-- INDIANAPOLIS -- On a trying-to-dry Thursday afternoon, the pilgrims came to Anderson, Indiana.
A pair of grandparents and their not-so-willing grandkids ... a middle-aged couple dressed in matching Marco Andretti T-shirts ... a lone teenager snapping photos with his iPhone ... they all appeared in a stuttered stream of visitors to Anderson Memorial Park. Located a little less than an hour northeast of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the cemetery is wedged in between the Borg-Warner Tech Center and a Skyline Chili.
"I'm on my way into Indianapolis for the race," explained Carl Montgomery, dismounting his Harley-Davidson Sportster, taking a break during his ride in from Ohio to meet up with old friends. "This place just seemed like the best spot to start the greatest Indy 500 celebration ever. Ol' Ray here, he started it all."
"Ol' Ray" is Ray Harroun, winner of the inaugural Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911. On Sunday, almost exactly 105 years to the day, the Speedway will hold the 100th edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, adding a centesimal silver panel of winners' faces alongside Harroun and his predecessors.
That's why the pilgrims are descending upon Indiana. That's why the Greatest Spectacle In Racing has already announced its first true sellout in at least two decades, with an anticipated crowd of as many as 350,000. That's why the customary local TV blackout is being lifted for the first time since ABC took over coverage in 1965.
And that's why the people have continued to stop by to visit Harroun's gravesite in Anderson. The people who run the park say having visitors stopping by in May is nothing new. Every year someone anonymously places a small checkered flag by the nondescript headstone.
This year there's just been a whole lot more of them.
"There aren't a lot of times in your life, if any, where you are guaranteed to witness genuine history," says Donald Davidson, Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian and one of the planet's most happily overworked people.
This spring the racetrack has held pre-500 promotional events in each of Indiana's 92 counties. Davidson has participated in all but a few, from civic club meetings to school visits to the dedication of a new historic marker near the entrance of the Anderson cemetery to commemorate the most famous of its residents.
"This year's Indianapolis 500 is one of those rare times," Davidson said. "The 100th running is historic all on its own. But there is no doubt a genuine excitement among racing fans that there could be even more history made in the result of this year's race."
The list of legendary possibilities is indeed lengthy, nearly as long as the list of 33 racers who make up the starting grid.
A pair of drivers -- Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay -- will be racing for their second Indy 500 victory, which would move either one off the list of 50 one-time winners and make him the 10th two-time victor.
Defending race champion Juan Pablo Montoya will be aiming for an even more exclusive club, expanding the list of three-time winners to eight, as well as becoming only the sixth back-to-back winner and only the third since 1971.
The last racer to go back-to-back was Montoya's teammate, Helio Castroneves, who reconvenes his seven-year quest to enter Indy's most hallowed grouping of all, once again hoping to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as a four-time winner.
His ride is even designed for history, recreating Mears' iconic "Yellow Submarine" paint scheme he drove to his middle two victories in 1984 and '88.
A win by Montoya, Castroneves, or teammates Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, would help car owner Roger Penske extend his record of victories to a stunning 17, more than three times the next closest team. That win would also be the perfect capper for another celebration, Penske Racing's 50th anniversary.
No fewer than five first-time 500 starters -- Alexander Rossi, Spencer Pigot, Matthew Brabham, Stefan Wilson and Max Chilton -- will try to become just the ninth rookie to win Indy (a list that includes Harroun in 1911, head of a field made up of nothing but rookies).
British racer Pippa Mann would be the race's first female winner, but would have to do so by establishing another record -- first to win from the 33rd and final starting position.
At the front of the grid is an old-school Indy comeback story in the making, where James Hinchcliffe won the coveted pole position one year after a practice crash that caused him to nearly bleed out sitting in Turn 3. He drives a car owned by Sam Schmidt, a former racer who made three Indy 500 starts before a crash at Walt Disney World Speedway left him paralyzed.
"Comeback stories have long tugged at the heartstrings of this grandstand," says Davidson, harking back to Foyt's win in '67 after suffering a broken back and severe burns the two years before and Buddy Lazier's improbable '96 victory, also with back fractures. (Lazier will start Sunday's race from 30th.) "People like their racers to be a little like superheroes and there's nothing more superhuman than coming back from terrible injuries or even near-death."
But honestly, the throwback-sized crowd will most likely be rooting for the field's throwback names. This year's audience, judging by the people wandering the streets Thursday night and walking through the turnstiles Friday morning for Carburetion Day, feels like a homecoming, a family reunion. These largely local families have grown up attending this race together.
On Sunday their most emotional response likely would come from watching a winner with a last name that feels like family.
"We rooted for his granddad and his dad and his uncle and his cousin, so now I root for him," declared the Harroun visitor dressed in the Marco Andretti shirt, pointing to the likeness of the 29-year-old grandson of Mario, son of Michael, nephew of Jeff and cousin of John.
He will start Sunday's race from the inside of Row 4. Starting three rows behind him is Graham Rahal, son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby, also the 27-year-old's car owner.
Joining them on the grid are Takuma Sato, Jack Hawksworth and Alex Tagliani. Their names might not be Indianapolis royalty, but the name over their garage doors belongs to the king of Speedway, Indiana.
"I've been coming here since I sat over there in the grandstands 60 years ago," Foyt, their boss, recalled Thursday. His last win as a team owner came with driver Kenny Brack in 1999. "This place has been so good to me, and these people have been so good to me. I want so bad to give them another win."
Then the 81-year-old grinned as he signed autographs for a couple of fans. They can no longer meet Ol' Ray Harroun, but they can shake hands with Super Tex.
"Hell, I'm just glad I'm still around. I want to make history. I'm not ready yet to be history."