This column appears in the May 16, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
THE LEGENDS ARE RETURNING to the brickyard this May, and the man who invited them back is hoping race fans will follow. Indianapolis 500 old-timers like A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti and scores of anonymous aging wrenchmen will descend on the speedway all month long from every corner of the map. Some of them will navigate Gasoline Alley on legs long ago mangled by the Brickyard's harsh white walls. Others will steer motorized scooters to retrace paths once blazed in the world's greatest race cars.
For a century they sacrificed their bodies and bank accounts for 500 glory, watching the race rise in an era that spanned the world wars to the world wide web. Now the event fights to survive the fallout of a 12-year feud between those who own the track and those who own the race teams. Both sides were so eager to control the Greatest Spectacle in Racing that they nearly killed off the race in the process.
At last the Indy loyalists are returning with enthusiasm, though they're not without their internal caution flags. These folks are coming for the 100th anniversary of the 500, but they're also on a recon mission. As am I. We're all eager to size up still-new IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, the outspoken 44-year-old who's promised to rekindle the magic of Indy's past and use that energy to propel it into the future. If he fails, the race that was once a staple of every American's bucket list is likely doomed to the pasture of marginal, niche sporting events. Make no mistake: The Indianapolis 500 is at a crossroads.