INDIANAPOLIS - Fernando Alonso will be hoping to return to his McLaren Formula One day job next week with an Indianapolis 500 victory and another jewel in motor racing's Triple Crown.
For over a century, the Indy 500 has been a magnet to motor racing giants and thrill-seekers eager to test their skill and bravery on the sprawling 2.5-mile oval known as the Brickyard.
Alonso, a two-time Formula One world champion, is the latest driver to accept the challenge in a one-off bid to match the late Briton Graham Hill — the only man to claim the Triple Crown of motor sport with victories at the Monaco Grand Prix, Indy 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Alonso, 35, has no experience at Le Mans either, but he's indicated that that challenge will have to wait a while.
When the Spaniard was granted leave by McLaren to skip the Monaco Grand Prix to chase Indy 500 glory on Sunday, it seemed a farfetched dream for a driver who had never sat in an IndyCar, never mind trying out oval racing on one of the most notorious and dangerous tarmacs in all of motorsports.
But he has proven to be a quick learner and has already showcased his immense skill by coming to grips with the nuances of oval racing to qualify in fifth place.
"I feel ready," Alonso said. "Lacking experience, for sure, because [it is] my first time with everything that is going to happen, from rolling starts and all these things, but at the same time I have worked very, very hard over the last month, so I cannot be better prepared than I am.
"Maybe it is not enough, but I could not do anything more than this."
No amount of time in the cockpit of his McLaren Andretti Autosport Honda could prepare Alonso for what awaits him Sunday. Drivers say there is nothing that compares to the sight of 300,000-plus spectators filling the sprawling grandstands for a day of high-octane action.
Held on the Memorial Day holiday weekend in the heart of the U.S. Midwest, where the winner chugs a quart of milk rather than expensive French champagne, the Indy 500 is a unique American event.
This year 33 drivers, including four rookies, from 10 countries and both sexes will take the green flag.
Scott Dixon, the 2008 winner, grabbed pole position last weekend on a Sunday full of drama that began with his taking P1 and ended with a gun pointed to his head during a robbery while he was buying fast food at a drive-through restaurant.
Lining up alongside the popular New Zealander in the front row will be Indianapolis native and two-time pole sitter Ed Carpenter and last year's winner, Alexander Rossi.
'We come here to win'
"This is the biggest event on the calendar each year, and it's the one we set out to win first," said Dixon. "We finished second here a couple of times, and it's almost the worst place to finish when you come so close.
"We come here to win, and that's the only goal. If we don't achieve that, we're disappointed."
Row Two will see Japan's Takuma Sato and American J.R. Hildebrand flanking Alonso.
Brazil's Helio Castroneves, a four-time pole sitter and three-time champion, signaled his readiness to fight for an elusive fourth win after clocking the top speed in final practice on Friday.
In more than a century of racing at the famed speedway only three men — A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears — have won the 500 four times, and Castroneves is aiming to become the first non-American to join that club.
The Brazilian is part of the powerhouse Team Penske stable that includes two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya of Colombia, reigning IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud of France, Australian Will Power and American Josef Newgarden, all trying to give team owner Roger Penske a 17th trip to Victory Lane.