Random Thoughts on Indy 500 Qualifying

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At a time when feel-good stories are hard to come by, fans of the Indianapolis 500 got one yesterday when Marco Andretti literally stole the pole away from Scott Dixon by the narrowest of margins.

This was no fluke. Marco Andretti had been in the Top-Three in every practice day. He also turned the fastest lap of the month on Fast Friday. In fact, his speed of 233.491 mph was the fastest lap since 1996, the year the current track record was set by Arie Luyendyk. However, in order to be counted as official – the lap speed must be recorded in qualifying or the race itself. Still, it was a notable speed and one we haven’t seen even in practice for almost a quarter of a century.

Marco also set the quickest qualifying time on Saturday – a speed of 231.351 mph. By being the fastest on Saturday, that meant he would be the last to go out during the Fast Nine on Sunday.

Windy conditions set the stage for Sunday’s Fast Nine. In the early morning warm-up, only two cars took the track in the windy conditions – the two Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing cars of Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato. Rahal had a few scary moments in the session, but Sato apparently learned something. Sato was ninth going into Sunday’s Fast Nine, but ended up one front-row for the first time in his career. Rahal was eighth going in and will start eighth next Sunday.

The other seven cars in the Fast Nine, didn’t turn a lap until their single run for the pole on Sunday. Alexander Rossi was considered one of the favorites for the pole going in. He had a strong run on Saturday and was third quick, but he had a very disappointing run on Sunday and will start ninth.

James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay could not have been pleased with their runs either, finishing up sixth and fifth after going in fourth and second respectively. The invincible Andretti juggernaut that finished 1-2-3-4 on Saturday was suddenly looking very vulnerable in the gusty conditions. The two rookies, Rinus VeeKay and Alex Palou showed they belonged with solid runs. VeeKay will start fourth and Palou landed inside of Row Three.

It looked like it would come down to Scott Dixon and Marco Andretti. Dixon had already put up a strong time. With the disappointing performance of the other three Andretti Autosport cars, it looked like Marco would probably join them But he put up a speed on Lap One in the 231.8 mph range, the quickest lap of the day. That put Dixon on notice that he couldn’t celebrate his fourth Indianapolis 500 pole just yet. He had to wait three more laps.

Like Dixon, Andretti’s speed fell off with each lap. But the drop-off matched Dixon’s drop-off lap by lap. As Marco came out of Turn Four for the final time, no one was sure how it would end up. As it turns out, Marco nipped Dixon by the narrowest of margins. Dixon’s four-lap run took a total time of 2:35.8098, while Marco traversed the same ten miles in 2:35.7985. That’s just a little over a tenth of a second difference over the entire four laps. Dixon’s four-lap average speed was 231.051 mph, compared to Andretti’s 231.068 mph. But the difference between sitting the pole and starting in the middle of the front-row is huge – especially when it is your first, your name is Andretti and it is the first in your family since 1987 –when grandfather Mario did it.

When you grow up in the sixties as an AJ Foyt fan, it’s sometimes hard to let go of the rivalry between Foyt and Andretti. But I was very happy for Marco Andretti. The normally stoic third-generation driver was obviously very emotional when he climbed out of the car. I was glad that he didn’t immediately slap a mask on his face, because we could not have seen the genuine smile that he was wearing.

Like the rest of his family, Marco has had a bittersweet relationship with the Indianapolis 500. As a nineteen year-old rookie in 2006, he gave up what appeared to be a certain win to Sam Hornish in the last couple of hundred yards. The next year, he ended up on his helmet on the backstretch late in the race. In 2009 he was taken out in the first lap by an over-eager Mario Moraes. After starting fourth in 2012 and leading fifty-nine laps (more than anyone else), Marco misjudged a turn and hit the wall on Lap 187.

