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Indy 500: Smaller Race Teams Making Major Inroads Against Big Boys

A look at the first three rows starting in this year's Indianapolis 500 shows a big change, with smaller teams in five of the first nine starting spots, including pole-sitter Alex Tagliani of Sam Schmidt Motorsports.

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Like NASCAR in the U.S. and Formula 1 racing globally, the IndyCar Series is dominated by the teams with the big money and big name drivers. Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing are recognized as the big dogs in IndyCar and are generally the prohibitive favorites when the Indianapolis 500 rolls around every year.

As preparations count down for the 100th Anniversary celebration of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" on Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the home of IndyCar racing, the lead cars on the starting grid have a much different look this time than in seasons' past. The top-10 qualifiers are littered with cars and drivers that don't normally get such a front end view so early in the race.

Five of the top nine spots in the starting field for tomorrow's race belong to the "Davids" of the Indy racing world, including to the pole position, which was earned by Alex Tagliani of Sam Schmidt Motorsports as the top qualifier at an average four-lap speed of 227. 472 mph. Also on the front row with Tagliani are Ganassi driver Scott Dixon, who will be joined in the other lane by another small-team driver in Oriol Servia of Newman/Haas Racing.  A year ago, Servia was watching this race as a spectator, and this year he is on the front row of the Great American Race.

In addition to the pole-sitter, the Schmidt team also placed Townsend Bell fourth among the qualifiers, on the inside position of the second row.

According to team owner Sam Schmidt, it's really all about assembling the right personnel to fill out the team. "It's much more difficult to put the right group of people together, and it's much more challenging," Schmidt said last Saturday after pole qualifying. "But the reality is this is much more special to go out there and actually do it and beat them (the Penske and Ganassi teams) at their own game and with a much smaller operation, much less funding. That's what the IndyCar Series is all about," he said.

A four-time champion owner in the Firestone Indy Lights Series, the developmental race series of IndyCar, Schmidt formed the racing team that bears his name in 2000 after suffering injuries in a testing accident that left him a quadriplegic. The three-time starter in the Indy 500 was able to field a full-time entry in IndyCar this season with Tagliani after acquiring the assets of FAZZT Racing. Bell and drivers Alex Cunningham and rookie Jay Howard are expected to make starts in selected races.

Other drivers from smaller teams who will be starting in the first five rows at the historic Brickyard on Sunday are Dan Wheldon, a past 500 winner, with Bryan Herta Autosports this season, starting in the No. 6 position; veteran Buddy Rice, also a past Indy winner, of Panther Racing, is in the No. 7 position on the inside of row three, next to Ed Carpenter, who is driving for Sarah Fisher Racing. Takuma Sato of KV Racing Technologies rounds out the top 10 starters in the field of 33.

Only Dixon, Will Power of Team Penske starting fifth and Dario Franchitti from the Chip Ganassi stable of IndyCar drivers in the No. 9 position represent the so-called Indy power teams in the first 10 starting positions for the 100th Anniversary race Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

By claiming the majority of the upfront starting positions for this year's Indy 500, the smaller teams on Gasoline Alley, most of them with veteran IndyCar drivers at the wheel, have made a strong statement that they can no longer be counted out of the winner's circle. Now one of them needs to win the Great American Race, and they'll really have everyone's attention.