Why “33” is such a special number for the Indy 500 and why I trust that we’ll reach it next month, a deep dive here

INDIANAPOLIS — Tradition. That word punches a lot of weight when you discuss the Indianapolis 500. After all, it’s annually the largest one day spectator event around the world of ours. For race fans, nothing is bigger. It’s Christmas Day in May. So much so, Santa Claus himself is jealous of the pageantry and excitement that Indy brings.

There isn’t a comparison to it. There’s been others that try to pinpoint other races in the same category as Indy, but you just simply can’t. Indy stands on its own above Daytona, above Monaco, above Le Mans and anything else you want to put in it’s realm. Not saying that those races aren’t big either, they are, but they’re also not Indy.

In saying that, this year marks the 106th Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Among the last 105 prior years, traditions have developed. One of them being the fastest 33 cars makes the race. It’s tradition.

Some may wonder then, where did “33” actually come from? Why the significance? Isn’t it just a number? For a race that means so much, why does it matter how many cars start the race?

For Indy, it’s more than just a number. It’s bigger than that. 33 is number that separates men and women from boys and girls. It’s no easy feat. 4 laps, 10 miles, driving on a razors edge just to make a race. It’s not guaranteed. Never has been. Never will be. Drivers give their lives just to be a part of an exclusive club of 33 each year. Some have actually lost it fighting for speed to get into the race.

11 people have tragically lost their lives attempting to qualifying for the race. Several others have been injured in doing so too.

Qualifying for the Indy 500 is a blind date with destiny. You have no control of what lies ahead of each turn. The great Mario Andretti once said, “if everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.”

Most years, at least 10 cars would go home because they weren’t fast enough. Often times, that number was north of 20. No one was spared. It didn’t matter your name, your success or any history prior to the day you hopped into your race car, Indy picked who it wanted in the race and also picked who won. You had to check your ego at the gates and know that your respect for this 2.5-mile track had better outweigh how good you thought you were.

Indy is hard. It’s not supposed to be easy. Never was. This isn’t for the faint of heart.

So, to make the race was just the start of the journey. It was intense enough. In order to join racing lore, you first had to qualify and be among the 33 fastest that month.

When you think about the history of this planet, only around 800 humans have ever raced in the Indy 500. That’s it.

“You just don’t know what Indy means,” Al Unser Jr. beamed after winning his first of two Indy 500 races in 1992.

So when you see people worried about “33” that’s why. Its a massive storyline and build up to the race itself.

As far as when it came about, it all started in 1919 when AAA mandated that you need to have for every one car, 400 feet of race track. Take that 2.5-miles of racing real estate around one lap and divide it by 400 feet and you get….33 cars.

The thing is, it wasn’t until 1934 that the 33 was truly looked at. There were 42 cars racing in the 1933 Sweepstakes. In 1934 though, 33 was really adopted and it’s remained that way every since minus four occasions.

In 1941, 33 cars qualified but Sam Hanks withdrew from that race due to being injured in a practice crash a day prior. Then, there was a fire on race morning damaging George Barringer’s car and he too withdrew leaving 31 cars to take the green flag.

In 1947, there was a boycott over the purse. 30 cars showed up to race.

In 1979 and again in 1997, they expanded the field to 35.

So, as you can see, for the last 89 years, the number 33 has been a parallel for the Indy 500.

Now though, that number is being threatened. Some say there’s a very real chance that we don’t even fill the field which would be the first time in 75 years that we didn’t have at least 33 starters. Everyone that shows up next month makes it. What happens if we dip below it?

The thing is, I don’t necessarily believe that we’ll have anything less than 33 though. I can honestly see for the 2nd time in 3 years no bumping with 33 cars for 33 spots still. I get that it on the surface lessens the allure of just making the show, but when you have a field as talented now as ever before and the circumstances around it lately, I’m okay with at least filling the field.

We have plenty of storylines that should negate that negative attention. Helio’s drive to be the first driver to win 5 of these is the top. Right below is the big news of Jimmie Johnson and Romain Grosjean making their Indy 500 debuts.

There’s no shortage of stories. Bumping would only add to it but by time we get to race week, it would have been forgotten.

Still, the lead up to qualifying weekend many point would be an early blemish on Roger Penske’s resume since taking over the reigns of IMS and INDYCAR.

The first thing is, most will cite that as an indictment on Penske that they couldn’t get to 33 cars for the biggest race of the year. However, I see it differently.

This isn’t on Roger Penske. This is on the teams holding chassis’ and not using them. The cars and engines are there. The use for them is convoluted and not the fault of Penske for how it’s being handled among them.

Dallara has 36 cars ready. They’re out there. Honda has 18 engines. Chevrolet has 18 engines. That matches the 36 cars. The reason for this number is that’s what was available last year and up until a few weeks ago, everyone was planning for the new engine package to come out in 2023. That’s now been pushed back a year.

So, with that being said, why produce more engines when they’d all change soon? That’s why 36 was the magic number and will be so for this May and next May now.

