INDIANAPOLIS -- The best part of Race Day at Indy comes early, before the place is a living human carpet, before all the ceremony and pageantry and shrieking enignes.
It's a time of day when the sun touches only the top part of the blockhouses in Gasoline Alley, when the people lining the balconies overlooking A.J. Foyt's garages in Building A -- yes, people are lining the balconies, and it's barely 7 a.m. -- have to squint to see anything, have to shade their eyes as they look down on the nosecones and engine cowlings scattered about.
Everything is in tear-down mode, at this early hour. The engines are uncovered. Crew members hover over them. Outside polesitter James Hinchcliffe's garage, a crewman pulls out a wrench, gives a bolt on the rear wing a crank, stands back to study it. Then he leans in and gives it another crank or two.
A few garages over, an engine fires up, bap-bap-bap-bap. It's Buddy Lazier's No. 4, and as it growls and snaps, the first sharp tang of racing fuel taints the morning air.
It doesn't smell like victory, to quote Robert Duvall in "Apocalypse Now." But it does smell like race morning.
It also reminds you this is an occasion like few others, never more so than this year. There will be 350,000 souls or thereabouts in this vast expanse, before too long; not long after, the 33 will come to the green, and we'll get this party started.
But, first, a couple of random thoughts, entirely unconnected and perhaps of no consequence:
1. Winning the pole ain't what it used to be.
Twenty winners have come from the pole position, good news for Hinchcliffe. The bad news is no one has won from the pole since Helio Castroneves did it in 2009, his third 500 victory.
2. Once again, the winner will not be named Smith.
This is because, once again, no one named Smith is in the field. No one named Smith has ever been in the field in 100 years. I think I can speak for the entire Smith clan when I say this is a supreme disappointment.
3.Speaking of trivia, here's a personal favorite: No one named Smith has ever raced in the 500, but two guys named Dario have won it.
That would be Dario Resta (1916) and Dario Franchitti (2007, 2010, 2012). Even more deliciously bizarre, both were from Great Britain (Franchitti's a Scot) but also had Italian roots.
4. There are six former winners in the field. Four of them are starting from the fifth row on back.
In fact, there is a whole pile of guys used to running up front who are starting mid-pack and beyond: Scott Dixon (13th), Marco Andretti (14th) Juan Pablo Montoya (17th), Tony Kanaan (18th), Ed Carpenter (20th), Graham Rahal (26th). Which means there will be some interesting stuff going on back there once the green drops.