Hideki Mutoh, right, of Japan, sits on the pit wall as he waits for the final day of practice on Friday for the Indianapolis 500.AP photo
INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis 500 has always had a distinct American flavor.
Winners sip the most traditional of American drinks, milk, in Victory Lane after a race defined by great rivalries and dangerously fast speeds.
But thanks to a blend of cultures, fans and languages that has turned the famed Brickyard in middle America into a veritable melting pot, the Indy 500 is the biggest race in the world.
“This is probably the only one that gets them together like this,” said former series champion Tony Kanaan, a Brazilian and one of 20 foreign-born drivers competing Sunday.
“You have it some in Formula One, but this race is different because when you put all the countries together, it’s just unbelievable.”
“The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” has been a proving ground for the world’s best drivers, wherever they come from.
Whether it was former Formula One champions Nigel Mansell of England or Nelson Piquet of Brazil or Englishman Graham Hill pulling into the winner’s circle, international contingents have been as much a part of Indianapolis as Jim Nabors singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” on race day.
“The Indy 500 has always been an international race,” said Ed Carpenter, one of 13 Americans in this year’s field and the stepson of Indy Racing League founder and Indy boss Tony George.
“It’s the greatest track in the world and the greatest race in the world, so it brings out the best (drivers) in the world.”
And the numerous nationalities have given the IRL a significant advantage: It can market its product everywhere.
“I think that makes it bigger than what it could be,” said Australian Ryan Briscoe, who will start third on the outside of the first row Sunday. “We’re getting different personalities. I think it’s good, plus you do have a lot of talented Americans in the field.”
The 33 drivers in this year’s race represent 10 different countries. Since 1995, 10 race winners were born outside the United States. That phenomenon dates back to the race’s earliest days when it was billed as the “International 500-mile Sweepstakes.”
“It’s always been this way,” Kanaan said. “What you’re seeing just proves it more and more.”
Many international drivers grew up dreaming of driving on the Formula One circuit, only to start watching a countryman race IndyCars. Two-time Indy winner Emerson Fittipaldi hooked Kanaan.
When: 1 p.m., Sunday on ABC
Track: Indianapolis Motor Speedway (rectangular oval, 2.5 miles, 9 degrees banking in turns).
Distance: 500 miles, 200 laps.