2021 Indianapolis 500: Row-by-row race preview

  • Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
  • 2-time Sports Emmy winner
  • 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year

INDIANAPOLIS — Whenever the big, traditional sporting events pop up on the living room TV, from the Kentucky Derby to the Masters to those midweek midafternoon “WTH are they doing?” Olympic events, everyone loves that one guy in the room who is suddenly the expert on that sport, even though no one in the room has watched that event since the last time it was on, one or four years earlier.

Like, when Uncle Earl, who has never left his hometown, is suddenly throwing out gems like, “Well, I knew that guy from Belarus wasn’t going to make it into the 10-meter springboard finals because his splash was too big.”

OK, let’s be honest. Everyone kind of hates that guy. Unless they are that guy. So, as we do every May (or last year in August), here’s our Casual Memorial Day Weekend Indy 500 Fan’s Row-by-Row Guide to Sounding Like You Know What You’re Talking About for the 105th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, aka the Indianapolis 500.

How to watch

When: Sunday, noon ET

TV: NBC

Row 1

Scott Dixon
2008 Indy 500 winner
No. 9
Hometown: Auckland, New Zealand
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
Engine: Honda
Car color: Burnt orange and blue
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: Because he’s the greatest IndyCar racer of his generation and has a growing argument for greatest ever, with 51 wins and six championships. In fact, you should read this really great story written about him by a really handsome ESPN senior writer.

Colton Herta
No. 26
Hometown: Valencia, California
Team: Andretti Autosport
Engine: Honda
Car color: Black and gold with blur trim
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: Missed beating Dixon for the pole position by a scant .030 mph, which over a 2½-mile racetrack translates to less than 7 feet. In 2019 he became the youngest-ever IndyCar winner and had added three more victories since, including the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on April 25.

Rinus Veekay
No. 21
Hometown: Hoofddorp, Netherlands
Team: Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevy
Car color: Black with orange polka dots
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: He won the Indy GP on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course just two weeks ago. His actual last name is Van Kalmthout, but even his family shortens that to “VK,” so to make life easier on American audiences, he goes with Veekay.

Row 2

Ed Carpenter
No. 20
Hometown: Indianapolis
Team: Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevy
Car color: Red top half, white sidepods
Milk choice if he wins: Whole, but he has long said that he wants buttermilk, a tribute to the first milk gulped in Victory Lane by Louis Meyer in 1936. American Dairy Association Indiana Inc. has said that if he would be willing to try some options prior to the race, it would be open to the idea.
Why you should care about him: No one is more beloved among the people of Speedway, Indiana, as Carpenter, who was literally raised at the racetrack. He’s the stepson of Tony George, who oversaw IMS and IndyCar for years, and is the step-grandson of Tony Hulman, the man who saved Indianapolis Motor Speedway from ruin after World War II.

Tony Kanaan
2013 Indy 500 winner
No. 48
Hometown: Salvador, Brazil
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
Engine: Honda
Car color: Red, white and blue with American Legion sponsorship for Memorial Day
Milk choice if he wins: 2%
Why you should care about him: He is supposed to be retired, but when Chip Ganassi asked TK to share this ride with NASCAR-turned-IndyCar racer Jimmie Johnson this season as the oval specialist, the 46-year-old jumped at the chance.

Alex Palou
No. 10
Hometown: Sant Antoni de Vilamajor, Spain
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
Engine: Honda
Car color: White with light blue nose and wing
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: He won his very first race with Chip Ganassi Racing, shocking the field at the Birmingham GP on April 18.

Row 3

Ryan Hunter-Reay
2012 Indy 500 winner
No. 28
Hometown: Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Team: Andretti Autosport
Engine: Honda
Car color: Dark yellow with red trim
Milk choice if he wins: 2%
Why you should care about him: In 2012, he won the Indy 500 and the IndyCar title but has struggled to repeat either since. He is married to the sister of former IndyCar and NASCAR racer Robby Gordon.

Helio Castroneves
2001, 2002, 2009 Indy 500 winner
No. 06
Hometown: Sao Paulo, Brazil
Team: Meyer Shank Racing
Engine: Honda
Car color: Black top, dark pink (or is it dark purple?) sidepods
Milk choice if he wins: 2%
Why you should care about him: With three wins in nine years, it once seemed inevitable that he would join Indy’s most exclusive club of four-time winners. But he has been stuck one win behind the big three of A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears for 12 years now. This is his 21st Indy 500 start but first with a team other than Roger Penske’s.

Marcus Ericsson
No. 8
Hometown: Kumla, Sweden
Team: Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
Engine: Honda
Car color: Black with gold pinstripes
Milk choice if he wins: 2%
Why you should care about him: The only Swede in the field is sponsored by Huski Chocolate, a Yoohoo-like Swedish chocolate drink, because of course he is.

Row 4

Alexander Rossi
2016 Indy 500 winner
No. 27
Hometown: Nevada City, California
Team: Andretti Autosport
Engine: Honda
Car color: Royal blue and gold
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: You might recognize him as the shocking rookie winner of the 2016 Indy 500 … or as the wild man who has been the most exciting loser of the race the past few years … or from his stint on “The Amazing Race” with fellow IndyCar racer Conor Daly.

