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'Triple Crown' Remains Moon Landing of Motor Racing

The Indianapolis 500 has been run 100 times. The 24 Hours of Le Mans has taken place 84 times. The Monaco Grand Prix has raced 63 times.

Seven-hundred and sixty-three drivers have strapped into a car on Race Day since 1911 to attempt to win the Indianapolis 500. At least that many drivers have raced on the public roads and long straights of Le Mans, France, with its fields of 50-plus sports cars. And hundreds of Formula One drivers have dared to race on the narrow, unforgiving streets of the principality of Monaco.

Yet just one driver has won all three – Graham Hill, who triumphed in 1966 as a rookie at Indianapolis, won Le Mans in 1972 with teammate Henri Pescarolo and reigned five times on the streets of Monaco (1963-65, 68-69).

Fernando Alonso wants to become the second person to scale auto racing’s highest peak, as he is entering the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Sunday, May 28 because he covets joining the late Hill in the rarest air of racing immortality.

Two-time Formula One World Champion Alonso, 35, from Spain, is driving a car entered by McLaren and prepared by reigning Indianapolis 500 champions Andretti Autosport for his rookie start in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

He won the Monaco Grand Prix, which takes place in late May, in 2006 with Renault and in 2007 with McLaren. He has yet to start the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which takes place annually in mid-June.

So Alonso’s shocking decision to skip Monaco this year to compete in Indianapolis indicates his quest for the “triple crown” of global auto racing isn’t a lark. He is a throwback to a time when racing at Indianapolis, the uncompromising, walled streets of Monaco and the fast, fearsome La Sarthe road circuit at Le Mans were annual dates on the calendars of the best drivers in the world.

Calling Alonso’s attempt to join Hill as a triple crown winner as racing’s equivalent to scaling Mount Everest is a bit tame.

Sure, no one reached the 29,029-foot summit of the Earth’s highest peak until Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on May 29, 1953 – ironically one day before Bill Vukovich won the 37th Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. But many climbers have reached the top of the world since that pair.

Alonso’s quest is closer to landing on the Moon, which only the United States has achieved.

Growing specialization in racing over the last 40 years has prevented many drivers from attempting to wear the triple crown. So has the racing schedule, which usually sees Indianapolis and Monaco taking place on the same day. That’s the case again this year, which makes Alonso’s decision to miss the marquee race on the F1 calendar to race in the “500” even more powerful and resonant.

Another big challenge is the variety of the equipment and racing styles, as powering into Turn 1 at 230 mph in an Indy car at Indianapolis requires a different touch than dancing around Monaco’s serpentine streets in an F1 car and hurtling through the rainy night at 240 mph on the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans.

But Alonso is committed with a refreshing approach toward making history, knowing his immense talent behind the wheel must quickly adapt to a completely different style as he tackles his first Verizon IndyCar Series race and first career oval race on the fastest, most fearsome circle track in open-wheel racing. That blend of talent and an open desire to try a completely new form of racing on its biggest stage have attracted global attention from the minute Alonso’s shocking decision April 12 ignited social media, the Internet and news wires around the world.

How realistic are Alonso’s chances? Better than you think. Just look at the latest bas-relief face added to the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Alexander Rossi had zero oval experience when he joined the Verizon IndyCar Series after a limited season of Formula One competition. He made one oval start, on the tricky, 1-mile oval at Phoenix, before coming to Indianapolis for the first time.

Then Rossi shocked the world by executing a daring fuel-saving strategy to win the race as a rookie, in just his second oval start.

Yes, Rossi took the checkered flag at a reduced speed as part of his fuel-sipping strategy. But sometimes lost in that path to victory was Rossi’s raw speed during the race. He led three times for 14 laps and turned the fastest lap of the race on Lap 106, at a sizzling 225.288 mph.

Rossi’s speed put him in position to make the fuel strategy work, not vice-versa.

Alonso will come to Indy with one fewer career oval start than Rossi. But like Rossi, he will benefit from a stable of experienced Andretti Autosport teammates, including Rossi, 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, 2006 runner-up Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato, who dueled with Dario Franchitti for the win on the final lap in 2012. Alonso also knows Rossi and Sato from their tenures in Formula One, which will accelerate his learning curve.

Plus there are two guys on the pit wall in the Andretti team who know a thing or two about Indianapolis and Formula One – 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner and 1978 Formula One World Champion Mario Andretti and Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti. Michael Andretti will call strategy for Alonso this May, and it’s a given that Alonso will pick Mario’s immense racing brain early and often.

Another aspect to consider: Alonso is a generational auto racing talent.

He is the sixth-winningest driver in Formula One history, and a recent Autosport magazine poll of more than 217 Formula One drivers ranked him as the ninth-best driver who has ever strapped into an F1 car.

Adaptability to different handling and surface conditions always has been the quality most admired by peers, media and fans about Alonso. That will serve him well at Indianapolis.

Still, history indicates this is an immense challenge for Alonso. And some of his toughest competition this May could come from a driver who already is two-thirds of the way toward joining Hill as the second triple crown winner.

Juan Pablo Montoya electrified the racing world by dominating and winning the 2000 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, albeit with a year of oval experience while winning the CART championship in 1999. He then moved to Formula One and won at Monaco in 2003.

Montoya, who will drive for Team Penske in May, is a member of an elite club of just six drivers who have won two of the three legs of the triple crown.

A.J. Foyt won the Indianapolis 500 in 1961, 1964, 1967 and 1977 and won at Le Mans with Dan Gurney in 1967. Super Tex never raced in the Monaco Grand Prix.

As a treat for fans, the Ford GT40 Mk. IV that Foyt and Gurney drove to victory at Le Mans will be on display in the special A.J. Foyt exhibit in the IMS Museum on Indianapolis 500 qualifying weekend, May 20-21.

Jochen Rindt of Austria won Le Mans in 1965 and at Monaco in 1970, a few months before he died in an accident at Monza. He started the Indianapolis 500 in 1967 and 1968, with a best finish of 24th as a rookie in 1967.

Bruce McLaren of New Zealand won in 1962 at Monaco and followed with a Le Mans victory in 1966. McLaren never started the Indianapolis 500, but the team he founded – and for which Alonso drives today – won “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in 1974 and 1976 with Johnny Rutherford behind the wheel. Mark Donohue also earned the first of Team Penske’s record 16 Indy 500 victories in a McLaren chassis in 1972.

Maurice Trintignant of France won Le Mans in 1954 and Monaco in 1955 and 1958 but never started at Indianapolis.

Italian legend Tazio Nuvolari won the fourth edition of the Monaco Grand Prix in 1932 and triumphed the next year at Le Mans. But like Trintignant, he never raced on the 2.5-mile rectangular oval on 16th Street in Indianapolis.

So while some may have asked why Alonso is attempting this daunting task, here’s a better question: Why not?

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