Wheldon's death lingers over Indy 500

The Indianapolis 500 will roar into its second century on Sunday with one eye on the future and another on the past.

The emergence of a new and exotic crop of thrill-seeking drivers, representing the increasing globalization of America's greatest race, offers a tantalizing glimpse at the road ahead for a race that began 101 years ago.

But before the 33 drivers blast off around the unforgiving 2.5 miles "Brickyard" speedway for three hours of thrills and spills, the sport will pause to remember Dan Wheldon, last year's winner, who was killed in a horrific crash in Las Vegas in October.

His tragic death continues to cast a dark pall over the sport and has added a somber sense to this year's race.

Before the start on Sunday, the car he won in 12 months ago, will be driven on a lap of honour, serving both as a tribute to him and a stark reminder of the dangers the drivers face when hurtling around the track at speeds of 220 mph (350 km/h).

"That date in October changed a lot of our lives," said Randy Bernard, the chief executive officer of IndyCar. "It brings racing to reality, there are no guarantees in this life."

Part of the race's enduring appeal is that it is steeped in tradition, from the singing of "Back Home in Indiana Again" to the customs of winners kissing the bricks and slugging milk.

But the race is also heavily focused on the future. Although Danica Patrick is not racing this year after moving to NASCAR, three other women, Swiss Simona de Silvestro, Brazil's Ana Beatriz and British rookie Katherine Legge, all qualified and have ambitions of doing well.

"My biggest fear is not having a good result," Legge said. "If I finished outside of the top 12 or 15, I wouldn't be satisfied."

Two ex-Formula One drivers, Brazilian Rubens Barrichello and Jean Alesi, will be making their first appearances in the race while the field, once dominated by North Americans, includes drivers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Mexico, France, Spain, Venezuela, Brazil and Switzerland.

The starting grid will include three former champions with Brazilian Helio Castroneves bidding to become just the fourth four-time winner and Briton Dario Franchitti looking for back-to-back victories and New Zealand's Scott Dixon a second.

But the two men looming among the favourites are both Australian. Ryan Briscoe is on pole position while Will Power, who qualified fifth, is the current IndyCar series leader.

"I feel we're going in with a good chance this year," said Briscoe, who pipped James Hinchcliffe by 0.003 seconds, the smallest margin ever for pole.

"The competition is going to be tough but I've definitely learnt a lot over the last few years."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)