Ed Jones
No. 18
Hometown: Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Team: Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan
Engine: Honda
Car color: Yellow top half, black sidepods, black-and-white slashes down spine
Milk choice if he wins: 2%
Why you should care about him: The man is a walking passport. He was born in Dubai, but he is a British citizen who lives in Miami and keeps an apartment in Indianapolis.

Pato O’Ward
No. 5
Hometown: Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico
Team: Arrow McLaren SP
Engine: Chevy
Car color: Dark McLaren racing orange top, black sidepods
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: His full name is Patricio O’Ward and he was raised in Mexico City, but his nickname Pato and his O’-starting last name make some people think he must be from Ireland. “That ends as soon as I say hello,” the 22-year-old says with a laugh. He was raised on road racing, but he earned his first win on the uber-fast Texas Motor Speedway oval on May 2.

Row 5

Pietro Fittipaldi
Indy 500 rookie
No. 51
Hometown: Miami
Team: Dale Coyne Racing w/ RWR
Engine: Honda
Car color: White with a purple swath down the sides
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: He is the grandson of Emerson Fittipaldi, the two-time F1 champion and two-time Indy 500 champion who rankled the Indianapolis crowd when he gulped orange juice instead of milk in 1993 to promote his Brazilian orange grove business. Last week, the American Dairy Association Indiana awarded Pietro its Fastest Rookie of the Year award. This Fittipaldi promises he’s sticking with milk.

Felix Rosenqvist
No. 7
Hometown: Varnamo, Sweden
Team: Arrow McLaren SP
Engine: Chevy
Car color: McLaren racing orange and black, mixed Zubaz-style
Milk choice if he wins: 2%
Why you should care about him: From exotic supercars to F1, McLaren is known for futuristic automotive innovation, but Rosenqvist joined teammates Juan Pablo Montoya and Pato O’Ward by rolling into Indy aboard a ratty old Winnebago painted McLaren orange.

Takuma Sato
2017, 2020 Indy 500 winner
No. 30
Hometown: Tokyo
Team: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Engine: Honda
Car color: White top, blended red and yellow nose and sidepods
Milk choice if he wins: 2%
Why you should care about him: The defending Indy 500 champ won here in August in front of zero fans. “I will never complain about winning this race. But I could have used some cheering. Let’s see if we can give them a reason to cheer Sunday.”

Row 6

James Hinchcliffe
No. 29
Hometown: Toronto
Team: Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport
Engine: Honda
Car color: Light orange, teal and white, kind of a Miami Dolphins feel
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: The man they call “Hinch” is best known for his near-fatal crash during Indy 500 practice on May 18, 2015. Two years ago, he took off all his clothes and told me about it.

Scott McLaughlin
Indy 500 rookie
No. 3
Hometown: Christchurch, New Zealand
Team: Team Penske
Engine: Chevy
Car color: The famous Pennzoil Yellow Submarine super-bright yellow
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: The rookie was also Team Penske’s best qualifier. His reward? His teammates are the leading suspects in a prank unleashed on his motor home last week, when it was covered by dozens of inflatable sheep. Why sheep? McLaughlin explained with an eye roll: “They heard we have more sheep than people in New Zealand. That fact is almost as poorly researched as their joke.”

Graham Rahal
No. 15
Hometown: New Albany, Ohio
Team: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Engine: Honda
Car color: Dark red spine, blue sides, white nose
Milk choice if he wins: 2%
Why you should care about him: The son of 1986 winner Bobby Rahal is now a father himself. Daughter Harlan Ann was born to Graham and his wife, NHRA drag racing star Courtney Force, on Nov. 2, 2020.

Row 7

Conor Daly
No. 47
Hometown: Noblesville, Indiana
Team: Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevy
Car color: Silver with gold roof trim and red nose and tail, U.S. Air Force “Red Tail” design paying tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen Red Tails heroes of World War II
Milk choice if he wins: 2%
Why you should care about him: Because that Red Tails livery is amazing, almost as amazing as the mullet Daly has grown for the month of May.

Jack Harvey
No. 60 Hometown: Bassingham, England
Team: Meyer Shank Racing
Engine: Honda
Car color: Hot pink with black sidepods
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: Harvey spent nearly his entire Indy 500 media day session taking the media through not the nuances of driving an IndyCar at 230 mph but rather the nuances of making the transition between English and American pop culture. “I thought they wouldn’t be as different as they are. But at least once a day I make a reference and everyone in the room just stares at me. I’m like, ‘Oh, you don’t have that here?'”

Josef Newgarden
No. 2
Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee
Team: Team Penske
Engine: Chevy
Car color: White with black trim
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: Be honest, you thought a guy named Jack Harvey was probably from, like, Nashville, right? And you probably think Josef Newgarden is from a farm in Germany, but he’s actually the one from Nashville.