There have been other disappointments, but maybe none as grueling as the day he had last year. Marco was driving a tribute car to honor the fiftieth anniversary of his grandfather’s 1969 win. The livery was the familiar day-glo orange associated with the 1969 winner, and was a crowd favorite. Marco barely missed the Fast Nine, and started tenth. Unfortunately, it all went terribly wrong very early in the race. Andretti dropped like a stone at the drop of the green flag. It was almost comical, because every time I looked up – Marco was back in the pits. He finished the race as the last car running in twenty-sixth place.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway owes nothing to any driver, or family. But since Mario Andretti’s win fifty-one years ago, there has been a lot of heartache for the Andretti family – on and off the track. I’ve already discussed Marco’s disappointments. Mario’s and Michael’s have been well-documented over the years. Jeff Andretti suffered career-ending leg injuries in the 1992 Indianapolis 500. He recovered enough to return for the 1993 race, but that was pretty much it for him. Mario’s wife, and Jeff and Michael’s mother; Dee Ann Andretti passed away in 2018. This past winter John Andretti, nephew to Mario and first cousin to Michael and Jeff, lost his long battle with colon cancer. This family is due for some good fortune, and they got a taste of it this pat weekend. I’ve got o say, it would not upset me in the least to see Marco Andretti drinking milk this coming Sunday.

It’s a good thing that Sunday was such a feel good story, because I thought that Saturday was one of the more boring qualifying days I had seen in a while. It was most likely because there was no bumping, but there was still very little drama to set the Fast Nine. A few drivers took their shots at Takuma Sato, who was sitting in that No. 9 slot for most of the afternoon – but there was very little movement from where drivers originally qualified on Saturday morning. Colton Herta moved up to tenth, by going back out – but no one bumped their way into the Fast Nine once it was set (at least I don’t think they did). Still, it was a nice way to spend a Saturday.

TV Coverage: This isn’t meant to be an infomercial on NBC Sports Gold, but coverage would have been sparse this past week without it. I am not able to watch practice from work, but with the Gold package, I am able to partially watch the archived practices that night. Watching the Fast Friday replay on Friday night was especially enjoyable.

Saturday morning, I watched the early morning practice session that started at 7:30 am Central time. When it was over, I had just enough time to shower and run a couple of errands before qualifying started at 10:00 am. I kept it on Gold all day, even when NBC took over, because they would never break for commercials on NBC Gold. That was about seven hours of IndyCar viewing I got. Those that didn’t have the Gold package only got two hours on Saturday. For half the price of one typical Indianapolis 500 ticket, I get full coverage of the entire IndyCar season.

I see on social media that there are still people thinking that if they don’t pay the $55 a year for IndyCar Pass on NBC Gold, that NBC will cave and eventually offer it all up for free next season. I’ve got news for you. I think they will continue to add more and more content to the Gold platform. This isn’t IndyCar’s fault or NBC’s fault. It’s just the way things are headed in this age of cord-cutting. I am a very satisfied customer of NBC Gold.

I was very pleased with all of the coverage I watched all week. Robin Miller had an excellent segment on Roger Penske buying IMS, d there were other pre-prepared segments as well. I do have a couple of minor complaints, however. I think Marty Snider relies too much on NASCAR comparisons on an IndyCar broadcast. Know you’re audience. I was unaware of half of the references he made over the past few days.

For whatever reason on Sunday, whoever was running the on-screen graphics was slow on the trigger. On Saturday, the individual lap speeds were posted just as the car crossed the line each time. On Sunday, sometimes the first lap speed would not be posted at all. Other times, the lap time would finally show up as the car was in Turn Two on their next lap. It wasn’t a telemetry problem, because they were being announced on the air. We just couldn’t see the speeds on the screen.

Other than that, I give NBC high marks for a job well done.

The Mask: In this COVID age, I understand why everyone on site is to wear a mask. That doesn’t mean I like seeing everyone wearing a mask while being interviewed on TV. No facial expressions and muffled voices make for a bad interview. But there was one mask from this weekend that beats anything I’ve seen for the past five months. If you watched any coverage this weekend, you already know which one I’m talking about – the one belonging to driver James Hinchcliffe.

