By Steve Keating
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - There will be six former champions on the starting grid for Sunday's Indianapolis 500 but the spotlight will be on Kurt Busch, a stock-car interloper chasing motor racing history.
The 500, Run on the Memorial Day holiday weekend in the U.S. heartland, is a uniquely American event unapologetically billed as "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" and this year the famed Brickyard is poised to deliver on the high-octane hype.
While the Monaco Grand Prix may be the most glamorous race, the Indy is the most heart-stopping with 33 cars cheered on by nearly 300,000 spectators and charging at hair-raising speeds around an oval that could hold Churchill Downs, Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl, the Roman Colosseum and still have room to spare.
On Sunday, the Brickyard will serve as the first leg in a dizzying motor-racing doubleheader that will see Busch take on two of the most treacherous circuits in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The 2004 NASCAR Cup champion's day will begin with a 500-mile dash at the Indy followed by a flight to Charlotte for a 600-mile stint behind the wheel in NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600.
Only four drivers have attempted the treacherous high-speed endurance test and Tony Stewart is the only one to complete the 1,100-mile Memorial Day double having finished sixth at the Indy and third in Charlotte in 2001.
"It's not like I'm putting my career or my credentials on the line to prove anything," said Busch, who qualified a respectable 12th on the grid and is the first driver to attempt the double since Robby Gordon in 2004.
"This is a moment to moment to check off something on my bucket list but also challenge myself to see where I can end up in this open wheel rank at one of the most difficult races in the world."
Jacques Villeneuve has won just about everything there is to win in an open-wheel race car, including the 1997 Formula One drivers crown and the 1995 Indy 500, but it has been nearly two decades since the Canadian blitzed his way onto Victory Lane and he returns to the Brickyard searching for a bit of Indy magic.
Villeneuve will be joined on the starting grid by Colombian F1 alumni and 2000 Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, defending champion Tony Kanaan and three-time winner Helio Castroneves, the latter who is bidding to become part of the Brickyard's most exclusive club - four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500.
Membership is made up of the three giants of American motor sport - A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears - and would welcome its first new member since 1991 if Castroneves can find his way to Victory Lane on Sunday and chug on the traditional of quart of cold milk that goes to the winner.
"Just thinking about it, joining the club only three guys, it's a dream," said Castroneves.
Last year four women featured on the 500 starting grid but there will be a noticeable lack of girl power on Sunday when the green flag drops.
Danica Patrick, the only woman to win an IndyCar race and lead a lap at the 500, has long departed for NASCAR while Switzerland's Simona de Silvestro is testing with Sauber and poised to make the jump to Formula One.
Others like Brazil's Ana Beatriz, Britain's Katherine Legge and Venezuelan Milka Dunno have simply fallen by the wayside leaving Pippa Mann to carry the woman's standard.
"It's actually a little strange, I'm use to seeing a few other women out here," said Mann, who will be participating in here third Indy 500. "From that respect it's a little odd, a little strange but once we put the helmet on we're just another driver out there."
Local boy Ed Carpenter will start from the pole for the second consecutive year driving a car sponsored by another Indianapolis sporting great in former Masters and U.S. Open champion Fuzzy Zoeller and his company Fuzzy Vodka.
Starting alongside Carpenter on the front row will be Canadian James Hinchcliffe and Australian Will Power.
Castroneves will launch his bid for a fourth Indy 500 win from inside Row Two alongside Frenchman Simon Pagenaud, a winner of the inaugural Indianapolis Grand Prix earlier in the month, and Marco Andretti, who will try to become first member of the Andretti clan to win here since his grandfather Mario in 1969.