Random Thoughts on Qualifying Weekend

Scott Dixon moved into the history books yesterday, by winning his fifth Indianapolis 500 pole and his second in a row. By doing so he moves into sole possession of second-place and now trails only Rick Mears, who has six. He did it in grand fashion – clocking off a four-lap average speed of 234.046 mph. That also is good for second place, trailing only Arie Luyendyk’s four-lap track record of 236.986 mph set in 1996 as a second-day qualifier; so technically you can say that Dixon is the fastest pole-winner ever.

This was a glorious way to end a rather strange weekend. Between the gales of Fast Friday and the intermittent rain on Saturday – Sunday actually seemed normal. Then it became surreal as Dixon knocked teammate and reigning series champion Alex Palou off of the pole. In the end, it wasn’t even close. Palou’s four-lap average was over half a mile an hour slower than Dixon. Palou will start in the middle of the front row, and Rinus VeeKay will start on the outside, breaking up the Ganassi juggernaut.


Ed Carpenter Racing fared pretty well for themselves. Besides VeeKay starting on the front row, Ed Carpenter will start fourth. But two more Ganassi drivers fill out the second row. Marcus Ericsson starts in the middle of Row Two, while Tony Kanaan starts on the outside – marking the eleventh time he has started in the first tow rows.

I think the Arrow McLaren SP drivers, Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, are disappointed to be starting seventh and eighth; but I believe Romain Grosjean is happy to be the highest starting rookie in the field, starting in ninth.

I think Takuma Sato and Will Power are noth thrilled to be starting tenth and eleventh respectively; but Jimmie Johnson should be thrilled he was able to save his car and complete his run and start twelfth.

While it was an odd weekend, Sunday everything seemed right.

TV Coverage: Although we spent the weekend at the track, I feel like I’ve seen enough of the NBC coverage this week in practice and in the Media Center for Qualifying that I can offer a decent assessment. Overall, I think NBC did a good job – when the regular NBC crew was on the air. However, I do feel like there was too much of a NASCAR influence on a lot of the coverage.

I get it that a lot of the NBC NASCAR crew is sitting around waiting for their portion of the NASCAR season to come around. But try as they might, they just don’t know as much about IndyCar as they do about NASCAR. Consequently, they tend to relate everything to what they know – NASCAR. That plays well with NASCAR fans that have tuned in to see what Jimmie Johnson might be doing; but it tends to rub the majority of IndyCar fans the wrong way.

On the positive side, I think James Hinchcliffe has been outstanding for the entire Month of May. He seemed a little tentative at St. Petersburg, and I thought he was way too overprotective of fellow Canadian Devlin DeFrancesco at Texas. But he has grown into the role, and you can tell he has now bit his stride. I think he will be excellent for the race broadcast this Sunday.

Too Many Cooks: By now, most have heard about Stefan Wilson setting no time and he will be starting thirty-third on Sunday. This is because during gearbox assembly, second gear was placed where third gear would normally go. If you’ve ever driven a stick-shift and inadvertently downshifted into the wrong gear, you have an idea what happened. As Wilson went out to practice and shifted into what he thought was third gear – the engine supposedly revved to 16,000 RPM and he cooked the engine. The ill-timed engine change was made worse by the weather. By the time Wilson was ready to go out on his qualifying run, the rains came and he could not go.

As best as I can remember, this is the third “No Time” starting spot since 2015. That was the year that Ryan Briscoe was named to drive the car of the injured James Hinchcliffe. It happened again in 2017, when James Davison got the call to sub for the injured Sébastien Bourdais.

How does something like this happen? This is an entry involving three different groups; Cusick Motorsports, DragonSpeed Racing and AJ Foyt Enterprises. Somewhere along the way, there were too many cooks in the kitchen and a seemingly simple task turned into a costly overlooked detail.

Sato Brain-fade: Speaking of wondering how things happened…how did an experienced driver like Takuma Sato, not get the memo to get on the pit-entrance lane on the cool-down lap? It’s fortunate that his unexpected presence on the track proved to be nothing more than an inconvenience to Marco Andretti whop was warming up for his qualification run. Sometimes when a driver is expecting an empty track, the consequences can be much worse when coming up on an unexpected car.