On Saturday, it looked kind of creepy. I was like watching a ventriloquist talk without moving his mouth.

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By Sunday, something happened that took it from creepy to comical. I don’t know if it was a different mask or what, but the whole face morphed into something that looked like Hobo Joe with a Tony Kanaan-sized nose.

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Hinch may or may not win the race, but he has already won the month of August for best mask.

Chevy Woes: Lots has been made about the poor showing by Chevrolet in qualifying. Make no mistake, their results looked bad when it was all said and done. One Chevy is the Fast Nine is not good press, no matter how you spin it. But I wouldn’t write them off just yet. They showed well in the consistent runs in last week’s practice sessions. I have an idea they will be in contention in the late stages this coming Sunday.

Gamesmanship? Many sounded off on social media about whether or not Takuma Sato and Scott Dixon were guilty of dirty play when they spent valuable time going through the motions of trying to improve their time, when they were already in the Fast Nine; while others like Helio Castroneves were still trying to break into the Fast Nine – all while the clock was running out.

As Bobby Unser would say, they read the rule book and they knew how to use it.

Until rules are put in to forbid such tactics, they are perfectly legal. I read where some people referred to a “gentlemen’s agreement” among teams. I’ve got news for you – gentlemen’s agreements went out with powdered wigs. They don’t exist between race teams.

I thought what Sato and Dixon did in Saturday’s waning minutes was very much like a football team taking a knee and killing the clock in the final minute. That has become so accepted nowadays, that if a team didn’t do it in the right situation – the coach would be fired for coaching malpractice. But fans spoke of a gentlemen’s agreement on Saturday night? Please.

All in All: When Saturday’s qualifying session ended, I was left wanting more. There was not a whole lot of drama, strategy or tactics – just a lot of extra runs that produced little position improvement, if any. Still, it was an enjoyable way to spend a Saturday.

Sunday made up for it, however. I think many thought that Marco would fade on Sunday when it counted. He didn’t. May fans and those in e paddock were very happy for him. Even Scott Dixon, who had just lost his chance for a fourth Indianapolis 500 pole, heaped praise on Marco and said he receives a bad rap from fans and them media. It was a classy statement from a competitor and it spoke volumes.

The 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 has been getting a bad rap also. It was postponed, and then fans were told they would be limited before being told they couldn’t come at all. This race has been unfairly labeled as the worst in history, before it as even been run. It needed a shot in the arm like this. Marco Andretti on the pole is a very good storyline of the week leading up to the race. Maybe fans will actually give this race a chance, rather than judging it on the basis of who wasn’t allowed to attend and whose streak was broken. Let’s hope so.

George Phillips

Reminder: Your 2020 Indianapolis 500 Trivia Contest answers are due Tuesday afternoon. Please go to last Wednesday’s post to see the questions and get directions on how to submit your answers. The answers and winner will be posted here on Wednesday August 19. – GP

13 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Indy 500 Qualifying”

  1. George, locals here are upset as well that we can attend indoor soccer games and female college basketball games but cannot venture into a near-600 ACRE OUTDOOR facility to watch our heroes!

    I had a rare afternoon show on Saturday so I had to listen to the guys on the IMS Radio broadcast. I’ve never been a fan of them, but when both announcers called James Davison DAVIDSON repeatedly, well, I’m just glad I was pulling into the venue parking lot. How many years has Davison been around? And it was the “A” team on the broadcast. Just unbelievable.

  2. So if Colton Herta had found speed in the afternoon and was next in line to qualify, you would’ve been ok with Dixon heading out with 6 or 7 minutes to go, already locked into the Top 9, and magically running out of fuel causing the track to go yellow long enough that the clock expired while he’s being towed in?

