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Indy - Pole Saturday 2009
Castroneves from Indy 2008- BURZY Photo
Castroneves from Indy 2008- BURZY Photo

By:  Mark W. Theisen

     INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA May 9, 2009:     Officially the three year celebration of the Centennial Era at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway began in February of this year with a kick-off gala in downtown Indianapolis.  That event was the first of many in, on and around the Speedway to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the first race in 1909 and which will continue until 2012 when the 100th running of the Indy 500 will conclude the Centennial Era at the track.  The three year span is the three World War II years that the race was not run.  In between everything from galas, to balloon races, to honors for past champions and everything in between will promote the facility that gave birth to all major forms of motor racing in this country.
    The traditional May opening at the Speedway has been changed over the years from a full month of practice and activities to a reduced schedule in order to accommodate the ever changing world and the ever tightening economy and this year was no exception.

     2009 saw the incorporation of rookie orientation of both in Indy Racing League and its support series the Firestone Indy Lights Series in the scheduled activities for the month of May rather than be conducted prior to the beginning of regular practice and qualifications for the race.

     A smaller than normal total of five rookies participated in the orientation for the Indy Racing League that began with the opening day on Tuesday May 5 as well as 4 drivers who needed refresher courses at the track prior to being certified for competition for this years race.

    The reduced number of rookies is a direct reflection on that state of the economy and its effects on racing.  Many drivers seek the ultimate experience of racing in the Indianapolis 500 and have the credentials but lacked the sponsorship dollars to make the move.  The rookies for this year include:  Robert Doornbos, Raphael Matos, Mike Conway, Nelson Philippe, and Stanton Barrett.  Those drivers that needed refresher courses because of gaps in the years that they competed at the track were:  Paul Tracy, returning to the Speedway after 7 years of absence, Scott Sharp, Alex Tagliani and Alex Lloyd.

     Doornbos in a car entered by Newman-Haas-Lanigan was the first car on the track on the opening day, Tuesday, and thus added his name to a lengthy list of drivers that won the honor.  In the early days of the track the car that was first on the track was an automatic favorite for the race as it should his team was well prepared to start out the month and was on a roll toward the pole and the race.

     By the end of the third day, Thursday, despite being hampered by the usual May rain showers in Indiana, all the drivers competed all the phases of the tests to certify them to compete in the race.

     When practice began in earnest for the battle for the pole it was the usual teams that headed the speed parade chart.  Marco Andretti of Andretti-Green Racing was fastest on Thursday but by Friday it was the Penske Racing team of Ryan Briscoe, Helio Castroneves and Will Power that were at the top of the speed charts followed closely by the drivers of Ganassi Racing, Scott Dixon, the defending series and 500 mile champion and Dario Franchitti.  The other three drivers for Andretti Green, Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan and Hideki Mutoh were right behind as the first day of qualifying dawned today.

     In all 41 legitimate cars showed at the track and 37 drivers to compete for the 33 starting spots in the race.  As the month progresses we will see just how many make a shot at qualifying for the race.

     Qualifying procedure for the 500 has also been “tweaked” over the years with the current rules providing for 11 cars to be qualified on the first day, which is today, with the fastest of those being rewarded with the number one or pole starting position.  Positions 12-22 will be filled on day two, 23-33 on day three with “bumping” of the slowest cars in the field to occur on day four.  Since inception the final day has seen some drama in drivers in and out of the field but has not produced the ultimate in drama because of the reduced number of entries vying for one of the 33 spots.

     High winds and clouds greeted the drivers today for opening day of qualifications and that set the stage for strategy throughout the day.

     Qualifying order is determined by a blind draw that occurred after practice concluded on Friday and it was Justin Wilson who will go out first at the noon start to the six hour session as each entered car is allowed three attempts each day to make the race.  Once a qualification run is posted that speed must be withdrawn before the car can go out again, thus the gamble of going slower on the second attempt versus the first and placing that car and driver in jeopardy of being bounced from the race after being qualified.

     Prior to that Briscoe, Castroneves, Dixon, Franchitti and Power were the fastest cars in the morning practice session as Briscoe went over 225 to establish him as the favorite for today’s fastest run, but as the events of the day unfurled it was Castroneves making his second run at 4:19 P.M. count with a best lap of 225.405 miles-per-hour and a four lap average of 224.864 stick through the rest of the wind swept afternoon as he picked up his third Indy 500 pole position and the record 15th top starting spot for owner Roger Penske.

