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Buzz returns to Indy 500

A wide-open field fuels recovery from years of turmoil.

INDIANAPOLIS - Tony Kanaan, the gregarious racecar driver from Brazil, began hearing the stories from the old-timers and hangers-on not long after he arrived for his first Indianapolis 500 nine years ago. There was one common thread: The Indy 500 used to be a lot better.

Sometimes, particularly when wide patches of the enormous gray grandstands were noticeably empty three years ago, Kanaan wondered if he would ever feel the excitement the way that the veterans had described it.

But this year, as the race celebrates its 100th anniversary, Kanaan and other longtime participants in the event have seen signs of a revival. Kanaan said it took longer for him to get in and out of the racetrack. Forty-one cars were entered to qualify for the 33-car field, the most since 2002. Kanaan said he was noticed at local restaurants by many people, not just one.

Ticket sales for the race are up by 10 percent over a year ago, and retail sales are up by nearly 30 percent, Jeff Belskus, the president and chief executive of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said last week.

Some of the extra business can be attributed to the 100th anniversary of Ray Harroun winning the first race on May 30, 1911 (he needed 6 hours, 42 minutes to rumble 500 miles in his Marmon Wasp), but not all of it.

This year's field has no clear favorite and greater parity than in years past. All but one of the last 10 races at Indianapolis have been won by cars owned by Roger Penske, Michael Andretti, or Chip Ganassi. Of the top 15 cars to qualify for the race this year, only three are owned by Penske, Andretti, or Ganassi. There are five race teams represented in the top six on the grid, including two cars owned by Sam Schmidt.