Random Thoughts on Qualifying

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The Grid for the 2021 Indianapolis 500 has now been set. It did not exactly go as planned for many of the Chevy teams, especially Team Penske. I mentioned this in my post yesterday after qualifying, but I’m still at a loss why the Honda teams responded to the extra boost that was given prior to the Fast Friday practice and most of the Chevy teams did not. What is it about the Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) Chevy-powered cars that made them perform with the extra boost, while all the other Chevy teams were lagging behind?

Who would have thought that the highest starting spot for a Penske car would have been seventeenth with rookie driver Scott McLaughlin? Josef Newgarden starts twenty-first, Simon Pagenaud will start twenty- —-, and Will Power will start thirty-second. Arrow McLaren has to be disappointed to settle for starting positions of twelfth, fourteenth, and twenty-fourth for Pato O’Ward, Felix Rosenqvist, and Juan Montoya, respectively. They must have had higher expectations when practice began last Tuesday.

Another Chevy team that had higher hopes for qualifying was the team of AJ Foyt Enterprises. All of the off-season changes did not help as J.R. Hildebrand was their highest qualifier at twenty-second in what was essentially their fourth car. Sébastien Bourdais qualified a disappointing twenty-seventh, while Dalton Kellett was the last car locked in on Saturday in thirtieth. Charlie Kimball failed to qualify his Foyt car. All three qualifiers for the last row were Chevy-powered cars. Too add insult to injury, the two cars that went home were also powered by Chevy.

You have to think that Chevy must be embarrassed after this dismal showing. On the bright side, they do have a car on the front row with Rinus VeeKay and another car in the second row with Ed Carpenter. Those two cars were the only Chevy-powered cars in the Firestone Fast Nine. You have to go all the way down to Pato O’Ward in the twelfth starting spot to find the next Chevy.

If I was a racing team that had Chevy engines I would be looking for answers today. This was an absolute beat-down by Honda. At this point I almost have to wonder how strong Chevy’s commitment to the series really is.

The Improvements: I mentioned a few of the improvements to the facility that we observed last weekend at the GMR Grand Prix. This past weekend I was able to see many more. There is now a large Jumbotron that stretches the entire width of the Pagoda. This has created a very good viewing area for all of those gathered in the Pagoda Plaza. This is a first-rate HD screen that any NFL stadium would be envious of, as you can see it clearly from anywhere in the Pagoda Plaza.

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Last weekend I mentioned the restrooms, but I visited many more this past weekend and the difference is amazing. The gray cinderblocks full of graffiti have been painted over and the walls are a tasteful gray and light blue. The fixtures and sinks are all new and the seemingly always empty paper towel dispensers have been replaced with high-powered air dryers. Perhaps best of all, the light fixtures have all been replaced with bright fluorescent lighting along the walls. These restrooms have been transformed from some of the most disgusting facilities you would ever encounter into something that almost sparkles. I did not take a photo for obvious reasons – I did not want to creep anyone out by taking a photo.

Perhaps the biggest improvement on the entire property is the enlargement of the pedestrian area underneath the main grandstand. The fencing has been moved out to include two lanes of Georgetown Road. It may not be as noticeable this year with a smaller race day crowd, but this will alleviate a ton of congestion on race morning, which has been a serious problem for decades. A few years ago we almost missed the start of the race because we were stuck in a mob of humanity that was not moving. The rolling coolers, strollers, and wagons made for hazardous walking as you could not see them for the crowd.

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No amount of paint was spared, as many of the old cinder block buildings under the stands have been refreshed with new coats of paint. Roger Penske must not like the look of unpainted chain link fencing because practically every square inch of fencing has been painted black—that includes much of the catch-fencing around the track.

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The Popular Storyline for the Weekend: Without a doubt the team that everyone was cheering for was Paretta Autosport and Simona. De Silvestro. Simona barely got in, but she is in and will start thirty-third. Simona has always been a favorite at IMS, and everyone there was pulling for the startup underdog team that is aligned with Team Penske. Many of the over-the-wall crew are women. There were video clips of the crew performing pit stops and changing at Team Penske headquarters in North Carolina. My hope is that they can perform the same on pit lane during the Indianapolis 500 when it counts.

The Difference: I have to tip my hat to Will Power. When he was on his desperation qualifying run for the Last Row Shootout, Will Power went wide in Turn Two and hit the SAFER Barrier fairly hard – enough to move it some. What was impressive was that Power never lifted. He kept his foot in it and continued with the run, despite the potential consequences. Had he lifted out of reflex, even for a split second, that action could have made the difference in making the race and going home. I imagine it takes a lot of guts for a driver to keep the throttle down as they are sliding toward the wall. Good for him that he did.

All in All: It always amazes me how quickly time flies at IMS. I arrived on Friday morning. It seems I blinked and it was time to head home. I did everything I wanted to do, and then some…but the weekend flew by. Even though I didn’t really want to, I was glad I left when I did. As soon as I hit send on my wrap-up post, I packed up my stuff and headed home. There were times when we wouldn’t get home from Qualifying weekend until almost 1:00 am, because I would still be writing away until past 8:30 pm at the track. This time, I was already home in Nashville by 8:30 (Central Time).

Except for the Chevy debacle, there were no real surprises this past weekend. But that’s fine. I don’t go to Qualifying Weekend for the drama. I go for the fun of spending three full days at the track, with lots of race cars to see. If an interesting storyline develops in the process – that’s just a bonus.

Qualifying Weekend may be my favorite weekend of the month. It doesn’t feature the overwhelming intensity that Race Weekend does. It’s a nice pace for three full days. If you live out of the area and have never been to Qualifications, give it a try next year. I think you’ll like it too.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Qualifying”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Despite Chevy’s obvious qualifying troubles, they did better this year than last year. I’m sure they are hoping to be more competitive on race day than last year too, where Newgarden and O’Ward drove flawlessly but simply didn’t have the power to compete for the win.

    Pretty tame Sunday compared with Saturday. Power tapping the wall was the only surprise, and it ultimately didn’t affect the results.

  2. james paul thomas Says:

    I made the trip yesterday from Kentucky just couldn’t stand years of being away from IMS! I thought the crowd was very good and heard that Penske said Saturday’s crowd was biggest since 2016. Did you hear any estimates on Sunday crowd. Also was impressed with paint jobs you mention plus bathroom upgrades and Georgetown road access. Can’t wait to return for race day!

  3. Phil Kaiser Says:

    Painting all of the fencing black is yet another nod to the fans, George. It allows photographic and video cameras to record the action with an almost invisible fence. It is no longer reflective, and it helps a BUNCH!

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