Almost everyone who has ever been to Indianapolis Motor Speedway agrees it is special. The facility seats more than 250,000. During its glory years, an estimated 400,000 attended the Indianapolis 500. On race day, the infield turned into a small city, parts of which you wouldn't want wives, daughters or sisters to visit.

Sunday's Indy 500 marks the centennial of the prestigious race, though only the 95th running of the race (no races were held in 1917 and '18 during World War I, and 1942-45 during World War II). Ray Harroun won the first Indy race in 1911.

Following a split in 1995 between the U.S. Auto Club and Championship Auto Racing Teams over control of open-wheel racing, the Indy 500's stature diminished, as several top drivers raced in the CART series. The Indy race has gradually worked its way back onto the national sports radar.

"A lot of the energy is back," Mario Andretti, winner of the 1969 Indy 500, said this week from Indianapolis. "The field is strong. You'll probably see one of the best races ever, because the field is so competitive. A lot of the drivers who were strangers a couple years ago are becoming known names."

Among those known names is Marco Andretti, Mario's 24-year-old grandson. After qualifying struggles, Marco will start 28th in the 33-car field.

Marco is the fifth Andretti to race at Indy. Preceding him were Mario, Mario's sons, Michael and Jeff, and his nephew, John. Now a part-time racer, John, 48, qualified 17th.

Mario, a longtime Nazareth, Pa., resident, is the only Andretti to win at Indy. Michael, who owns the teams Marco and Danica Patrick race for, was winless in 16 Indys.

Mario fondly recalled the 1992 Indy 500, when he, Michael, Jeff and John were in the race, marking the first time four members of the same family raced at Indy.

"It feels special to be part of this centennial celebration, because I've been here for almost half of them," said Mario, 71. "People say the place hasn't been kind to us. I disagree. In many ways, we had a lot of satisfaction out of it. I only have positive memories here."

Mario ranks third in laps led at Indy (556), behind four-time winner Al Unser Sr. (644) and Ralph de Palma (612).

Canadian Alex Tagliani will be on the pole Sunday. Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 winner, and Oriol Servia will join him on the front row.

Patrick is one of four women in the race, along with Simona De Silvestro, Pippa Mann and Ana Beatriz. The four women ties last year's record for female starters.

De Silvestro, 22, of Switzerland, severely burned her hands in a fiery crash last week in practice.

"I don't think anybody truly appreciates or understands the pain this young woman has gone through to wrap those hands and be able to climb into that car," said Marty Reid, ABC's race broadcast anchor. Describing her racing ability, Reid said, "She's the real deal."

With Patrick collecting only one win in 6-plus years in IndyCar racing, there are questions about whether she is an elite racer. Scott Goodyear, an ABC Sports racing analyst and former IndyCar racer, said much of a driver's success depends on his or her team.

"I'm not saying that Danica is as talented as Will Power on a road course or as Helio Castroneves on an oval," Goodyear said, "but she certainly seems to have the ability to challenge other drivers on ovals when her equipment is right."

The Indy 500 is the opening act of the greatest day in sports: the Indy 500, followed by the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte - 1,100 miles of racin'!


The 2007 racing team for Kimi Raikkonen was incorrect in yesterday's auto-racing column. He won the 2007 Formula One title driving for Ferrari. *

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