Out of the 32 on the entry list, you have Penske and AJ Foyt Racing all down an entry for the Chevy side. But, DRR added a car and Juncos Hollinger Racing is back. That makes it basically a wash in the bow tie camp.

Honda has 1 engine left. The chassis and engine package came from Vasser Sullivan’s last year. Dale Coyne Racing is using the “52” car from last year it sounds. Rick Ware Racing in conjunction with DCR is using the 51. The old “18” car is sitting idle.

Honda thought it was going to be used by Katherine Legge but it fell through. Now, you have 1 left sitting there without much time to get it used. I still feel like this may be the missing piece to the puzzle because it’s ready to go.

4 of the 5 years that Foyt showed up with 4 cars, 1 of them didn’t make it including Charlie Kimball (pictured) last year. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Foyt isn’t likely to expand back to a fourth. They ran 4 cars in 1985 (1 didn’t make it), 1987, 1996 (1 didn’t make it), 2000 (1 didn’t make it) and last year (1 didn’t make it). In the 5 years of showing up to Indy with 4 cars, 4 of them 1 of the 4 didn’t make it. So, why stretch yourself thin?

The thing is, Top Gun, Carlin and Paretta are in danger of not coming back too.

Who knows who actually owns that chassis and engine package between Top Gun and the Enerson’s but it’s unfathomable that they’re wasting it. That’s part of the problem and INDYCAR would need to come up with an alternative plan in the future to not allow this to happen in the down the road with a chance to be able to confiscate each back.

I’d like to see a rule in place that if you hold an engine and tub, you should be required to use it or lease it. Fail to do so, you lose it.

Carlin sold their equipment to JHR but it doesn’t sound like JHR has the resources still to run a second car and with a rookie driver, they feel like they may need it for spare parts. See, they showed up in 2019 and saw Kyle Kaiser suffer a practice crash during the week. They exhausted all efforts to get a car ready for him to qualify for which he miraculously did that year. Do they want to go through that again when they can have a car sitting there available?

That’s now 3 cars total sitting idle. They’re there. They’re usable. They’re wasting space not being used. That’s not Penske’s fault.

That leads to the most logical question, who’s there who could take them off their hands should they become available.

The best opportunity has to be Paretta but they’re still not close yet from what it sounds. They ran Juncos’ car last May but with Juncos coming back to INDYCAR last Fall and now being full time this season, they needed that car back. So, Paretta has no money, no car and no engine. They need someone to help….

Penske was high on Paretta making the show last May and I question on if he’d truly throw them to the curb this soon. That’s why they could potentially be in play for that Honda engine to fill the field just to get them back and the field being full.

The other possibility is that Penske could somehow lease the engine back from Juncos and put Paretta back in that ride for No. 33 and keep them in a bow tie like last year. After all, it’s in his best interest. We’re basically asking him to save the day again.

Who else can?

We know Ganassi, RLL and MSR are set. The only Honda team expansion if DCR/RWR don’t use it would be Andretti.

DCR ran three cars at Indy in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020 before scaling back to two in 2021. They did attempt four cars in 2018 but one of them (Pippa Mann) didn’t make the field. So, just running two cars once in the last 7 years make it viable for them to run a third if they choose.

Andretti ran six cars last year so could in theory do so again. They’ve actually ran 6 cars here in 3 of the last 6 years (2017, 2018, 2021). They ran 5 cars in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2019 and 2020.

Cusick partnered with them last year and they say they have a budget ready to run by themselves this year. The thing is, time has ran out so they’ve been exploring a partnership. Is this the other most viable one in the paddock right now?

Can Andretti or Coyne make an alliance happen with Cusick and take that final Honda engine? Seems like if they want it to badly enough they will figure out a way.

Then does that help alleviate Penske’s cost? I mean what would stop Penske from putting together a fourth team, hiring Ryan Hunter-Reay and off we go?

The key now is for the teams that are looking to join is people and not making this car just a “field fuller.” If you enter Indy, you want to win. Penske never does anything half assed so it would be hard stretched to see him put a car together last minute. Still, he has the money, resources and ways to get a car to do it if needed and there’s plenty of talented drivers out there that could fare well in it.

The people aspect is real since there’s not a lot of unemployed racing workers looking for work. The racing industry badly needs people and to get people now would be just that, part time people. Can they gel in enough time to field a race winning car? What about one that finishing in the top 15 even?

The cards are stacked against this 33rd entry of succeeding but never say never. Part time cars struggle to win Indy anyways. We’ve only had 2 this century and look at the names that did – Dan Wheldon (2011) and Helio Castroneves (2021). Short of Hunter-Reay, you don’t have that kind of talent just sitting there.

Still, we’re still over 50 days out and while you’d miss the open test this month, you can still get a spot into the ‘500. Granted, if you have enough interest, you could in theory get to 34 and maybe even 35 cars. Paretta and Cusick can get you to 34 but it’s going to take help.

I think everyone knows how important that it is to get to 33 which is why I think Penske helps gets us to that number.

