Indianapolis Qualifying: Pole Day thoughts

IndyCar commentary — By on May 21, 2011 10:00 pm
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If the purpose of altering the format for qualifications was to bring more excitement to time trial days, I think they can say after today that it was mission accomplished!  In what was a frantic, hectic, unpredictable day at the track, the small teams ruled the day and took home both the trophy and the hearts of the vociferous crowd.

The day started out on a sour note for Team Penske driver Ryan Briscoe.  At about 8:15 this morning, Briscoe lost control of his car in turn 2 and backed it hard into the SAFER barrier.  Though he was cleared to drive within an hour, Briscoe was clearly wobbly and weak-kneed as he was assisted to the safety trucks by members of the Holmatro Safetry Team.  Team officials said afterward that Briscoe suffered a slight injury to his left thigh when it hit the steering wheel hard enough to actually break it.  Though Briscoe was able to return to the track about an hour later in his 6T backup car, he was unable to find the speed to secure a spot in the top 24, despite taking one last shot at bumping Simona de Silvestro from the starting field late in the afternoon.

When qualifying got underway at 11:00, weather conditions were quite different from what teams and drivers had experienced in the day leading up to qualifications.  Cloudy skies and a stiff wind blowing from the southeast over turn 2 drastically altered car performance, and few (if any) drivers were able to back up their practice speeds.

About 45 minutes into the qualifying session, Chinese driver Ho-Pin Tung, the impressive rookie driving for Dragon Racing, lost control of his #8 Dallara on the exit of turn 1 and made hard contact.  Though he was quickly assisted out of the car and made his way to the safety truck under his own power, IZOD IndyCar Series officials sent Tung to Methodist Hospital where it was reported several hours later that he had suffered a concussion and was not cleared to drive.

The setback for Tung was the latest bout of drama for the Dragon Racing team, who was still trying to find their bearings after the gone-and-back saga involving Scott Speed on Friday afternoon.  Speed never presented for a qualification attempt today, and now the Dragon teams, once looking comfortable to get two cars in the field, will need a lot of help to put either entry into the field of 33 tomorrow.

As the day progressed, the big story was the major struggle of the five entries from Andretti Autosport.  Though John Andretti, the one-off driver for the team, was eventually able to find enough speed, the only other driver who was even close to being able to put a car in the field was Danica Patrick, whose 223.837 was only good enough for 29th spot. With nine positions remaining to be filled tomorrow, Andretti Autosport will be gunning to claim four of them.

While Andretti Autosport was the biggest head-scratcher case of the day, Simona de Silvestro was busy winning the hearts of the approximately 12 fans who didn’t already adore her.  After her vicious accident on Thursday, de Silvestro returned to the track today in her backup and turned in the gutsiest performance of the day, making three qualification attempts with badly burned, extremely painful hands.  Each run was quicker than the last, and when the day was done Simona had secured the final position for the day.  It’s often said that those who work the hardest often get the luckiest breaks, and perhaps that was true today.  While she was on the bubble at about 3:00, Charlie Kimball took to the track in an attempt to bump de Silvestro back out of the field.  Fortunately for Simona, the skies opened up as Kimball was taking the green flag and brought an end to the first session of qualifications.  Several potent drivers were in the qualification line when the rains came, and it seemed likely that Simona’s speed would not hold up.  Sometimes a little luck is all it takes.  Of course, Simona still has the slowest time currently in the field and could be bumped tomorrow if speeds improve.

After the rains came in mid-afternoon, the IMS track personnel did a remarkable job of quickly drying the track, aided no doubt by a quick-moving shower and the rapid return of the sun.  A modified Fast 9 shootout ensued at 5:30 with INDYCAR officials guaranteeing each driver a single opportunity to make a run for the pole.  Whereas last year IMS and INDYCAR official hadn’t completely thought through the procedure and sent the fastest preliminary qualifier out first (quickly ending any drama when Helio Castroneves laid down the quickest laps of the month), this year the situation was rectified by sending the participants out in inverted order based on their earlier time.  The drivers did not disappoint!

It was clear being amongst the crowd that sentiments were riding with the smaller teams.  When Ed Carpenter, driving the #67 Dollar General Dallara for Sarah Fisher Racing, posted a speed good enough for the provisional pole, the crowd embraced him warmly upon his return to pit lane.  Though any spot in the top 9 should be considered a success for the small team, Ed was clearly disappointed when he exited the car.  Nonetheless, the Sarah Fisher Racing driver certainly was a fan favorite.

The surprise of the session, in my opinion, was Newman-Haas driver Oriol Servia.  Why I continue to be surprised by Servia, I know not.  If he hasn’t done so already, Servia is quickly establishing himself as one of the most talented and versatile drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series, and he is leading a well-received resurgence of Newman-Haas Racing.  Everyone knows that Oriol should have been in a car full time for the past several years, and it is no surprise that given a full-time opportunity he is making the most of it.  Servia’s third-place starting position is the highest for Newman-Haas since Mario Andretti started second in 1993.