The odd thing is, Sato may have actually benefited from having his qualifying run disallowed. He ended up putting himself into the Fast Twelve, after being forced to requalify. He was one of the very few that actually went faster on their second qualifying run.

The Drive for Five: Much has been made about the Drive for Five for Helio Castroneves, in his quest to become the first driver in history to win the Indianapolis 500 for a fifth time. The Drive for Five hit two bobbles on Saturday. First, Helio had a wiggle on his last lap coming out of Turn One. The second bobble came just afterwards. Instinctively, he backed out of it, figuring the run was ruined and he would go again. His team urged him to get back into the throttle, which he did – but it was too late. His Lap Four speed was only 212.863 mph, bringing his four-lap average to 225.482 mph.

Unfortunately for Castroneves, the weather never allowed him to go back out. By not keeping his foot in it and backing off, his average relegated him to twenty-seventh – on the outside of Row Nine. If you’re thinking that is his worst qualifying effort, you are wrong. He started twenty-eighth in 2020, when he finished eleventh.

Down Time: As a fan who traveled, I was not a fan of the schedule on Sunday. The Fast Twelve practiced from 12:30 pm until 2:00. then there were two hours of dead time until Pole Qualifying started at 4:00. That meant qualifying did not end until almost 6:00 pm. We did well to get on the road to Nashville at 7:30 last night.

I know this was a result of television, but this was not exactly a fan-friendly schedule – at least for those of us that traveled. What I would have done is what has been done in the past; run the Fast twelve practice at 10:00 and start qualifying at 1:00, wrapping it all up at 3:00. That starts qualifying at Noon on Central time and 10:00 am on the west coast, so they probably take that into account too. But selfishly, I would rather get on the road at an earlier hour. Oddly enough, they never asked me.

Regrettable Move: Team Penske outsmarted themselves on Saturday, when they inserted Scott McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden into Lane One of the requalifying line. By doing so they withdrew their times, meaning they were not yet in the starting field. McLaughlin’s original spot that he gave up was fifteenth. He requalified and ended up twenty-sixth. Josef Newgarden gave up his fourteenth starting spot, but was fortunate that lightning struck nearby and the yellow flag flew. When they called it a day about an hour later, Newgarden was reinstated into fourteenth, but McLaughlin will have to live with starting twenty-sixth after gambling away a fifteenth starting spot.

All in All: This was a strange weekend. It started out with Fast Friday being run in a “dry hurricane” (to quote Alexander Rossi). Few drivers turned many laps with the added boost. Surprisingly, there were no crashes on Friday, but that was because most teams chose to run minimal laps.

Then on Saturday, practice ran in sunshine; but we all knew that the rain was coming. Track officials made the right call, by moving practice and qualifying up an hour. That allowed the qualifying line to go through all thirty-three cars, although Juan Montoya’s car failed technical inspection before qualifying, Stefan Wilson’s car required an engine change and Colton Herta lost his engine during his run.

Unfortunately for those not happy with their runs there were few second chance runs. Rains came, they dried the track, they ran a few cars and then the bottom fell out. They lost the track and called it for the day, but the sun was shining at 6:00 pm. It was a long and frustrating day.

Sunday seemed a little more normal, but I think the jury is still out on the two rounds of qualifying. But the field is now set and the buildup for the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 can now begin in earnest.

George Phillips

Reminder: Your entries for the Trivia Contest are due tomorrow at 6:00 pm EDT.

6 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Qualifying Weekend”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Not just Dixon but everyone was a fair bit faster than I expected. The speeds were breathtaking.

    I believe Alex Tagliani was also listed as “No Time” in 2016 after he crashed on his Sunday re-qualifying run. He did set an official time in the Saturday qualifying sessions, but those speeds were “erased” for the Sunday sessions and he started 33rd even though his Saturday speed would have put him 32nd on Sunday’s speed chart.

