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Safety questions hover over Indy 500
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Scott Dixon, of New Zealand, drives through the first turn during the final practice session for the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Friday. - photo by Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — They call the Indianapolis 500 "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" for its high speeds, rich history, enormous crowd and the take-your-breath-away competition.

This year, IndyCar is hoping the 99th running of the event won't be a spectacle because of a serious on-track incident.

Concern hangs over Indianapolis Motor Speedway after the cars of Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden and Ed Carpenter all went airborne during practice sessions in the 10 days leading up to Sunday's race. All three drivers walked away unscathed, but IndyCar officials scrambled on qualifying day for a solution.

All three drivers were driving Chevrolets, and the manufacturer worked with the series on adjustments to the bodywork of the cars, plus a reduction in horsepower before qualifying.

One day later, James Hinchcliffe suffered a life-threatening injury when he slammed into the turn three wall at more than 220 mph and a broken piece of his suspension pierced his left thigh. Hinchcliffe's accident was unrelated to the three cars that had gone airborne, but one of IndyCar's most popular drivers was rushed into surgery in critical condition and will miss Sunday's race.

The four wrecks have many wondering if Sunday will see a safe race.

"This will never be a safe race — it's an open wheel car going 230 mph over three and a half hours trying to win," said Rahal Lanigan Letterman Racing driver Oriol Servia. "Safe is not really what defines it. It will never be. But I think it could be safer than what we'll do Sunday."

IndyCar officials aren't certain what caused the three cars to lift off the track following mild crashes. Although some wanted to point to the new body kits Chevy and Honda are allowed to use this season, most drivers doubted the manufacturers were to blame.

And some have even grumbled that the wrecks cast an unfair pall over the race and created an unnecessary hysteria.

"I just think we need to be careful not to lose our heritage and the roots of what we do," said KV Racing driver Sebastien Bourdais, who praised the safety efforts as long as it didn't destroy "the purpose and the reason of why we do things we do and how we do it."

"People make mistakes, whether it is human mistakes, mechanical mistakes, it is part of what we do," he said. "That needs to be respected because when you travel at the speeds we travel, things can go bad. When it goes bad, it shouldn't be, 'Oh my God, what just happened?' What happened is what we do is dangerous."

That sentiment is shared by most in Sunday's field. Race car drivers have always accepted that danger, death and disability are part of the profession, and most are able to overlook it when they pull on their helmet and climb into the car.

Asked if he's expecting a "safe race" on Sunday, pole-sitter Scott Dixon was candid.

"I hope so, that's all you can do," said the driver from New Zealand. "We've always been at these speeds, or close to them, and accidents are going to happen. You just hope everyone will be safe."

The only thing Dixon was certain of for Sunday is that the race should be a thriller for drivers and fans.

The last few faces have all featured gripping battles for the checkered flag. Even after the wrecks and Hinchcliffe's hospitalization, the drivers staged a pair of intense practice sessions that featured slicing and dicing and multiple lead changes.

"I think everybody will be on the edge of their seats," Dixon said. "The race will be very good."

It could also be dominated by Chevrolet drivers, particularly those from Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Both organizations have been the class of the field all month and have nine cars entered in all — including the first five drivers on the starting grid.

Roger Penske, with Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and former winners Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya, will be seeking his 16th Indianapolis 500. Ganassi will be trying to win his fifth on his 57th birthday with Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball, Sage Karam and Sebastian Saavedra.

It's got Honda doing some hand-wringing.

"The Penskes look outstanding this month," Honda driver Graham Rahal said.

Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development, acknowledged the automaker is lagging behind Chevrolet. But he noted the rule changes after the three airborne cars affected Honda in qualifying more than anticipated.

Still, St. Cyr believes the teams will be just fine on Sunday.

"We think we have a very good race car. We think we can challenge for the win on Sunday," he said. "I'm very confident with the way our car races. We have a lot of capability to adjust to the conditions and that gives us an advantage over our competitors."