By Steve Keating
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - A rich history and uncertain future will collide at the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday when up to 400,000 motor racing fans descend on the famed Brickyard for a high-octane party over 100 years in the making.
After decades of indifference and waning interest, the Indy 500 finds itself back in the motorsport spotlight for the 100th running of what is shamelessly billed as the 'Greatest Spectacle in Racing'.
Run on the Memorial Day holiday weekend in the U.S. heartland, the 500 is a uniquely American event where the race begins with the call, 'Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines', and ends with the winner chugging from the traditional quart of milk.
Since Ray Harroun nursed his Marmon Wasp to victory in 1911 (the race was not run for five years because of World Wars), the Indy 500 has been a magnet to motor racing giants and thrill seekers eager to test their skill and bravery on the sprawling 2.5 mile oval known as the Brickyard.
A yard of bricks at the start/finish line is all that remains of the original track but it has become a pilgrimage for motor racing fans around the globe who kneel there and kiss the link to the race's past.
But it is the future that commands the focus for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) with Sunday's showcase providing either a springboard into a new era or a blip on a continuing decline.
"The 100th has given us a platform to re-engage fans who have maybe left awhile and are now coming back and bringing new fans in," hoped IMS president Doug Boles.
"I think when you get people here it captures them, there is something more than just a race that makes this place special.
"We are focused on trying to grow this sport. We aren't doing this as an end point or a reason to look back, the 100th running for us is a reason to look forward."
IMS officials will, for a week at least, bask in a return to the glory days when the Indy 500 was not just one of the world's biggest sporting events but the most important.
For the first time in its long history, the 500 has been declared an official sellout with close to 400,000 fans set to fill massive grounds big enough to hold Churchill Downs, Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl, the Roman Colosseum and Vatican City.
As always, the 33-car grid is packed with compelling storylines.
Canada's James Hinchcliffe, who watched last year's race from a hospital bed after a near fatal crash in practice, will start from pole after a fearless qualifying performance.
Lining up alongside the Canadian in the front row and waving the American flag will be Josef Newgarden, who drives for local outfit Ed Carpenter Racing, and 2014 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay.
No one has been a bigger part of the Brickyard's history than Roger Penske, who is celebrating his 50th anniversary as a team owner.
'The Captain' has put 16 cars in Victory Lane and with an international all-star lineup featuring Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, Brazilian Helio Castroneves, Australian Will Power and Frenchman Simon Pagenaud, he will have a great opportunity to add number 17 to his unmatched resume.
Only three men - A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears - have finished the 500 on Victory Lane four times and, with a win on Sunday, Castroneves would become the first non-American to join that exclusive club.
"I have a very good opportunity here to do something that only three guys were able to do," said Castroneves.
"We understand the tradition. We never forget about this one. But once you close the visor, it's another race (where) we've got to make it happen."
Castroneves' stiffest competition may come from within his own team as defending champion Montoya, who is one of only three men along with Graham Hill and Jim Clark to win the Indy and the Monaco Grand Prix, will be bidding for his third victory at the Brickyard in just four starts.
Not to be overlooked are in-form Frenchman Pagenaud, winner of the last three IndyCar races, and Power, a former Series champion who is desperate for a first 500 victory.
Five rookies will be on the starting grid, including Matt Brabham, grandson of Formula One champion Jack Brabham, and Stefan Wilson, younger brother of Justin Wilson who last year was killed in a high-speed mishap at the Pocono oval.
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)