The look on Sam Schmidt’s face – the tears in his eyes – was all that was needed to convey the point. The Indianapolis 500 is a big deal. It’s still a big deal. Because of that, it’s an emotional deal.
The qualifying alone for the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 served up enough raw emotion – anger, joy, frustration – to cover a season of ordinary races. Schmidt wept as Alex Tagliani embraced him after winning the pole on Saturday. Danica fumed, as did Dario. Michael and his team gripped. Hard. And Ryan Hunter-Reay choked up after his teammate knocked him out of the race.
Big deal, indeed.
“I'm rarely at a loss for words, but this has been difficult ever since it was first put into words,” Schmidt said after he and Tagliani teamed to win the pole. “I grew up in California watching Rick Mears and dreamed about coming to this place. ... It's truly huge. Whether it's the 100th anniversary, whether it's the adversity that this team has overcome and Alex has overcome personally, whatever. It's just really, really large.”
The Indy 500 has always been important to the participants, of course. It’s the race of the season. But this one has taken on added meaning. And, thus, added emotion. Some would say it’s the historical landmark attached to this version of the 500, and there is some truth to that. But a better argument would be that this version of the race is as competitive as it has been in years. More cars, more drivers, closer speeds. It’s tougher to make this race than it has been since 1995. That brings tension. And with tension comes emotion.
“This place can whip you into shape – or out of shape,” Danica Patrick said after making it into the field Sunday. .. It’s the good memories that make me love this place so much, and it’s unfortunate for anyone who hasn’t had those really good days here. ... The lows are really low, but the highs are really high.”
For the past several years, the pole and victory have routinely gone to one of three teams: Roger Penske’s, Chip Ganassi’s and Michael Andretti’s. Over the weekend, only Ganassi looked steady, and it wasn’t a pole-winning effort, nor was it perfect. A miscommunication between crew and engineers left Franchitti high and dry, out of fuel in the middle of what would have been a solid qualifying effort.
Nearby, Penske’s team wasn’t its typical self. Confident that it had a reasonable shot at pole after fast practice laps by all three of its drivers, Team Penske ended up fifth, 16th and 27th on the grid. Meanwhile, Schmidt, Bryan Herta and Sarah Fisher turned in outstanding qualifying runs. Yeah, the competition is that tight this year.
Then there was the case of Andretti Autosport. Marco Andretti gets back into the field at the last minute, at the expense of Hunter-Reay, his teammate. Two of AA’s four full-time drivers didn’t make the field, a shocking development if ever there was one. “I can’t even process this right now,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s just devastating.”
But the greatest emotional story of the weekend was wrapped in gauze and presented with alarming honesty and courage. Simona de Silvestro, hands burned in a horrifying crash in practice, made the field in spite of the pain and fear and a backup car of which nobody was certain.
“My body’s shaking,” de Silvestro said when she got out of the car after qualifying 24th Saturday. “A day ago, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get back in the car again. I was really freaked out about it. ... After the crash, I was like, ‘I don’t need this. This is too crazy. It’s way too dangerous.’ After a while, you’re back to being a race-car driver and thinking, ‘Nah, I can do this.’”
Most definitely. Bring on the emotion of it all. This is going to be something to see.