Chevrolet (15) – 3 Left

  • Team Penske (3) – Josef Newgarden, Will Power, Scott McLaughlin are back as they’re scaling down from four cars to three.
  • Arrow McLaren SP (3) – Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist are back full time. Juan Pablo Montoya is in the No. 6 Chevrolet for the Month of May only.
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (3) – Rinus VeeKay is back in the 21. Conor Daly will be in the 20 while Ed Carpenter will be in the third seat for Indy in the 33.
  • AJ Foyt Racing (3) – Kyle Kirkwood will be in the 14 full time. Dalton Kellett will return to the seat of the 4 car. Tatiana Calderon will race the 11 car on all road/street courses with JR Hildebrand now on ovals.
  • Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (2) – They’ll have two cars this May for Indy only and Sage Karam (No. 24) and Santino Ferrucci (No. 23) will drive them.
  • Juncos Hollinger Racing (1) – Callum Ilott will be in the car again as an Indy rookie.

Honda (17) – 1 Engine Left

  • Chip Ganassi Racing (5) – All five drivers (Scott Dixon, Alex Palou, Marcus Ericsson, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Kanaan) return but with Jimmie Johnson racing full time, they needed a fifth car for Tony Kanaan. That car and engine package comes from Andretti Autosport’s inventory of six that they had last year.
  • Andretti Autosport (5) – They’ll run four cars full time (Colton Herta, Alexander Rossi, Romain Grosjean and Devlin DeFrancesco) with Marco Andretti as Indy only.
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (3) – Graham Rahal, Jack Harvey and Christian Lundgaard make up this team.
  • Dale Coyne Racing (2) – HMD Racing replaces Vasser Sullivan in the 18 ride and brings David Malukas with them. Rick Ware is back on the 51 Honda and will have Takuma Sato. Is the 52 seat back?
  • Meyer Shank Racing (2) – Here’s another expansion with them growing to two full time cars now too. Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud) will drive them.

Potential Rides:

Paretta – They need funding to purchase an engine, a car and crew members.

Cusick – They have a driver and money but need an alliance to get a car and engine. Andretti, DCR/RWR or Foyt could make this happen.

Rick Ware Racing/Dale Coyne Racing – They can get their hands on that Honda so long as a driver with funding brings money for it.

Top Gun – Never ruling out a surprise entry. They did so last year.

AJ Foyt Racing – A 4th car makes no sense for them but if Cusick has money and a driver and a 33rd spot is sitting there, I wouldn’t rule it out.

Team Penske – If all else fails, he could give Ricardo Juncos a call to lease that 2nd car/engine from him and put a driver in it.

Ryan Hunter-Reay (pictured) is a former Indy 500 champion and a free agent for May – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Notable Non Rookie Drivers Available

Ryan Hunter-Reay — 14 straight Indy starts, best finish 1st (2014), has 3 top 10’s in his last 4 tries including 5 of the last 9 years. RHR has 4 top 10 starting spots in the last 6 years including 5th in 2020 and 7th last year.

James Hinchcliffe — 9 starts, best finish 6th (2012), 3 top 11’s in his last 5 starts. Pole winner in 2016. Make the Fast Nine in 2020.

Sebastien Bourdais — 9 starts, best finish 7th (2014). 2 of last 3 attempts he qualified in the Fast 9 and was on a pole run before his crash in qualifying in 2017 or this would be 3 of the last 4.

Charlie Kimball — 10 starts, best finish 3rd (2015). Was the 4th Foyt car last year and a DNQ. All 10 starts were consecutive prior to last year’s miss. Had 4 top 10’s in his last 6 Indy tries.

Simona deSilvestro — Tied to Paretta. 6 starts, best finish 14th (2010). Last year was 1st Indy attempt since 2015. Last 4 Indy races came with 4 different teams.

Stefan Wilson — Tied to Cusick. 3 starts, best finish 15th (2018). Ran with Andretti in 2018 and an alliance car with Andretti/Cusick last year.

Oriol Servia – 11 starts, best finish 4th (2012), last start came in 2019

James Davison – 6 starts, best finish 12th (2019), last start came in 2020. 4 of his last 5 starts came with DCR as he always showed up unexpectedly and qualified the car in the race.

Max Chilton -5 starts, best finish 4th (2017). He led the most laps in that 2017 race but has qualified 20th or worse in 4 of his 5 tries.

Spencer Pigot – 5 starts, best finish 14th (2019). 2 of last 3 he made the Fast 9 and qualified in the top 2 Rows at that.

Zach Veach – 4 starts, best finish 15th (2020)

Oliver Askew – 1 start (2020) – finished 30th. Won the 2019 Freedom 100

Ed Jones — 4 starts, best finish 3rd (2017). Among his 4 appearances, they came with 3 different teams. Qualified in top 11 in 3 of the 4 years including last year.

Pietro Fittipaldi – 1 start (2021) – finished 25th. Qualified 13th as a rookie and bein a Haas test driver, could he come back over with F1 in Monaco?

Kyle Kaiser – 2 starts, best finish 29th (2018). Both with Juncos.

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