By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
Armed Forces Pole Day is behind us, and the grid is set for the historic 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. While many of the old-timers, like myself, miss the days of packed grandstands and true bump-day drama, the events of this past weekend produced a number of compelling stories. Let’s take a look at five takeaways from the on-track action.
1 ) Who’s sand-bagging now?
Get your tin-foil hat ready, here’s a conspiracy theory for you.
Amidst all of the claims of Chevrolet teams sand-bagging in testing and practice, it turns out that the Honda camp has actually been sand-bagging for the better part of a year and a half. The architect of this evil plot was none other than Mario Andretti, who convinced son, Michael, and grandson Marco, to put up a smokescreen by being the most vocal of the Honda runners. The intention was to slowly lull Chevrolet in to a false sense of security, and then blindside the bowties at the 100th running, and put another Andretti on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Now, before you get all riled up, yes…this is a joke. But, at the same time, to say that the Chevrolet teams were a bit blindsided is not far off of the mark.
While the Honda short oval and road-course package was average at best, the super-speedway configuration and latest engine tweaks have vaulted the Honda teams into serious contender status, as evidenced by the practice times and starting grid.
As a result of the hard work put in by the Honda engineers and teams, we have an absolutely wide-open field that will make for an exciting Indy 500.
2 ) The feel-good story of the year
The entire Schmidt-Peterson team is on Cloud Nine today. With all three team cars solidly in the top-ten, Hollywood couldn’t have written a better script.
Team principal Sam Schmidt, who has been wheelchair bound for over fifteen years, has assembled a solid group of professionals as the team takes on the task of Giant-slayer in the 500. Each of the team cars represent a different triumph over setbacks.
Pole winner, James Hinchcliffe returns to Indianapolis one year after a devastating crash left him with life-threatening injuries. His well-publicized return to the cockpit is a story in and of itself, but to snag the pole for the biggest race of the century is nothing short of amazing. To see the raw emotion displayed from Sam Schmidt during Hinch’s pole run actually brought a tear to my eye. For a moment, I thought that Sam was going to leap right out of that chair.
Teammate, Mikhail Aleshin, provided Saturday drama when he took to the track as time was about to expire in the session. The Russian driver put together four solid laps and bumped his way into the Fast Nine Shootout. Aleshin is seen as more of a road course specialist, so it was especially sweet to see him run so well on the oval. His return to Indianapolis marked another triumph over tragedy, as he sustained multiple injuries in 2013 when his car took a wild ride at Fontana.
The third car in the SPM garage is driven by Oriol Servia and supported by Marotti racing. A veteran of many years of open wheel racing, Servia had talent and potential that was rarely rewarded with results. Very much a journeyman driver these days, Servia is generally one of the first names that will be mentioned when a substitute driver is needed.
For Will Marotti, the chance to be a part of an Indy 500 team is the culmination of a life-long dream. The full-time Pastor has a passion for racing, and the combination of Servia, Honda and SPM might just answer his prayers with a win in the Indy 500.
3 ) Lost but not forgotten
If any of the top-teams appeared to be just totally lost, one might consider the Chip Ganassi Racing organization. In uncharacteristic fashion, the four cars of Scott Dixon, Charlie Kimball, Tony Kanaan, and Max Chiltion will roll off the grid 13th, 16th, 18th and 22nd, respectively.
Certainly, lack of speed was not the only obstacle the team has had to endure this month. Max Chilton destroyed his primary car in practice, and Scott Dixon had an engine let go on Sunday. Members of all four crews worked together in massive effort to change the engine of the #9 Target car in order to make qualifying.
It was back in 2014 when the Ganassi cars struggled in qualifying, and came back on Carb Day to set the fastest times of the session. While this did not yield a race win, it is certainly an indicator that the team puts a larger premium on a solid race day set-up than a qualifying run.
“It’s just been frustrating when you know you can be faster, but it just doesn’t come together,” said Tony Kanaan. “It is what is it is, though. We’ll just need to put this behind us and refocus on our race car. I’ve said it before, but I started further back in the field when I won in 2013 so no one should be writing us off yet.”
4 ) Rookie of the year
Five young drivers will contend for Rookie of The Year honors in the 100th Running of the Greatest Spectacle in racing. The highest qualified rookie is Alexander Rossi, who will start his Andretti Autosport Honda from the eleventh position. The other candidates, Max Chilton, Matthew Brabham, Spencer Pigot and Stefan Wilson start 22nd, 27th, 29th and 30th.
Rossi comes over to Indycar with a background in European racing, and has a few Formula One starts under his belt. The stigma of Formula One drivers struggling on ovals, for some reason, doesn’t seem to apply to Indianapolis as much as it does to say, Phoenix or Michigan. Perhaps it is the decidedly lower banking, perhaps it has something to do with the numerous days of practice.
In any case, the history books are full of names of F1 drivers like Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Teo Fabi, Roberto Guerrero, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell that have taken to the Brickyard like a duck to water.
Rossi, who has shown considerable speed in practice, and was bumped out of the Fast Nine at the last second, looks poised to perform well next Sunday. That being said, the other rookie contenders represent a talented group that may snatch the award right out of Rossi’s hand.
5 ) Birds…trash bags, What else do you have to throw at us?
Team Penske has been quietly confident this month of May so far, and have three of their four cars in the top ten. While seeing them a bit off of the mark when it came to the shootout for pole might seem unusual, they are far from out of this thing. Any one of their four drivers is a favorite for the win come Sunday.
Penske drivers, Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya, both experienced nerve-wracking moments during qualifying that provided the odder stories of the weekend.
On his qualifying attempt Saturday, Will Power was at full song on the front stretch as a small bird flew across the nose of his car, and then was splattered on the rear wing. Thankfully, it did not strike Power in the helmet. While the bird was small enough that it likely wouldn’t have caused injury on its own, the impact would certainly have disrupted the driver’s concentration and may have had a more disastrous outcome.
I had to laugh when ABC commentator, Eddie Cheever, who never likes to be out-done, stated, “Well, I hit a squirrel once.”
On Pole Day, Juan Montoya was the unfortunate benefactor of another piece of debris. Moments before his run, a trash bag seemed to mystically descend from the heavens and deposit itself on the race track. Not just any trash bag mind you, the fancy kind: made of black plastic complete with yellow draw strings, perfect for lawn and garden use.
On his third lap, Montoya instantly lost more than ten mph when the bag was sucked up by his front wing. The bag bravely tried to hold onto the side-plate before it was whooshed underneath the car, and was spit out of the back like rancid food, ruining a promising qualifying attempt.
IndyCar was kind enough to give him a do-over, but seventeenth on the grid was all he could muster up after this interesting debacle.
Not the starting position that he was hoping for, but don’t forget that one year ago, Montoya dropped to the back of the field in the early going, and ended his day in victory lane.
Image: Chris Jones/INDYCAR