COLUMBUS (WCMH) – Thirty-three of the world’s best racecar drivers will compete Sunday in America’s most prestigious open-wheel race, the Indianapolis 500.

Three cars with Central Ohio connections will be in the field, offering hometown flavor for diehard fans and casual viewers alike.

Veteran and sophomore chase Shank’s maiden win

The local team to watch is Meyer Shank Racing, based in Pataskala and co-owned by Columbus native Michael Shank. The MSR team will field two pink and black Hondas sponsored by AutoNation and SiriusXM, one of which being a part-time car driven by three-time Indy 500 winner Hélio Castroneves.

“Certainly, the big focus is the Indy 500, and he knows that,” Shank told NBC4 during a visit to his shop this spring before the IndyCar season. “For him, it would be huge to win another race – another 500.”

Shank said “a big percentage” of the work done throughout the 16-race season is for the 500, especially since sponsors expect the team to be competitive on one of racing’s most prestigious stages.

Shank Indy 500 practice
Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Michael Shank (right) talks to Jack Harvey (left), the driver of the team’s No. 60 Honda, during Indianapolis 500 practice on May 19, 2021 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Ind. (Photo by Chris Jones/IndyCar)

“It’s our biggest race,” he said. “It means the most to almost everybody. If we win it, it changes your life.”

Castroneves would know. He won it in 2001, 2002 and 2009 with Team Penske, and a fourth would tie him for the record.

Castroneves 2009 Indianapolis 500 win
Hélio Castroneves, driver of the #3 Team Penske Dallara Honda, celebrates in victory lane after winning the IRL IndyCar Series 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 24, 2009 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

“They don’t introduce you anymore as ‘Hélio Castroneves, a driver,’” the 46-year-old Brazilian told NBC4 before the season. “They introduced you as an Indy 500 champion. And absolutely, this is something that only Indianapolis can do it.”

When he rolls off eighth, Sunday will be Castroneves’ first of six races this season as he helps MSR develop its second car, the No. 06.

“I can see Mike putting a lot of effort – a lot of, a lot of effort – and attention to the quality of the car to make sure that the car is absolutely at the level that it needs to be to be in the winner’s circle,” he said.

MSR’s full-time driver, 28-year-old Jack Harvey, will make his fifth Indy 500 start when he takes the green flag in 20th driving the No. 60. The Englishman’s second full season was off to a top-tier start before mechanical failures kept him in the back the last two races.

Harvey Indy 500 qualifying
Meyer Shank Racing IndyCar driver Jack Harvey during qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 on May 22, 2021 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Ind. (Photo by Joe Skibinski/IndyCar)

Harvey’s best 500 finish is ninth – last year – and he keeps a competitive, open attitude toward the possibility of his once-underdog team taking IndyCar’s biggest prize.

“Why not us, mate?” he told NBC4 in April. “You can’t help but feel like someone has to win the race.”

“Honestly I don’t even know what I would do if I won the race,” he added. “I’d probably just freak out … because you just become part of racing history forever. And I think that’s why we all work so hard and why there has been an extra push towards the 500 and our 500 car this year.”

An MSR victory would be Harvey’s first in IndyCar, as well the team’s first, dating to their maiden entry in the 2017 Indy 500 as a part-time team.

“For us, to be our first one, it would just be off the charts,” Shank said. “It’s a little bit like when we won the Rolex 24 in 2012 overall, that really changed our trajectory a lot. And, you know what’s funny, it’s the same people and we’re doing the same thing. It just you get the result at the right time, and the Indy 500 is that times two or three.”

Family legacy, strong car behind Rahal

The Rahal name has history at Indy. Medina native Bobby Rahal won the 1986 race for former Hilliard-based team Truesports. And on Sunday, Rahal’s son, Graham, an accomplished IndyCar racer, hopes to further his and his family’s legacies.

“Dream come true,” Graham Rahal told NBC4 in April. “I think everybody knows that. It’d be a big deal for our whole family. It’d be a big deal for everybody.”

Rahal Indy 500 qualifying
Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda Indy car, during qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 on May 22, 2021 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Ind. (Photo by James Black/IndyCar)

The 32-year-old New Albany native will make his 14th Indy 500 start on Sunday when he rolls off 18th in the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, co-owned by his father. Last year, as teammate Takuma Sato won the race, Rahal finished third.

“We were very close last year,” he said, thinking back to the error on the final pitstop last year that may have cost the No. 15 the win. “In fact, frankly I thought – famous last words – I thought we were the car to beat coming to the end of that race.”

Rahal Indy 500 practice
Graham Rahal drives the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda Indy car during practice for the Indianapolis 500 on May 20, 2021 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Ind. (Photo by Chris Jones/IndyCar)

Rahal last won an IndyCar race in June 2017, but he has a handful of podium finishes since and he consistently finishes in the top 10 in points. Three top-five finishes in five races this year has him fifth in the standings.

Graham Rahal would be the sixth Ohioan to win the event dubbed “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Before Bobby Rahal won 35 years ago, Columbus’ Sam Hanks won in 1957, as did fellow capital city native Mauri Rose in 1941, 1947 and 1948. And Dayton’s Frank Lockhart won in 1926.

The most recent Ohioan to win the Indy 500 was Defiance’s Sam Hornish Jr. with a last-second pass in 2006.

RLL Racing won the 2004 race with Buddy Rice and last year’s race with Sato. Along with Sato (starting 15th in the No. 30) and Rahal, Santino Ferrucci (23rd) will drive RLL’s No. 45 car, a 500-only entry.

Ohio: A racing home outside Indy

Columbus is not just home to some teams and drivers; it’s also one of the top cities for IndyCar fans. Columbus and Cincinnati tied Las Vegas last year for the Indy 500’s second-highest local market TV ratings (behind Indianapolis).

And the Dayton market had the second-best TV rating in both 2019 and 2018.

A lot of us that are motorheads and grew up around racing with parents that were in it, it’s a destination, the Indy 500,” Shank said. “And a lot of people grew up with it. Like when my dad was in the ’60s and ’70s growing up, he would go the 500 or watch it or listen to it or whatever. And that tradition (is) especially in Central Indiana, but it kind of spreads out a little bit (to) Chicago, Columbus.”

IndyCar will visit Central Ohio over the July 4th weekend for the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Indy 500 details and notables

  • Time/TV: Prerace coverage begins 9 a.m. on NBC Sports Network and switches to NBC4 at 11 a.m. The green flag drops at 12:45 p.m. on NBC4, and postrace coverage switches back to NBCSN at 4 p.m.
  • Race: 200 laps, 500 miles, speeds topping 220 miles per hour
  • Front row: Scott Dixon (pole), Colton Herta (2nd), Rinus Veekay (3rd)
  • Former winners in the field: Castroneves (3); Sato and Juan Pablo Montoya (2); Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud (1)
  • Full starting lineup: Click here.
  • Simona de Silvestro (33rd) will pilot the race’s first female-led entry, driving Beth Paretta’s No. 16 Chevrolet for Paretta Autosport.
  • With an expected crowd of 135,000 spectators, it will be the world’s largest sporting event during the COVID-19 pandemic.