Success and despair at final Indy 500 qualifying session
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FINAL QUALIFYING DAY TWO INDY 500 2016
It was perhaps one of the most emotional, coincidental and dramatic days I have ever witnessed in motor sport.
At least where the emotions were celebratory and brought together coincidences in a good way as opposed to a bad way.
Huge emotional success for some and heart rending despair for others.
In contrast to the first day of qualifying the conditions were hot and sunny and being the traditional ‘Armed Forces Day’ and now the ‘Pole Day’ the crowd was bigger than I have ever witnessed for the qualifying weekend.
A free practice session for the cars and drivers started the day and it was obvious almost immediately that the Chip Ganassi squad, led by Scott Dixon, had not managed to make any big gains in speed overnight and still could not match the speed of the front runners.
After the morning session the engine in Dixon’s car had to be changed due to some suspicious oil leaks and that feat, normally a three hour job, was accomplished in just over one hour with Kiwi crew chief Blair Julian directing operations.
With just three minutes to spare the car made it in time to get in the line for qualifying.
In Dixon’s words “We had an engine issue this morning and Team Target and the other CGR (Chip Ganassi Racing) teams changed it all out and got us ready for qualifying in just over an hour. That is absolutely unheard of. This is truly why this is a team sport. I obviously didn’t pick up a wrench today and they probably liked it that way, knowing my mechanical skills”.
“INDYCAR would not have let us in qualifying if we didn’t get the car ready in time and we would have started dead last.”
Scott Dixon. Photo / AP
With no chance of qualifying in the top three rows the best that Dixon and fellow Ganassi team drivers could achieve would be tenth position but even that target was looking a distant reality.
The second day of actual qualifying started with just one four-lap run allowed for each driver, and it was Alex Tagliani who caused the first upset by crashing his A.J. Foyt-entered car heavily on his warm-up lap.
It was this same Alex Tagliani who scored the last Indy 500 pole position for the Sam Schmidt racing team in 2011, five years ago to the day.
After the debris was cleared the qualifying continued with some drivers improving their positions and then soon it was time for the ‘big guns’ who had just missed out on getting into the ‘Fast Nine’ to see if they could climb up the grid.
Graham Rahal, Sebastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan and others who would normally expect to be fighting for pole position were left fighting for the scraps.
It was Dixon’s turn to try and improve his thirteenth position, with an untried car and engine and although he improved his speed from the first day it would ultimately prove to be not enough and he remained in the thirteenth starting spot.
Last years winner, Penske driver Juan Pablo Montoya, even dropped from position twelve to seventeenth as not only the Ganassi team but the entire Penske team struggled for speed.
The drama began as the Fast Nine shoot out brought young American driver Josef Newgarden on to the track and he made the pole position time.
That time was then erased by Townsend Bell, another American who does only one race per year, the Indy 500.
The fellow American Ryan Hunter-Reay stepped up and made a time good enough for second on the grid and it was to be an all American front row.
The partisan crowd went wild as there was only Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe to come.
Just one year ago Hinchcliffe nearly lost his life in an horrendous accident at the speedway and spent weeks in hospital recovering before many more weeks were spent in physio and recuperation.
He was also driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsportswith Schmidt himself a quadraplegic after a racing accident.
Hinchcliffe, celebrating his pole position with a crew member. Photo / AP
Hinchcliffe drove with great speed and precision and to witness the scenes around Sam Schmidt himself as Hinchliffe came around the last turn to take the pole was something straight out of a Hollywood movie; “It’s incredible. It’s five years to the day that we did this with Tagliani,” team co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “For the 100th running, we’ve put an effort into this since last September. It’s been an all-around team effort. Obviously, I can’t turn a wrench, but my god, the things that happened today!”
The team also win the US$100,000 prize for pole position.
Just as emotional was second place man Josef Newgarden; “It is a tough pill to swallow” he said.
The crowd were at once sad that it was not to be an all American front row but cheering wildy for Sam Schmidt.
All is not lost for Dixon though.
In 2012 he started 15th with team mate Dario Franchitti in 16th
Franchitti went on to win with Dixon second, and last year Montoya was dead last after an accident early in the race and he went on to win.
The Indy 500 race result can never be predicted.
It was an exciting, almost theatrical and hard fought qualifying battle, an emotional one that really should only come from the mind of a Hollywood script writer.
The small team beating out all of the big teams.
A script that Formula 1 should perhaps buy.
And Canadian Hinchcliffe is, well, almost American … Isn’t he?