival of two-time World Champion driver Fernando Alonso has become the focus at Indy this month. He threw his name into the entry list with hopes off being on the grid the Sunday before Memorial Day. The Spanish Formula One driver took a leave from his duties with McLaren-Honda to pilot another Honda-powered car. Andretti Motorsport got the support of the McLaren team to enter Alonso in the Indy 500.
For the years I have followed this race, there has never been such a huge buzz over a single driver in years. The Brickyard has its favorites – Tony Kanaan, Helio Castrovenes, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Power, etc. – all of the current stars of the Verizon IndyCar circuit. However, Alonso is a name that has massive global recognition and offers a larger-than-life presence on The Brickyard. It was the additional spark the month of May needed in Indianapolis.
As I watched some of Alonso's test laps at Indy, there was something I noticed that was different about the Formula One star. It was revealed during a pit area interview via IndyCar's Facebook page. On the F1 circuit, Alonso is usually reserved, cautious and calculated. Sometimes he would exhibit some frustration and disgust at times. Not this time. The Spanish driver seemed relaxed, friendly, nervous and excited. Alonso was happy to at Indy.
His new rivals welcomed him with open arms before Alonso arrived at The Brickyard. He also felt some ease, as the new experience of driving in a different direction, catching higher speeds in the corners than on Formula One courses and the difference in the cars as part of Alonso's Rookie Orientation into this great race.
Alonso will also be able to meet fans, sign autographs and do the other things Kanaan, Montoya, Power, Castroneves and his other IndyCar rivals will be doing in and around Gasoline Alley. He will doing things out of his Formula One zone. To Alonso, it is all part of a new experience for him.
In his post practice press conference, Alonso was very appreciative in the way the Andretti team worked with him on the set-up for his first laps on The Brickyard. He was also appreciative of the atmosphere at Indy. As Alonso said: "it's a special place for motorsport in general. To race here in May on the Indy 500, it feels quite a big thing."
It is, Fernando. It a big thing for us. Yes, you raced here when the United States Grand Prix was there. You said that you took pictures because you felt it was an honor to race there. Now, you arrived to do the 500 – or, at least get into qualification for it.
He even admits that he was not "up to speed" for the next step towards the 500. That is perfectly fine. Alonso's fans understand the challenge IndyCar and The Brickyard offers every entrant from Rookie Qualification to the final checkered flag.
Alonso is not unique among Indy 500 rookies. He is 35 years old and have accomplished a lot in his Formula One career. As with every rookie before him, Alonso has no expectations on what he wanted to accomplish at Indy.
But, if you ask any of his fans, they want Alonso to make it on the grid – and keep on racking up points on the F1 circuit. This is why Alonso will be going back-and-forth to fulfill his Indy 500 mission. After all, he has another job to do.
Let us not forget that if Alonso makes it onto the grid, he will have 32 other entrants to contend with over 500 miles of The Brickyard's 2.5 mile course. The odds may be for or against Alonso to make it onto the grid – depending on how he does in qualifying. If he does – this will be a 500 to watch. It will be one for the fans to recount, even a half a world away.
Remember, Fernando, it's all left turns.