The great names were there. A.J. Foyt stood in the garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Saturday, offering last-minute instructions to his driver, Takuma Sato, before the start of qualifying for Sunday's Indianapolis 500. The silver-haired Roger Penske, whose cars have won the race 15 times, chatted with one of his drivers, Helio Castroneves, on pit road. And Michael Andretti huddled with his son Marco before his boy slid into his car for his qualifying attempt.
Yet the fact that the most identifiable figures in IndyCar are team owners underscores how far the sport has receded in the national consciousness. In the 1970s and '80s, when red-white-and-blue drivers such as Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser were competing for 500 victories, Indy racing had a strong foothold in the sporting landscape. And young kids like Tony Stewart, growing up in Columbus, Ind., dreamed of one day winning at the Brickyard, not joining NASCAR. But after the disastrous split in American open-wheel racing (into CART and IndyCar) in '96, attendance and TV ratings eroded and young, talented drivers with open-wheel backgrounds, like Stewart, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne, began to leave the sport for stock cars. In 2011, Danica Patrick became the latest big name to bolt IndyCar for a ride in NASCAR.
But to those who have been paying attention, the 2013 IndyCar season has been one of the most compelling in recent memory. Last year Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport combined to win 13 of the 15 races, which tended to be predictable, follow-the-leader, parade-style runs. This year there have been three different winners in the first four races, and in São Paulo, on May 5, third-year driver James Hinchcliffe passed Sato on the last turn of the last lap for the win. "I truly believe the sport is turning a major corner," says the 26-year-old Hinchcliffe, who finished sixth at Indy last year. "We're entering a growth period. The quality of our on-track racing right now is higher than any other form of American motor sports."
Last Saturday, in the biggest upset of the IndyCar season, Ed Carpenter—the only owner-driver in the series—won the pole for this Sunday's race, outrunning the likes of rookie Carlos Muñoz (who'll start second) and Marco Andretti (third) from the five-car, heavyweight Andretti Autosport team. "This is just the first part of what we want to do," said Carpenter, 32. "To fight with the Penskes and Andrettis is an accomplishment in itself."
Will he take them down on Sunday? In a field that features 15 drivers with a realistic shot at the checkered flag, SI's pick is Hinchcliffe, a charismatic Canadian who replaced Patrick in the green-and-black Go Daddy car last year. He's won two races this season and has consistently been at or near the top of the speed chart during practice sessions this month at Indy. There is a sense in IndyCar that Hinchcliffe is poised to be the sport's next big thing—and a win on Sunday in front of what will be the largest single-day sports crowd in the world this year (about 300,000) will go a long way toward affirming just that.