The 100th Anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500 was billed as “the most important race in history.” Even the bronze badges sold by the speedway as garage passes were embossed with this saying. That’s a lot of pressure for a race to live up to, but in the end we were witness to a race that was worthy to hold the moniker of the 100th Anniversary running.
Alex Tagliani during practice for the 2011 Indianapolis 500
The month started off with Alex Tagliani setting the pace during practice. Tagliani’s team FASZT Racing was purchased in the off season by Sam Schmidt Motorsports. SSM also entered a car for Townsend Bell and was affiliated with the #44 of Buddy Rice and the #98 of Dan Wheldon – the latter a one off effort for Bryan Herta Motorsports who was entered in only it’s second ever Indycar race. All four drivers were fast during practice and on pole day, all four drivers made the top nine shootout for the pole position.
Bryan Herta - owner of Bryan Herta Autosports, entrant for the number 98 driven by Dan Wheldon
Target Chip Ganassi drivers Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti looked to be threats for the pole, but a miscalculation on fuel caused Franchitti’s car to run dry on it’s last lap, relegating the defending champion to 9th on the grid. Scott Dixon went out and secured what looked to be a potential pole run, although he too started running out of fuel at the end of his run. Finally it was Tag’s turn and as the last qualifier of the shootout he stole the pole position from Dixon! It was the first pole in 5 races not won by Penske driver Will Power, who incidentally was the only Penske driver in the top nine.
Simona DeSilvestro shows off her new 'mittens' courtesy of her fiery crash on May 19th.
Practice and qualifying was ripe with drama. On Thursday May 19th, popular driver Simona DeSilvestro had a scary looking crash in the north end of the track. The car caught fire and Simona suffered burns to her hands. On pole day, May 21st Simona returned to the car to the wild cheering of the fans. In what was a wild pole day, Simona would use all three qualifying attempts allotted to her for that day. Of the four ladies entered into the race, only Simona – burned hands and all – would qualify on the first day.
Helio Castroneves during practice for the 2011 Indianapolis 500
With pole day allowing only twenty-four cars to qualify, competition was heavy for those first-day positions. Penske driver Ryan Briscoe crashed in morning practice and did not make the cut, while team mate Helio Castroneves seemed to be out to lunch qualifying a very un-Penske like 16th! Only Will Power seemed to have anything for the competition, safely landing in the top six.
John Andretti practices for the 2011 Indianapolis 500
Andretti Autosports drivers Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway all struggled. Of the Andretti Autosport drivers, only one-off driver John Andretti made the top 24 leaving Marco, Danica, Ryan and Mike to have to try for four of the remaining nine spots the next day. Other drivers who would have to try the next day included Paul Tracy, Ana Beatriz and rookie Pipa Mann.
Bruno Junquiera qualified solidly for the 2011 Indianapolis 500.
Good showings were put in by AJ Foyt drivers Vitor Meira and Bruno Junquiera – both exhibiting retro-Foyt paint schemes on their cars, Rahal Letterman driver Bertrand Baguette, and Takuma Sato who was fastest of the KV Racing Lotus drivers. One of the nicest performances of the day was Ed Carpenter who was driving for the now-retired Sarah Fisher. He easily made the top nine shootout and would start the race a career best 8th on the grid.
Oriol Servia during practice for the 2011 Indianapolis 500
Rain showers ended qualifying top-24 qualifying early, with Helio Castroneves waiting in line for a chance to improve his time to break into the top nine. The rain also affected the top nine shootout – which was scheduled for 90 minutes with drivers allowed multiple attempts to try for the pole. The top nine would now start an hour late and each driver would get one attempt for the pole. Buddy Rice went out first qualifying at over 225mph, but it was Newman-Haas driver Oriol Servia who laid down the gauntlet with a speed of 227.168mph. Dario Franchitti went out and had a run that would have landed him on the front row, but his Ganassi Team miscalculated on fuel and as he want past me on the backstretch on his last lap I could hear the car sputter and slow. My first thought was that I’d miscounted his laps and that he was on his cool down lap, and even the track announcer took a long time to realize what was happening, but Dario was out of fuel and would not finish his run – he would start 9th.
Scott Dixon went out next and took the pole from Servia with a speed of 227.340, despite also running out of fuel on his last lap. Finally it was down to Alex Tagliani, driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, who blistered the track with an average speed of 227.472mph en route to winning the pole position for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Townsend Bell, also driving for SSM, qualified a solid fourth. It was a hugely popular victory for the team, and little did we know at the time, the Ganassi fuel issues in top 9 qualifying was to be a foreshadowing of their race day.
Danica Patrick struggles in practice and qualifying for the Indy 500.
But qualifying was not over. There was still one more day and nine more positions available. Four of the five Andretti Autosport cars still needed to qualify, including media darling Danica Patrick. “Bump Day” as it is known was interrupted twice by rain. The second bout of rain came as Paul Tracy was on his qualifying run – he would set the fast time of the day, and in doing so would bump his way into the now full field. Waiting in line to qualify next as the rain fell was Danica Patrick. If they could not dry the track to resume qualifying before 6pm, Danica would be on the outside looking in, failing to qualify for the 500. Fortunately for Danica, what would have been the biggest story of qualifying did not materialize. The track was dried and Danica safely qualified with the fastest time of the day.
Ryan Hunter-Reay - one of two Andretti Autosport drivers that failed to qualify for the Indy 500.
But the drama was not over for Andretti Autosport. Mike Conway used all three of his attempts, all of them too slow to make the field. In the closing minutes Marco Andretti was on the bubble, with team mate Ryan Hunter-Reay next slowest. Marco’s father Michael Andretti urged Marco to pull his car and requalify before getting bumped, but Marco did not agree to that strategy. As it was, Marco was bumped by Dale Coyne driver Alex Lloyd in the last five minutes. Marco was able to get out on the track one last time as the gun sounded ended qualifying – since he was on the track, he would get one attempt; either Marco or Ryan Hunter-Reay would join team mate Mike Conway on the sidelines. Marco put together four solid laps at 224.628 and bumped his team mate Hunter-Reay. Andretti Autosport had qualified only three of it’s five cars, and only two if it’s four full-time drivers made the field. Their best starting position would be 17th, with John Andretti – the lone part-time driver on the team.