Indianapolis Ed Carpenter spent Tuesday morning helping his wife unload and assemble a 350-pound bounce house for a party at the preschool attended by 5-year-old Makenna and 3-year-old Ryder.
It was a normal dad day in an otherwise chaotic week for the Indianapolis native.
About 7 miles from his house last weekend, Carpenter qualified first for the Indianapolis 500. Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he'll try to become the first American driver in seven years to win the race many consider the world's biggest.
"It's been a lot of fun being the hometown guy," Carpenter told USA TODAY Sports. "Just talking to people and seeing how excited everyone is. I've dreamed about winning the race for so long."
For Carpenter and the 10 other Americans who will start the 97th running of the Indy 500, taking the traditional swig of winner's milk would be life-changing -- but it also could deliver a needed jolt to an Izod IndyCar Series whose popularity still lags well behind NASCAR's.
The most accomplished American driver in IndyCar history believes an Indy 500 victory by a U.S. driver -- it would be the first since the series resolved a damaging schism that threatened its existence five years ago -- would be a reminder of the red, white and blue bedrock beneath the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, a tradition that is synonymous with Memorial Day weekend.
"I think what made Indy as great as it was before (was) that 90% of the drivers were American drivers," four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt said. "I think that's where everybody builds a big fan base. Our hero is going to Indianapolis, and we want to follow him."
Crowning a U.S. winner would cement a resurgence for homegrown talent in IndyCar. In addition to a third of Sunday's 33-driver field being composed of Americans, seven are running for the 2013 championship -- a five-year high.
With the damage fading from a 14-year civil war that split IndyCar into factions and helped engender an exodus to NASCAR, the sport might be on the cusp of enjoying a renaissance reminiscent of the glory days of Foyt, Mario Andretti and the Unsers.
Beyond the Dickensian tale of Carpenter, a former USAC star whose single-car team has beaten powerhouses Penske Racing, Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport, the U.S. story lines are plentiful -- starting with Chevrolet sweeping the top 10 spots in qualifying.
A triumph by Marco Andretti (grandson of Mario, son of Michael) or Graham Rahal (son of Bobby) would reawaken links to legendary names and storied history. Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden represent hope for developing Generation Y stars. AJ Allmendinger, whose career seemed in jeopardy after he failed a drug test and lost his Penske ride in NASCAR last year, would become a great comeback story if he could win in his second chance with team owner Roger Penske.
An Indy 500 win could launch the victor. According to Repucom, which tracks the exposure of drivers and sponsors across several sports, Dario Franchitti last year received twice as much media value as series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay. In 2011, the late Dan Wheldon was ranked No.8 in IndyCar driver exposure despite starting only one race after the Indy 500 win.
"Without a doubt we need an American, and certainly if it was Marco or myself it would help even more just because it's a name," said Graham Rahal, who is driving for the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team owned by his father, winner of the 1986 race. "It'd just be nice to have an American win."
The momentum from Hunter-Reay's 2012 series championship was blunted by the late-season ouster of then-IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, and the series has spent the past six months restructuring much of its front office staff.
"I grew up as a fan of the sport, a kid wanting to be an IndyCar driver, and for years we heard that we needed an American champion, that's what this sport needs," Hunter-Reay told USA TODAY Sports. "There's a lot more that can be done."
Much of the damage was fallout from the grinding battle for open-wheel supremacy between the CART (later Champ Car) series and the Indy Racing League, a breakaway circuit formed in 1996 by former Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George. The fissure locked many brand-name teams and drivers out of Indy for several years.
Growing up in Los Gatos, Calif., Allmendinger dreamed of racing in IndyCar, but the split soured him on the Indy 500's prestige.
"I thought it was just tarnished. ... I knew the best in the world, they just weren't racing in the Indy 500," he told USA TODAY Sports.
Though Allmendinger enjoyed a successful career in Champ Car, scoring five victories and ranking third in the 2006 standings, he moved to the Sprint Cup Series the following year as one of many rising open-wheel stars to answer the siren call of stock car racing. His first start at Indy came in the 2008 Brickyard 400.
Having run twice in IndyCar this year with Penske (and with another race slated after Indy), Allmendinger is impressed by the circuit's at-track atmosphere and competition.
"It needs a better TV deal," he said. "It's hard to get sponsors when people don't even have it on their TV channel."
Room for both?
Though Allmendinger is the rare instance of a stock car driver defecting to IndyCar, there have been fewer drivers leaving for stock cars, too. That's partly because the contraction of NASCAR teams has created fewer opportunities than 10 years ago.
It's also the result of a refortified ladder system. The Mazda Road To Indy was created as a path into IndyCar by offering bonuses for advancement, and four of the seven full-time American drivers -- Andretti, Rahal, Carpenter and Hunter-Reay -- won in its highest level, Indy Lights.
There also are promising signs in the United States Auto Club series, an unofficial feeder system for IndyCar. Honda announced a multiyear sponsorship program with the objective of putting a new USAC graduate in the 2016 Indy 500.
The USAC ranks were once the pathway to IndyCar for legends such as Foyt, but Carpenter was among the only notable products in recent years as NASCAR became a more attractive option for American stars such as Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne.
Allmendinger says Americans love racing enough to support both.
"It doesn't have to just be NASCAR," he said. "IndyCar can be strong, too.
"It's an awesome series, and the racing is phenomenal. There are so many story lines, and someone needs to tell them."
Contributing: Heather Tucker in McLean, Va.
Ed Carpenter won the Indy pole.
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