     Wilson, the first car out, posted a four lap average of 220.934 only to see that speed disallowed due to an infraction with in the ballast of his car.  His crew had to make the required repairs and he returned as the last qualifying attempt of the day but his speed was short of being one of the first eleven cars qualified for the race.

     Marco Andretti, Matos, Mario Moraes, Power, Mutoh, Patrick, Briscoe, Ed Carpenter, Graham Rahal, Castroneves and Franchitti were the first eleven cars to post qualifying speeds as all took their four laps with nary a wave off among them.

    Franchitti posted his speed at 1:37 P.M. and then the track was shut down for inspection following a crash by former Indy 500 champ, Dan Wheldon in the second turn with contact with the wall the damaged his car and forced from activities the rest of the day.

     Dixon was the next driver to make an attempt at 2:39 P.M. and his four lap average of 223.781 bumped Carpenter from the first day field.  Kanaan eliminated Matos with a 222.742 only to have that attempt disallowed due to minimum weight post qualifying inspection infraction.  This put Matos back in the field but only until Kanaan came back at 5:01 P.M. to again bump Matos from the field

    Tracy bumped Mutoh and then Mutoh came right back and returned the favor putting Tracy on the outside of the first day field.

     Rahal, Andretti, Dixon, Patrick, and Moraes all made second attempts but none were a treat to Castroneves speed but at the end of the day Lloyd became one of the better stories of the day, after a full year of not competing in Indy Car Racing, he came back with minimal practice to bump Mutoh from the field as the next to the last car out for the day.

     For Penske Racing it is a one-two start for the 500 with Briscoe starting in the middle of the first row with Franchitti on the outside.

     Row two consists of Rahal, Dixon, and Kanaan.  Row three has Moraes. Andretti and Power, with Patrick and Lloyd in the fourth row the next 11 spots to be filled tomorrow.

     The last nine months of Castroneves life has been well documented but with his woes behind him he has emerged from the shadow of allegations to forefront of Indy car racing and was near tears as he discussed his run.  “Just to be here right now is awesome,” said Castroneves.  “I have to say without this crowd here today and the support of fans, there was no way I could have gotten through what I did.  This today, was what I do, and I am glad to be back here.”

    Talking about his gamble of withdrawing his front row speed and then coming back to snare his pole from his teammate Castroneves said, “Yes, it was a gamble, a big gamble, but we took a chance and it paid off.  That is what racing is all about.”

     Briscoe took the largest gamble of the afternoon, withdrawing his second fastest speed at 5:51 P.M. for a shot to overtake his teammate but although he came up short of Castroneves he still maintained his number two spot.

     “I needed to make that attempt,” said Briscoe.  “I could not just give up with a fight.  I new the car was good, the team was good, and I just needed to be a bit better.  In the end it has always been a team effort at Penske Racing and it showed again today.”

     Franchitti blamed the fickleness of today’s racing in the swing of momentum being his Target-Ganassi Racing Team and that of Penske.  Last year Dixon and his then teammate, Wheldon, were the class of the field and now Penske has retaken control.  “These cars are so equal and the rules are so tight that it is the little things that make a difference,” said Franchitti.  “Last year our team held an edge and we lost that, now we have to find it again and I have all the confidence in our team to do so.”

      Castroneves picked up $100,000 in prize money presented by Peak Antifreeze and Auto Zone.  Briscoe earned $25,000 and Franchitti $10,000 for their efforts.

      The third pole for Castroneves, the others coming in 2003 and 2007 makes him the 8th driver to win at least 3 or more poles for the 500 putting him in the company of Rick Mears with 6, A.J. Foyt and Rex Mays with 4, and Johnny Rutherford, Mario Andretti, Tom Sneva and Arie Luyendyk with three each.

     In the Indy car series the pole was Castroneves 27th over all and makes him the all time leader in pole position wins in the series.

     Penske entered 2009 with 14 poles and 14 500 wins as a car owner, a remarkable record in any sport, and now with 15 poles can his 15th race win be just over two weeks away?