By DENNIS PASSA
AP Sports Writer
SURFERS PARADISE, Australia -- With the biggest field in seven years, organizers of Sunday's Indy 300 are hoping they haven't saved their best for last.
The IRL and local organizers are meeting this week to discuss the future of the Surfers Paradise race, which is not on the 2009 Indy Racing League schedule. A decision is expected in about two weeks.
Scheduling is the stumbling block. The IRL wants to end its season before the NFL season begins. Gold Coast organizers, however, don't want the race moved up from late October, because it will clash with Australia's national football finals.
Sunday's entry list includes three former Surfers Paradise champions -- Dario Franchitti (1999), Bruno Junqueira (2004) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2003). Former drivers Michael Andretti (the 1994 winner) and Jimmy Vasser (1996) return as team owners.
Andretti and Bobby Rahal will watch their sons, Marco and Graham, from pit lane. A.J. Foyt IV, the grandson of four-time Indy 500 winner, will make his Australian debut.
The 24-car field will have to fight for room on the tight 14-turn, 2.795-mile temporary beachside street course that winds its way around high-rise hotels and resort apartments.
The biggest test will come on the first turn -- a tricky chicane that has been the scene of numerous accidents in the 17-year history of the race.
"Coming down the front straight is where we reach the fastest speed, about 185 mph," said Canadian Alex Tagliani, who has two third-place finishes in Australia in eight appearances.
"Then we must brake hard for the first chicane in order to slow down to 90 mph. We have to be aggressive over the curbs and then reaccelerate."
Because it's a non-points race this year, Graham Rahal expects a furious race.
"I do think you will see more bonsai moves because there isn't a championship on the line," Rahal said. "There are going to be people with the mind-set that they are just trying to prove themselves and that it doesn't really matter what happens at the end of it all."
Danica Patrick, who became the first woman to win a major open-wheel event in Japan in April, is making her first trip to Australia.
"I've heard about this race for a number of years, and I'm looking forward to finally driving in it," Patrick said Thursday at a drivers' breakfast.
In Friday's first practice session, Patrick had a difficult start, managing only the 21st-fastest time, six seconds behind leader Will Power. Justin Wilson, the second-place finisher here last year, was second-fastest, followed by Franchitti in third and series champion and Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon fourth.
Franchitti is making his first start with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Vitor Meira will debut with A.J. Foyt Racing, Dan Wheldon moves to Panther Racing and Tagliani, fifth-fastest Friday, will attempt to cement a spot with Conquest Racing after driving for the team in the final two events of 2008.
Whether any return depends on continuing negotiations led by Indy 300 chairman Terry Mackenroth and Terry Angstadt, the IRL's commercial division president.
Organizers want a five-year contract to continue running the event. The Queensland state government, which backs the race with about $8 million of funding each year, would prefer the date stay in late October.
"We will be holding a number of meetings over the weekend. If an agreement can be reached, a binding contract will be signed within 14 days of the event," Mackenroth said.
Angstadt said three scheduling options were being discussed in an effort to keep the race in Australia.
"We want to make something work," he said.