The most shocking event of the shootout was the run of Target Chip Ganassi driver Dario Franchitti.  After three laps at over 227 mph, Dario’s car lost power in turn 1 on the last lap.  Inexplicably, Dario’s car had run out of fuel and he was unable to complete his run.  When he finally coasted to the pits, a furious Franchitti quickly ejected himself from the cockpit and stormed down pit lane towards Gasoline Alley without even removing his helmet.  Before the shock of the situation could even wear off, Dario’s TCGR teammate Scott Dixon took to the track for his qualification attempt, and he too was run out of fuel.  Luckily for Scott, his tank ran dry in turn 4 of the final lap and he was able to coast to the start/finish line, but the damage was already done.  Though Scott was still able to knock Servia from the provisional pole, it turned out to be just a little short of what was needed.

While the surprise of the session was Servia and the shocker of the session was Franchitti, the real story of the session was Alex Tagliani.  Though Alex had been fast all week and fastest in the preliminary round of qualifications today, I’m not convinced most people really thought he would end up on the pole at the end of the day.  When the pressure was at its greatest, the Sam Schmidt Motorsports driver dug deep and put together the best four laps of the day.  By slightly less than one-tenth of one second over 10 miles, Tagliani edged out Scott Dixon for the top spot and the honor of leading the field to the green flag in next Sunday’s race.  Upon the announcement that Tag had indeed secured the pole, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause, clearly estastic that the “David” from the small Sam Schmidt operation had slayed the “Goliath” from Target Chip Ganassi Racing.  The tears from Sam Schmidt really tell the story of what this moment meant to him.  After his own promising career was cut short in a testing accident 10 years ago, Sam has built his team from the bottom up, and his off-season purchase of the former FAZZT Race Team is already paying off in spades.  While winning next weekend is still clearly an uphill battle, the crowd reaction today certainly indicated that the masses will be pulling for the little team that slayed the dragon today.

While the folks at Sam Schmidt Motorsports will be celebrating this evening, there are a large number of teams and drivers that are still on pins and needles going into Bump Day tomorrow.  With only nine spots still available for the Indianapolis 500 next weekend, at least 15 drivers will be hoping they can find the speed tomorrow to put them in the field.  As previously mentioned, four of the five Andretti Autosport cars will be trying to make the field.  Other drivers still hoping to secure a spot include Ryan Briscoe, Paul Tracy, Charlie Kimball, Raphael Matos, Pippa Mann, Graham Rahal, Alex Lloyd, and several others.

Weather conditions tomorrow are expected to be similar to what the teams faced today, so finding additional speed maybe be difficult.  However, given how tightly bunched the bottom of the field is (the bottom eight drivers are within 0.6 mph), finding only a few tenths of a second could be the difference between several positions in the bump order.  Conversely, the slightest bobble in any of the 16 turns during the qualification run could be the difference between making the race and watching from the sidelines.

Like usual at a facility that encompasses 559 acres of land, getting a good handle on just how big the crowd was is nearly impossible.  I thought the crowd on the main straightaway and in the Pagoda Plaza seemed larger than in previous years.  Conversely, I thought the crowds in turns 2 and 4 were down a bit.  When I briefly visited the Hall of Fame and Museum, it was completely mobbed with visitors, and it was nearly impossible to walk into the building without rubbing elbows with the person standing next to you.  After the rains came during mid-afternoon, very few of the fans left the facility and continued to passionately cheer for the drivers that qualified for the Fast 9 shootout once the track had dried.  With more days like today, I think the crowds for Pole Day will continue to grow and be entertained.

Away from the track, I was fortunate to experience a pair of places I had never been in my 25 years of coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  For the first hour and a half of qualifications, Jake Query of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network was kind enough to let me tag along with him to watch the action from the radio stand perched high above the Southeast Vista in turn 2.  Last year, I was a guest of Mark Jaynes in his similar position in turn 3, but the perception is completely different between the two positions.  When watching from turn 2, you first pick up the cars as the hit the apex of turn 1 and follow them through the apex of turn 3.  I don’t know exactly how high we were off the ground, but the elevation really lends itself nicely to being able to notice the subtle differences in each driver’s line through the turns.  Still, I have to credit guys like Jake, Mark, and their counterparts (particularly Jerry Baker in turn 1 and Chris Denari in turn 4) who are able to immediately notice, process, and explain such subtle details to listeners both at the track and away from it.  They really do an amazing job, and watching them perform their work in real time makes their performances even more impressive.

Following my time with Jake, I was an invited guest in the turn 2 executive suites of Mr. John Storm, CEO of Contour Hardening.  John has been involved with racing in various capacities for a number of years and has worked on systems from development of a transverse gearbox on Gordon Johncock’s winning 1982 Wildcat to forging gears for Arie Luyendyk’s winning effort in 1997.  Mr. Storm and I share a deep passion and love for the history of the Indianapolis 500, and I really enjoyed getting to swap some of our favorite stories of years gone by.  These suites offer a completely different perspective from anywhere else on the track — watching the cars approach from turn 2, zoom past directly below, and then scream down the straightaway towards turn 3 is an incredible spectacle.  If anyone is afforded the opportunity to visit one of these suites, I would not recommend passing it up!  I certainly enjoyed my time and greatly appreciate the invite from Mr. Storm this afternoon.

With that, I’ll put a bow on today’s coverage and get prepped to be back at the track tomorrow.  As always, I greatly appreciate all of the comments and kind words that you, our readers, passed along today.  If you have any recommendations for coverage, wish to pass along your comments, or have a question about the happenings at IMS, please shoot me an e-mail (paul@morefrontwing.com) or (preferably) send a message to our twitter account, @MoreFrontWing.  I’ll be back with a wrap-up of the events of Bump Day tomorrow.

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