INDIANAPOLIS -- Few events in motor sports honor its tradition more than the Indianapolis 500.
The race celebrated its 100th anniversary last May and will run for the 96th time (it wasn't held during World War II) at the Brickyard next Sunday afternoon.
"What a special place it is," said team owner Jimmy Vasser, whose best finish here as a driver was fourth. "You never forget how special the place is. And how really, really difficult it is."
Yet for all of the traditions of the 500 -- from Gasoline Alley to the winner slugging cold milk in victory lane to Jim Nabors singing Back Home Again in Indiana -- times are changing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For one thing, Nabors won't attend next week's race because of a scheduled heart surgery. Nabors will still be part of the festivities, however, this time via video.
The biggest changes this year, however, have come on the track. There is a new car, and there are new engines and new drivers. And for better or worse, Danica Patrick -- the most popular IndyCar driver in years -- has left for NASCAR.
Dan Wheldon, who won the 500 last year for the second time in his career, will be memorialized in a number of ways. The 33-year-old British driver died in October when he crashed during the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas. Fort Lauderdale's Ryan Hunter-Reay has an image of Wheldon's face painted on his helmet, and drivers have decals honoring Wheldon on their cars.
Wheldon is remembered by his friends not only as a top competitor but also as a big reason the new car is on the track this year. Wheldon did much of the testing in the development for the new Dallara chassis and was a proponent of bringing more competition to the garage. Dallara named the car the DW12 in honor of Wheldon.
"What's been so much fun this season is you don't know what's coming around the corner," Hunter-Reay said. "Honda just got a new turbo housing and the littlest thing makes a big difference. It's been fun not knowing what the competition is like each week. The old car was pretty predictable. The talent in this series is stacked. Now with the mix of the different manufacturers and the new car, well, everything is thrown out the window."
Honda had been the sole powerplant of IndyCars since 2005. This year, Chevrolet and Lotus joined the fray. That has upped the competition factor in the garages. For instance, the Andretti Autosports team struggled to get its drivers to qualify for last year's race; but this year, powered by the new Chevy V-6, three of them should start next Sunday's race on the top three rows.
Although some teams have struggled getting the right set ups with the new cars, others have prospered. Like Andretti's bunch, Roger Penske's powerhouse team appears to have a handle on things as Team Penske drivers have claimed all four IndyCar wins so far this season.
"I like the new cars," Penske said Saturday. "Obviously, it's a challenge getting these cars reliable. We've been fortunate to have success with the four wins. ... To have a competitive engine now is excellent."
If one hasn't watched an IndyCar race this year, the new-looking car won't come as a complete shock, but there are numerous differences from its predecessor.
First, the car sits lower and wider than the chassis that had been run here and on the circuit for the past decade. With a smaller engine and bodywork covering portions of the rear wheels, it's a safer ride. The cockpit also was redesigned because of safety issues.
Some drivers and owners complained about how the car looked, although it has grown on them over the past few months. Miami's Tony Kanaan said when he first saw his, it was flat black and not impressive looking. With a little paint -- and some speed on the track -- he digs his new ride now. So far, it has been a slower car than the drivers have been used to.
"I believe that, despite all the criticism, we did the right thing," he said. "I think the car looks better when it's fast. We used to say in the pits 'the faster you go, the more beautiful you look.' So that's the goal."
As for Patrick, she hasn't been as missed as some might have thought. Although she drew attention to the series, many times she was the center of attention.
IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said Saturday it's a shame racing fans don't know as much about a driver such as two-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti. Bernard said when Franchitti's career ends, he would be mentioned with the likes of open-wheel legends Mario and Michael Andretti, the Unsers (Bobby, Al and Al Jr.) and Rick Mears.
"I think Danica was great for the sport, but I also think she was an umbrella that took the spotlight off some of the drivers like Dario," Bernard said. "We have this great legend that doesn't resonate with fans to the amount of his credibility. That's a disappointment to me. I have to focus on that."
Bobby Rahal, who runs Rahal Letterman Racing and won the 500 as a driver and an owner, says it's time the racing gets the limelight.
"We get to focus on the racing now and the people who are here, who are damn good drivers," Rahal said. "Danica did great things for this series, but I think often times at the expense of the series. It was a yin and a yang. The other drivers that were here didn't get the attention they should have gotten. Now we get to get back to what it's all about, which is great racing.
"Maybe we don't have that great personality, which now NASCAR has, whether it's Earnhardt or herself. Now it's all about the racing, which to me is what it all should have been about in the first place. ... In the end, I wish her well. Obviously, I brought her into this series. Now, as it should be, it's all about the racing."
And, ultimately, that is the biggest tradition Indianapolis has going for it.