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May 25, 2013

LOPRESTI: Indy may need an American champion

Last American winner was in 2006

INDIANAPOLIS —  Here is an enigma every Memorial Day weekend: All the lead-footed drivers you see on any freeway in this nation, and we can’t find one to win the Indianapolis 500?

Not lately, anyway. This is a place where 62 of 64 victories from 1921-88 were made in the USA, which seemed natural enough. Americans dominating an event in the middle of America.

Then the sport changed. The 500 is now as American as the hammer throw. There have been only two US winners in the past 14 races, none in the past six.

“Is that right?” asked Buddy Lazier, who noted nationalities aren’t much on a man’s mind when he is going into Turn 1.  But yep, it’s right. And where Lazier fits in, he’s the only Yank of the 11 in Sunday’s starting lineup who has won here before.

“Because it’s an American event,” Lazier was saying, “I think it’s important to have Americans that are competitive, absolutely. But what’s important is the best guy wins. It’s important for American motor sport that we’re developing some of the best drivers.”

Which brings us to Sunday. To be sure, there would be nothing wrong with Helio Castroneves or Dario Franchitti joining the rarified air of the four-victory club. Huge stories, each. But what is striking this year is how so many possible storylines are native sons. (But not native daughters, since Danica Patrick and her aura are gone.)

Start with the driver/owner on the pole. What could be a more all-American saga than Ed Carpenter, who first learned driving on a farm tractor, grew up only a few miles from the Speedway, graduated from nearby Butler, and somehow ended up faster with his own one-horse operation than all the mega-teams?

His underdog tale is Hoosiers, on four tires.

“I’m not sure you can imagine something like that,” said golfer Fuzzy Zoeller, whose brand of vodka is a Carpenter sponsor.

“I don’t like to say it means more to me, just because I’m from here,” Carpenter said. “But it means a lot to me just because I love this place.”

 If not Carpenter, how about the guy on the outside of the front row? His last name rings an Indy 500 bell.

 “Forget American, they need an Andretti to win,” Marco Andretti said of the masses. An understandable sentiment from him — if slightly tongue in cheek — since he not only fights a USA drought at Indianapolis, but a supposed family curse that has limited the racing dynasty to but a lonely win here; Mario’s in 1969.

“When you’re out in front, leading this race, you always think about it,” he said.  “As competitors, it’s frustrating. Seventy-plus drives and only one win. As human beings, we’re lucky. We’re all healthy and I still have a great shot of winning this race.

“I’ve never wanted something so bad in my life. Nobody could any more pressure on me than I’m already putting on myself.”

Or if not a famous last name, then maybe a famous first name. In the second row is rookie AJ Allmendinger, christened after A.J. You Know Who.

Since the civil war with CART, this event has lost a step. How much the ebb in American winners has hurt is hard to gauge.  The international flavor has always been an important component of the race.

But one voice from on high — A.J. Foyt’s — noted that “what made Indy as great as it was before, 90 percent of the drivers were American drivers.”

The factor was not passport, but familiarity, as fans grew to know drivers from their formative years. And now, Foyt said, “A lot of drivers might fly in here, win the race, go on. People don’t even know who they are.”

An American winner would not change everything. But it won’t hurt, either, if one is making his 801st left turn of the day into Victory Lane. Be it Carpenter’s sentimental journey, Andretti’s deliverance, a surprise by one of the young guns.

“Being that we’re right in the heart of America,” Carpenter said, “there’s no denying it’s a big deal for an American to win this race.”

Also, rare.

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