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INDY 500: LACK OF BIG NAMES MAKES IT DIFFERENT.

INDY 500: No Andrettis. No Fittipaldis. An Unser hardly anyone knows. Only one former winner. The least experienced field in six decades.

This won't be the same old Indianapolis 500."What a sad day for our sport," said 1985 Indy winner Bobby Rahal, who will be racing at the rival U.S. 500 in Michigan. "The Indianapolis 500 is our Super Bowl, our World Series. It's supposed to be the biggest names in the game, the best drivers, the best teams.

"Indy is supposed to be about tradition and continuity. But not this year."

Some things will look the same, but don't be fooled.

As usual, more than 400,000 people are expected at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Sunday's race.

As usual, the start of the world's richest and most prestigious race will be perhaps the most dangerous moment in sports.

As usual, Jim Nabors will sing "Back Home Again in Indiana," the acrid smell of methanol fuel will fill the air, and the sights and sounds at the sprawling speedway will make it seem as though its business as usual.

It's not.

The front row trio of Tony Stewart, Davy Jones and Eliseo Salazar is hardly recognizable to anyone but the most dedicated fan.

In fact, the 17 rookies, and many of the veterans, are virtual strangers.

In this year of schism in the open-wheel sport, the most powerful Indy-car teams and the biggest stars are in Michigan. And in the wake of the crash that took the life of two-time Indy pole-winner Scott Brayton, fears heightened for the safety of the inexperienced field.

The war was precipitated by speedway president Tony George, who is seen by some as a power-hungry villain who is destroying the race and the Indy-car sport.

Others see him as a man of integrity who is restoring Indy racing to its traditional oval-track roots.

George, grandson of the late speedway owner Tony Hulman, said he acted on his belief that the sport was devoid of opportunity for young drivers and moving in the direction of uncontrollable costs.

He invented the Indy Racing League to challenge the established PPG Indy Car World Series. Then he drove a massive wedge between the two series by reserving up to 25 of the 33 starting spots at Indy for IRL regulars.

Within days of that announcement, the PPG series scheduled the U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway - on the same day as Indy. That's where the names that normally dot the Indianapolis lineup will be racing on Sunday.

Stewart, who turned 25 on Monday, has raced in only two previous Indy-car events - the first two IRL races. He doesn't see any negatives about this year's race.

"A lot of people, including me, are getting a chance that might otherwise have taken years to get, and maybe never," said Stewart, who qualified in the middle of the front row, but moved to the pole position following Brayton's death. "We're all race drivers who have proven we are capable of running the speeds and qualifying here. We're going to show we can race here, too."

Only a few years ago, Indy thrived on famous names such as A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Mario Andretti, with 91 starts and nine victories among them before they retired.

Sunday's lineup totals 75 previous Indy 500 starts and one victory, Arie Luyendyk's win in 1990. The sum of the current experience is the least since the 1931 race and the first-year starters are the most since 1930.

Sunday's field - the fastest in history with a qualifying average of 227.807 mph - will be led to the green flag by the baby-faced Stewart, who has only two previous Indy-car starts.

One of the rookies is Johnny Unser, whose famous family has accounted for nine Indy victories - four by Uncle Al, three by Uncle Bobby and two by cousin Al Jr.

"It's like a dream, because I'm continuing where my father left off," said Johnny, whose father, Jerry, was killed in practice at Indy in 1959 when Johnny was 7 months old. "I've really been trying hard to get here since 1992."