The race itself is the headline maker of the month of May, but qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 can be equally as important. Making the race, or taking pole, is as much of an accomplishment for some teams as winning the race. Plus, qualifying well sets the mood for the rest of the month. Run well and you take a nice shot of momentum and confidence into race day, knowing that the speed is there to run well. Run poorly and doubt begins to seep in; you’ll start wondering if you and your team have what it takes to be a true contender, which will put you behind the 8-ball even more.
Qualifying for the 2011 race was a case study in the ups and down of qualifying at Indianapolis. It is unclear exactly why this weekend’s events were so topsy-turvy, but the shuffled grid is a testament to the emotional toll Indianapolis brings.
There were a host of heroes on Pole Day, with Alex Tagliani and Sam Schmidt Motorsports leading the way. Without garnering headlines, this outfit has been steadily making progress. Even last year, under the FAZZT banner, they showed the speed they were capable of, qualifying on the front row in their debut in Sao Paulo and making the top nine for last year’s Indy 500.
Now under the leadership of Sam Schmidt, they seem to be hitting their stride. "I'm probably going to be pinching myself until I go to bed," Tagliani said afterwards. "It's been an amazing team effort. We have a great group of people, and the additions with the other cars. I had good input from Townsend (Bell) and Dan (Wheldon) and it's been nice to work as a big group this week. I wanted this one so bad."
Schmidt had trouble holding back his emotions as well, with camera showing him unable to watch Tagliani’s run at times and then in tears as it concluded.
Not to be lost, though, in their success are the other great stories from Pole Day. Oriol Servia and Newman/Haas who continue their surge forward by taking a spot on the front row (third). Servia, who has been a journeyman his entire career, has always been very fast, but just couldn’t quite stay with one team for too long, with funding always an issue.
Now, though, it seems he is settling in his third stint with the Newman/Haas outfit (he raced with them previously in 2005 and at the end of 2009). “I couldn’t believe we were in the top-nine and then we decided to go all out at it and the Telemundo car was really fast. I’m just very proud of the whole crew. The work they put in over the winter, even with the uncertainty, when we didn’t know 100 percent what the program was going to be. To be on the front row is just unbelievable.”
Additionally, Bryan Herta continues to improve his team, putting Dan Wheldon in sixth on the grid. Given that they made last year’s field after Jay Howard and Paul Tracy withdrew times and failed to go faster, Herta’s operation has come leaps and bounds.
“This was an excellent result for everybody on the William Rast/BHA/Curb-Agajanian car. I couldn’t be happier with the second row. Dan did a tremendous job. We have a great car, a great driver and a great team and we are looking forward to showing up next week and trying to win this thing.”
Also, Ed Carpenter once again proved his mettle as an oval track racer putting Sarah Fisher’s Dollar General Dallara into the pole shootout, eventually taking eighth. It is the best result for Fisher’s team in its existence. “I am extremely proud of the job that the boys have done throughout the entire week,” said a relieved Sarah Fisher, who was visibly nervous throughout Carpenter’s time trial attempts. “Today was a great summary of all of their hard work. I was especially happy to see all of our plans come together to make us a part of the Fast Nine. As a small team it means a lot to be a part of that. I also want to thank Dollar General for allowing me the opportunity to step out of the car, start a family, and put Ed and the team together to make an attempt at making history at this year's Indianapolis 500."
Of course, few were smiling more than Simona de Silvestro, whose comeback from burns after her Thursday crash is one of the best stories of the month. What’s more, her backup car was clearly slower than her primary car, with many thinking that her crash doomed her efforts to make the field. But, the Swiss driver with the one of the smaller teams in the paddock went to work, got the T car as fast as it could, and put it in the field in 24th. "My body's shaking,” said an emotional de Silvestro. “I was pretty nervous out there. We didn't do many laps. I really have to thank Nuclear Clean Air Energy for the support they've given me. The team, too, they worked really hard to get the car back together. A day ago, I wasn't sure if I wanted to get back in the car. I was really freaked out about it. But I think I made the right decision to get back in, and the doctors have taken really good car of me."
