INDIANAPOLIS -- This year's Indianapolis 500 has it all -- speed, talent and an unsurpassed combination of experience and youthful daring.
From six former Indy champions in today's 33-car field to the pack of twentysomethings, competition is expected to be fierce in the fastest field ever to race at the Brickyard.
"I don't think anybody is going to be disappointed," said Eddie Cheever Jr., who won in 1998.
Adding to the intrigue in the Memorial Day weekend race -- an event with a distinctly Brazilian flavor -- is the possibility that it could be the final head-to-head showdown between America's two open-wheel racing series.
For the first time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so-called "soft" walls are in place to cushion crashes in the turns of the 2 1/2-mile track.
The entire field averaged 228.648 mph, nearly a full mile per hour faster than the previous record field in 1996, the last year turbocharged engines were used.
The fastest and slowest cars were separated on their four-lap, 10-mile qualifying runs by just 4.753 mph and 2.811 seconds. Pole-winner Bruno Junqueira qualified at 231.342 mph.
Cheever, the only owner-driver in the lineup, said he met with his race team for half a day, planning strategy for the talent-rich field.
"We started going through the whole field, thinking about who our competition is going to be," he said. "I stopped at No. 26. I said, 'This is irrelevant. Why are we doing this? We have to compete against everybody."'
Former IRL champion Greg Ray, starting from the last of 11 three-car rows, said passing could be a nightmare in the 86th running of the race, thanks to the tightly packed lineup.
"It's certainly going to difficult starting that far back," Ray said. "This is an extremely competitive field, a lot of great drivers, a lot of great teams.
"The parity of speed is quite close, so it's difficult to pass somebody that you're 2-3 miles faster than, much less somebody you've been racing lap after lap."
Junqueira is one of seven Brazilians in the field, including four of the top five positions. He finished fifth last year as a rookie, but has matured as a driver and got his first oval win last month in Japan.
Aside from providing some Latin American flair -- during Thursday's practice, the seven Brazilians stood near pit road and kicked around a soccer ball -- Junqueira leads a contingent of eight drivers from CART who will be racing in the IRL's cornerstone event.
"We are proud to be Brazilian and we are proud to race in CART, but in the car at Indy we are just drivers trying to win a race," Junqueira said.
"This race is 500 miles, three-plus hours and you have to be really, really patient," he added. "I think that is everything here, especially for me because I'm young and have a very good and fast car."
The soft-spoken Junqueira is one of a pack of young guns. Others include three 27-year-old Brazilians -- defending champion Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Felipe Giaffone; Sarah Fisher, 21, the only woman in the lineup; Tomas Scheckter, 21, the son of former Formula One champion Jody Scheckter; Brazilian Airton Dare, 24; and reigning IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr., 22.
"It's almost scary how good some of them are," said two-time Indy winner Arie Luyendyk, at 48 the oldest driver in the field. "There's definitely going to be a few Indianapolis winners in that bunch before they're done. But, hopefully, not on Sunday."
Hornish, Fisher and former IRL co-champion Scott Sharp make up the third row, dubbed "Spin Row" because all three spun out on cold tires last year, including pole-winner Sharp on the first turn of the race.
"I can't think about that," said Sharp, who will start eighth.
Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indy winner and now a team owner in CART, is back for the first time since the IRL began competition in 1996. He and the rest of the biggest names in the older series stayed away from Indy until Chip Ganassi broke the boycott in 2000.
Ganassi's drivers that year, Juan Montoya and Jimmy Vasser, finished first and seventh. Roger Penske's team joined Ganassi's last year and led a CART sweep of the first five positions with Castroneves and runner-up Gil de Ferran, two more of the brilliant Brazilians.
Now Penske has moved his team to the IRL, putting Castroneves and de Ferran on the opposite side of the fence. CART is well represented, though.
Besides Junqueira and Kanaan, there's Michael Andretti, who finished third last year; his teammates Dario Franchitti and Paul Tracy; Vasser, now driving for Rahal; 1999 Indy winner Kenny Brack, Junqueira's Ganassi teammate; and Max Papis.
Rahal said all of the CART teams and drivers have been greeted warmly and treated with respect by the IRL. When asked if he believes it's still a rivalry, however, the three-time CART champion said, "Yeah, and I think they do, too.
"I think that kind of gives it some spice. It's the North versus the South, the AFL against the NFL, or whatever," Rahal added, smiling.
With such a tight field, it's likely that some drivers will give the "soft" walls a race day test.
The SAFER (Steel And Foam Energy Reduction) Barrier is constructed of four steel tubes welded together and covering the concrete walls that line the track's corners.
They are held in place with bolts in the concrete and in the back of the steel. Between the walls are 16 1/2 inches of hard, foam insulation that allow the walls to move like a shock absorber, cushioning the impact.
Several drivers have bounced off the new walls this month, with three injuries -- Robby McGehee's small fractures in his upper spine and lower left leg, P.J. Jones' fractured neck vertebrae and Mark Dismore's concussion.
Dismore will start 33rd Sunday, and the other two were considered lucky to have relatively minor injuries given the severity of their crashes.
"The first priority is to make sure that you're putting something on the wall that is not worse than what we already have out there," said Brian Barnhart, the IRL's vice president of operations. "We think we've done that."
The race also features George Mack, the second black driver in Indy history. Willy T. Ribbs was the first, in 1991 and 1993.
Mack said the color of his skin didn't matter.
"My parents were never into that sort of thing," said Mack, whose father was a modified racer. "I never heard that I was a black racer growing up. It was nothing to do with being black."
The spotlight also will be on Robby Gordon, now a regular in NASCAR's Winston Cup series, who will start 11th. If all goes well, he'll fly after the race to Charlotte to drive another 600 miles in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Gordon has tried the race-day double twice before. In 1997, rain postponed Indy and Gordon finished 35th in the stock car race on Sunday, then came back here to finish 29th the following day. A rain delay at Indy in 2000 caused Gordon to miss the start of the 600. P.J. Jones subbed for Gordon in the stock car race, which was red-flagged due to rain after 261 of 400 laps. Gordon climbed into the stock and went on to finish 35th.
"It's just a matter of putting the pieces together on Sunday, and of course, praying it doesn't rain at Indy," Gordon said. "But we're planning to win both."
NASCAR star and former IRL champion Tony Stewart pulled off the double last May, completing all 1,100 miles as he finished sixth in Indy and third in Charlotte. This year, the Indiana native chose to skip this race to concentrate on the Winston Cup points race.
The weather forecast should ease Gordon's mind, calling for sunny skies and a high of 72.
That should also please Firestone, the exclusive tire supplier for the IRL, easing fears of excessive wear from the grooves produced when officials ground down the speedway's asphalt surface over the winter to smooth it out.
"The track is real abrasive right now because of the grooves from the grinding," Ray said. "As long as all the rubber isn't washed off by rain before the race, though, the only problem is probably going to be in the early going. After that, there will be plenty of rubber down.
"If there's a yellow and you're anywhere near half a tank (of fuel), though, it's going to be time to pit for tires, especially on the first two stints."