INDIANAPOLIS The start of the Indianapolis 500 was once described as driving through a blender set to puree.
Thirty-three cars racing in rows of three toward a narrow left turn at more than 200 mph is one of the scariest moments in a fearsome sport.
"When I was sitting on the grid at the 500, and doing those two (pace) laps before the start of the race, and you're ratcheting yourself up to go into turn one at full throttle, cars all around you, to me it was the most difficult thing I did every year," said Eddie Cheever, the 1998 Indy winner and now an analyst for ABC.
With memories of his 14 starts at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway still fresh in his mind, the one-time Formula One driver added: "I hope somebody doesn't ask me a question at the start because I have absolutely no intention of speaking for the first lap. It is the most intense, frightening mixture of fumes and cars and tires and walls and people and personalities."
The rows are supposed to be separated by 100 feet, but there is no way to police that, and many of the starts over the years have been pretty ragged.
Some of the worst crashes in the first 91 editions of the 500-mile race have taken place at the start.
Among them, in 1973, David "Salt" Walther pinwheeled down the track, his legs sticking out of his torn-up race car, after touching wheels with Jerry Grant and slamming into the catch-fencing in a fiery crash near the starting line. Blinded by the fireball that spread across the front straightaway, several other drivers slammed into Walther's car. Walther was badly burned but eventually recovered.
In 1982, front-row starter Kevin Cogan skidded across the track and took out A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti as the field got up to speed for the start. In the melee, Roger Mears and Dale Whittington crashed behind the leaders and never even took the green flag.
In 1988, Scott Brayton, Roberto Guerrero and Tony Bettenhausen were involved in a crash in turn two on the first lap. In 1995, Stan Fox was badly injured in the first turn in a crash that also included Cheever, Lyn St. James, Carlos Guerrero and Gil de Ferran.
Generally, the best place to start is the front row, in clean air. But, in 2001, pole-winner Scott Sharp, pressured from behind by Greg Ray and Robby Gordon, hit the wall before he made it through the first turn.
"It is pretty intense," said John Andretti, who returned to Indy last year after an absence of 13 years. "These guys are like lions looking at meat.
"You just have to try not make any major mistakes, not get involved in anything, not create anything, let it kind of play out a little bit."
Andretti, the nephew of 1969 winner Mario Andretti and cousin of current driver Marco Andretti, said that, as much as he loves Indy, he had second thoughts last year as he walked onto the grid to prepare for his eighth Indy start.
"I thought to myself, 'What am I doing here?' This isn't going to be fun," Andretti said.
"It's sort of like being a rookie all over again," he said. "You have to act like this is the first time you've done it and err on the side of caution rather than aggression. That's hard to do as a race car driver. If you get too cautious, you can get run over in the back, too. It's unpredictable what the other drivers are going to do, and it's very unpredictable what your car is going to do."
Oriol Servia, one of the drivers making the transition from the defunct Champ Car World Series to the newly unified IRL IndyCar Series, will endure the Indy start for the first time Sunday.
He said he prepared himself for the race by buying a DVD compilation of all the 500s from the '60s through the '90s.
"I've gone through the '90s and the '80s," the Spaniard said. "I still have to go through the '70s and '60s.
"But I can see the start is really peculiar. ... At the same time, though, where I'm starting (25th), I really don't want to get a lap down. You want to be cautious because you want to be there at the end. But you cannot be too comfortable because you get a lap down and the race is over, basically. If you keep yourself in the lead lap, anything can happen."