  2. Big Mac Says:

    Comments on a few things:

    I agree about the TV coverage. It seems to be geared completely towards someone who regularly watches stock cars and has flipped over to see the Indy 500. Steve Letarte, in particular, seems to have been chosen with the objective of catering to this group.

    But it’s broader than that. Before the Miami Grand Prix, Greg Maffei, the CEO of Liberty Media, said, “”If any of you watch the Indy 500 … look at the difference in the coverage and how strong the F1 coverage is versus the Indy 500 coverage.” Now, while I grant NBC’s coverage is much better than ESPN used to provide, I agree with Maffei, and I’ve been watching the F1 coverage of the last couple of Grands Prix while thinking about why I agree. Of course, the F1 coverage is commercial-free, but it goes beyond that. I really think that Sky’s coverage of F1 is better because they focus on the race and analysis that’s relevant to the race, instead of spending lots of time distracted by ephemera that American networks like to focus upon to build up the human interest angle, in order to appeal to fans who don’t pay much attention to IndyCar. When IndyCar coverage is on Peacock only, as it was for most of the weekend, it is distinctly better than when it is also on NBC. (Sky’s other advantage is that they have Martin Brundle, but there’s nothing that NBC can do about that.)

    I think that Hinch is doing very well, and he’s already the strongest member of the booth. In particular, he does a great job of explaining why drivers are doing what they do; he’s the best commentator at explaining technical aspects since Jon Beekhuis. I still think there is a need for someone to puncture the balloon as PT used to do when Leigh Diffey and Townsend Bell get carried away, and I wish someone could get Diffey to understand that when speeds are falling off for everyone over the course of a run, you’re not going to pull up your average at the end of the run unless there was a major wobble earlier in the run.

    Regarding Stefan Wilson, is it really an issue about too many cooks? My understanding is that while Foyt provided the chassis, they don’t have anything to do with running the car; similarly, while Cusick is providing the money, the car is being crewed by DragonSpeed. So I think the issue is that they don’t have much experience in IndyCar, so they’re more likely to make mistakes. In addition to being much smaller than Andretti, having less IndyCar experience is why it took them so much longer to change Wilson’s engine than it took Andretti to change Herta’s engine.

    Also, Hinchcliffe had already qualified the car that ran in 2015, so that’s not considered to be a “no time.” It’s just a case when a driver replaces the driver who qualified the car, and is moved to the back as a result, like when Mario would miss qualifying because he was racing in F1 and someone else would qualify the car for him. Billy is right about Tags.

    Finally, I think the primary problem with moving pole qualifying to earlier in the day is the French Open, which can’t be televised later in the day because they don’t play at night at Roland Garros. If pole qualifying happens earlier, then there’s a hole in NBC’s schedule in the later afternoon. Previously, hockey could have filled that hole, but it can’t any longer, now that they’ve lost the NHL contract. So, until such time as NBC acquires the rights to something else to plug in that hole, I think they’re going to want pole qualifying later in the day on Sunday.

  3. Mark Wick Says:

    I agree that NASCAR gets too much mention during INDYCAR coverage. I used to cover races in both series, and follow both of them. I follow INDYCAR very closely, and ignore NASCAR now and have for years, and there are reasons why.

    I know that not having to worry about making the race this year, the reduction in scheduled running time, and the weather reduction in running time were all factors, but I very strongly suspect that this the first time ever that all entrants got from opening day through qualifying without any crashes. That would be a new track record.

  4. George, I have to agree with Big Mac. I have a good friend working on the Wilson crew. It’s a DragonSpeed effort paid for by Cusick and equipment provided by Foyt and Davey Hamilton. According to my friend, they don’t have a lot of supplies or gear. Their team uniforms are just screen printed t-shirts. Sounds like a poorly prepared effort put together at the last moment!

  5. LurkingKiwi Says:

    You say “I think Takuma Sato and Will Power are noth thrilled” – should that be not or both, quite diferent meanings 🙂

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