    • billytheskink Says:

      Gotta give Talk of Gasoline Alley callers something to talk about in 2083. I mean, don’t we all love the story of James McElreath completing all 4 laps of a no-hope run through the bump day gun rather than waving it off in 1977 just to stick it to Salt and George Walther who were waiting in line?

  3. jamestsuel@yahoo.com Says:

    George I think Marco winning the pole for the 104th running was the feel good story of the year. It made my year! I always felt he lived under the pressure of his dads and grandfarthers name. He has always had talent. Sunday he stepped into the light. I don’t blame Mr Penske or his team , but I do belive we could have had fans safely with the plans that were in place. But in the end no, fans was the only thing they could do.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      Indianapolis health guidelines came into play. Health experts provided the what if’s……

      On the other side of the fence is the looming dark cloud of the “I told you so’s…… Gloom & Doomers … who would like nothing more than for a spectator in the stands at the 2020 INDY 500 to become a virus statistic so that they could rail against Roger Penske, the Indianapolis Speedway’s irresponsibility, and motorsports in general……….

      Hats off to the multitude of challengers that Roger has resolved.

      His positive (and deep financial) support of INDY 500 which has allowed all current teams to show their sponsors flags during the 2020 INDY 500.

      Without the 2020 INDY 500 how many teams would have lost their vital sponsorship dollars and would have closed their shop doors, and not been able to race in 2020?

      Roger is due only positive support for his professional team of advisors and his extensive financial investment in IMS and the series so that we (you and I) may enjoy our sport.

      Well done Roger ! !

      Thank you ! !

  4. After the Saturday morning show on NBC Gold I decided that an hour of Marty Snider was 59 minutes too much.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    If I am not mistaken, Castroneves and anyone else who wished to take their car out ahead of Sato and Dixon could have waived their time and moved into the “fast lane” to qualify. Frankly, I am surprised Castoneves did not do this given where he was qualified. With no bumping possible, Helio (or anyone not in the top 9, especially those from 20th on back) would have risked little by hopping into the fast lane.

    • Exactly. Helio had basically nothing to lose by moving to lane 1 and forgoing his 28th position if he felt he could have improved. Teams had options if they wanted to get in front of Sato and Dixon. They stayed in lane 2 because I don’t think they really cared all that much if they got back out there or not.

  6. Still not going to not scream every time I see Hinch’s mask

  7. George I second the NBC Gold love! I’ve had it since its inception and it’s the best 55 bucks money can buy.

    Between Weds and Fri I had it on from 11 am to 5:30 each day. 19 and a half hours of coverage! Watched all of qualifying on Gold as well, including Sunday’s Fast 9.

    I hate commercials, so when coverage is on NBC or even NBCSN, I love the option of watching it live on Gold instead. No commercials! Just wish I could watch the actual races live on Gold. Anything to avoid Leemo Emu and all those shitty ads! haha

  8. Mark Wick Says:

    I followed the week’s events using the live timing and scoring and twitter the first three days, adding the radio feed at T&S, and the two NBC segments on the weekend.
    There was a lot of puzzlement when Dixon did not complete his final run on Saturday, especially since it looked good enough to become the fastest run. I believe it was Davey Hamilton of the radio team that speculated Sunday morning that Dixon might have ended the run because the fastest on Saturday would run last on Sunday when the track would be warmer. By maintaining his position in the middle of the fast nine, he might gain a slight advantage.
    The highlight of the week, for me, was the video I first saw on twitter of the Penske trio of Helio, Joseph and Will watching the end of Marco’s run and all jumping for joy and celebrating for him. We all know how disappointing it was for them to not even competing in the session, but their joy was clearly genuine.
    George, the difference in Hinch’s mask between Saturday and Sunday may be because on Saturday he wore it below his ears, and Sunday he had the back pulled up over the back of his cap.

  9. Gold is wonderful and I watched everything live for 6 days. It is worth every penny. I was so pleased to see and hear Kevin Lee, who has been sorely missed this season. (Wish Jon Beekus was back too.) Marco earning the pole made my week! Damn exciting.

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