Row 8

JR Hildebrand
No. 1
Hometown: Sausalito, California
Team: A.J. Foyt Enterprises
Engine: Chevy
Car color: White with red trim and nose with a big No. 1, based on A.J. Foyt’s first Indy 500 winner
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: Do a web search for “2011 Indy 500 finish” and tell me you don’t want this guy to win this race.

Santino Ferrucci
No. 45
Hometown: Woodbury, Connecticut
Team: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Engine: Honda
Car color: Red nose and front half, green back half (it’s vegetables via his grocery store sponsor)
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: He lost his F2 license for wrecking a teammate during a postrace cool-down lap; he once received a fine for texting while driving his race car; he’s dipping his toe into NASCAR; and he has a wild haircut. All we need now is to play the “Bad Boys” theme song from “Cops.”

Juan Pablo Montoya

No. 86
2000, 2015 Indy 500 winner
Hometown: Bogota, Colombia
Team: Arrow McLaren SP
Engine: Chevy
Car color: McLaren racing orange over the top half, white bottom half
Milk choice if he wins: Chocolate/whole
Why you should care about him: Yes, the two-time Indy 500 winner wrote in chocolate for his milk choice, though it’s not really an option. Why? White milk is the Indy tradition. Plus, it photographs much better.

Row 9

Marco Andretti
No. 98
Hometown: Nazareth, Pennsylvania
Team: Andretti Herta-Haupert with Marco & Curb-Agajanian
Engine: Honda
Car color: Dark red with racing orange spine and wing
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: The son of Michael and grandson of Mario is no longer racing full time and says it has honed his focus on finally earning the family’s first Indy 500 win since 1969. Plus, he looks so much happier.

Simon Pagenaud
2019 Indy 500 winner
No. 22
Hometown: Montmorillon, France
Team: Team Penske
Engine: Chevy
Car color: Day-Glo yellow
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: After winning the 2019 Indy 500, he asked the artist who sculpts the silver faces for the Borg-Warner Trophy to also do one of his beloved dog Norman. Now he has a son, Marley. “If I win again, I supposed I need to have silver face done for him, too, right?”

Sebastien Bourdais
No. 14
Hometown: Le Mans, France
Team: A.J. Foyt Enterprises
Engine: Chevy
Car color: Solid black with giant white “ROKIT” lettering on side (BTW, that’s how you do it, young sports marketers)
Milk choice if he wins: 2%
Why you should care about him: His nickname is “Sea Bass.” You need another reason to like him?

Row 10

Stefan Wilson
No. 25
Hometown: Sheffield, England
Team: Andretti Autosport
Engine: Honda
Car color: White with red trim, blue rear
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: He won the hearts of race fans with the grace he showed while publicly dealing with the 2015 IndyCar death of his wildly popular brother, Justin. He nearly pulled off an upset win in the 2018 Indy 500. If he were to pull it off this year, there wouldn’t be a dry eye in Gasoline Alley.

Max Chilton
No. 59
Hometown: Sheffield, England
Team: Carlin
Engine: Chevy
Car color: Light blue with a dark blue wave, kind of a UNC-Duke mix
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: He missed the Indy Grand Prix road race earlier this month because he went home to England to see family and had “travel issues.” I feel you, dude.

Dalton Kellett
No. 4
Hometown: Stouffville, Ontario
Team: A.J. Foyt Enterprises
Engine: Chevy
Car color: Sliced into thirds from front to rear with light blue, white and black
Milk choice if he wins: Whole
Why you should care about him: He developed his love of racing running laps around frozen lakes on a snowmobile. “I didn’t run a car around an oval until I was a teenager, but I already had about a million laps under my belt. They just happened to be on ice.”

Row 11

Sage Karam
No. 24
Hometown: Nazareth, Pennsylvania
Team: Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
Engine: Chevy
Car color: Light blue with white up the spine and inside sidepods
Milk choice if he wins: 2%
Why you should care about him: Karam is the 27th racer to drive for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, including the likes of Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal and Paul Tracy. But the team has won only one race, on Jan. 29, 2000, with Robbie Buhl at Walt Disney World Speedway, which is now an empty green field you can see from the Magic Kingdom parking lot tram as it takes you back to your car. In other words, it’s been a while.

Will Power
2018 Indy 500 winner
No. 12
Hometown: Toowoomba, Australia
Team: Team Penske
Engine: Chevy
Car color: Really, really black with a red stripe down the spine
Milk choice if he wins: Whole. He used to say “no preference” but got tired of the flak he caught for being noncommittal and finally made a pick.
Why you should care about him: He had to work tremendously hard just to make the field for this year’s race, but he made it in at the last second amid much drama. Then again, you think you’re ever going to deny a guy with that name?

Simona de Silvestro
No. 16
Hometown: Thun, Switzerland
Team: Paretta Autosport
Engine: Chevy
Car color: White with red trim on the surface edges
Milk choice if she wins: 2%, but she also wrote in buttermilk
Why you should care about her: The majority of the Paretta Autosport roster is made up of women, from the driver to team owner Beth Paretta to four of the seven over-the-wall pit crew members. You should read this look into the Paretta team from my friend and colleague Alyssa Roenigk.

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