Buddy Rice and Townsend Bell, one-off drivers who have had to work extremely hard to simply keep their names out there, also deserve kudos for putting their efforts in the top nine (Bell in fourth and Rice in seventh).
However, on the other side, you have your zeros: the drivers and teams who “should” run well but didn’t. For Team Penske, Helio Castroneves simply lost speed in the car, going from the quickest on Fast Friday to 16th in the starting lineup. For Ryan Briscoe, his issues began on Saturday morning with a bad crash in practice, forcing him to a backup car. Even though he had that excuse to fall back on, Briscoe still expected to run better. “For some reason this T car hasn't been pulling the speeds we've been expecting with what we were seeing with the primary car,” said the Australian. “Unfortunately, with my crash yesterday, we can't get that back together. We're racing with the T car. We ran it on Opening Day, and it felt great. So I'm just looking forward to the race.”
Still, he is optimistic about their chances in the race. “We're going to have a great race car. I'm starting in the back, but we'll be able to get to the front. I've got a Roger Penske calling my race, and we want to bring one home for IZOD."
Graham Rahal also struggled somewhat, with engine and fuel pressure problems forcing to qualify on Bump Day. “On our second run yesterday - a lot of people thought we aborted it - but we didn't,” Rahal explained. “We had a fuel pickup issue. The car shut itself off. Still, I don't think we're exactly sure what it is. We went through the fuel cell and changed the fuel pump, the collector, all the fuel lines, you know, everything inside.”
Rahal was happy to get a run in early on Sunday. “We got lucky. We got a pretty good draw to go early. Obviously, Danica failed tech, so we got further up the draw. We were very fortunate to get a run in.”
However, none struggled more than the once mighty Andretti Autosport. With five cars entered, the Andretti squad seemed ready to make its fair share of noise this month. Unfortunately, that noise came in the form of drivers Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway failing to qualify for the Indy 500 and Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick barely getting in, with John Andretti able to qualify 17th on the first day.
The entire organization was baffled. “I can't even process this right now. It's just devastating,” said a heart-broken Hunter-Reay, who has not finished in the top 10 once in 2011. “We struggled all month, or all week, to find speed, and it just wasn't there. It wasn't enough in the end. Sun Drop and DHL have given us a lot of great support, and we've been strong all year. This is terrible. It was my teammate that bumped me out of the field. I've been on that side of it before. In 2009, I was the last car out on track, and I bumped my way into the field. I know what that's like. This is a hard one to take. I don't know how it's going to be on Race Day. We just missed it. We couldn't find the speed. I don't know what to tell you. This is the worst. I don't think it's really hit just yet. I can't process it."
Conway was equally as disappointed. "It's a tough break - both me and Ryan, not in the show. I'm pretty gutted. Danica spent some time with me, putting me back together, after I got back to the garage. I'm obviously happy for Danica, Marco and John to be in, but gutted for me and Ryan. I never wanted to experience this feeling. You see it happen every year, and you hope it's not you. It's not nice."
Andretti Autosport is the highest profile team to have drivers miss the Indy 500 field since Team Penske’s woeful performance in 1995, when they tried three different chassis (Penske, Reynard, and Lola) but couldn’t put Al Unser Jr., the defending winner that year, and Emerson Fittipaldi in the field.
Andretti Autosport’s problems finding speed dates back to last year, when Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay were mid-pack qualifiers with Danica Patrick back in 23rd and Tony Kanaan in 33rd on the grid. “I wouldn't say that anyone feels like they have it figured out,” Patrick said after qualifying 26th. “I don't think so. All of us, at times, have felt like we have it figured out and, at times, we feel completely lost. To be honest, you might be able to go up and down pit lane and find a lot of people like that. You have a good day or you have a bad day and, you know what, I had good days all the way up until Saturday, and then I had bad days. I don't think we have a clear answer, but it definitely pushes us to get one.”