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BPS File Photo from 2010
BPS File Photo from 2010
May 22nd 2011 - INCREDIBLE DAY AT INDY AS TAGLIANI CAPTURES THE 500 POLE BY WINNING THE POLE SHOOTOUT IN DRAMATIC FASHION.

By:  Mark W. Theisen

     INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA May 21, 2011:  Mix the shortened qualification format for the Indianapolis 500 with threatening weather, the anxiety of having 40 cars trying to make the 33 car starting field for the 100th Anniversary running of the race, and that you have to run four qualifying laps here, not the one or two that is used the rest of the year and you get an exciting day for the race fans and a tension packed day for the drivers and crews.

     That all played out in the first 3 hours and 40 minutes this afternoon at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as first wind, the ominous clouds and then rain contributed to the excitement and drama that made this day one for the record books here as all the participants’ scrambled for the 24 starting spots that were on the line today.

     In addition to the 24 positions being available today the top 9 would participate in a shootout to determine the final winner of the pole.

     Yesterday, with ideal weather conditions that brought all 40 cars to within two seconds of each other in practice, we saw speed that had not been seen in years but as today dawned so did the winds and they were blowing in a direction not seen at all during practice yet the early morning speeds were not all that much slower than Saturday with Alex Tagliani posting a quick lap of 228.184 followed by Buddy Rice at 227.849.

     Sixteen minutes into the practice session, Ryan Briscoe in a Team Penske car, spun in the second turn and made contact with the SAFER Barrier damaging the rear of his car so much so that he was forced to a back-up for the rest of practice and the incident would way heavily on him the rest of the day.  Today also marked the return of Simona De Silvestro to the track after her Thursday crash and being cleared by the medical staff to race and she was eager to put the accident behind her and qualify for the race.  Her incident and that of Briscoe today were the only crashes all this month long at Indy.

    But as the morning wore on the winds increased so much so that it presented a challenge entering the first turn as Sebastian Saavedra was the first car out to qualify at 11:02 A.M. Saavedra, who has practice earlier in the week at 222.296 was able to post a four lap average speed of 221.526 to become the first qualifier for the race.

     It was evident early on today that it was all business for the teams because of the approaching weather and the increased difficulty with the cars handling because of the wind.  In the past, with favorable conditions, teams would withdraw their car from the qualifying position that they drew for the night before in hopes of getting better weather and track conditions later in the day.  This would not happen today with 40 cars in line and ready.

     Rookie Charlie Kimball in Chip Ganassi Racings satellite team was next out and the rookie averaged 224.262 in what appeared, at the time, to be a speed that would make the top 24 today.

     2005 Indy 500 winner, Dan Wheldon, was out next in his entry from Byran Herta Motorsports and he backed up his quick practice speeds with a four lap average of 226.300 seemingly unaffected by the winds in turn one.

     Tagliani, who sat atop the speed charts all week long, was next out in his Sam Schmidt Motorsports entry and he silenced all his critics of the week by averaging 226.954 to be on the provisional pole just 14 minutes into the qualifying session.

     It was said that all Tagliani’s quick laps came as the result of a “tow” or assistance from others cars on the track at the same time but he did this all by himself and lend credibility to what he did this year not to mention how fast he was in this car last year when he was part owner of the team.

     Rookies James Jakes 221.846: Bertrand Baguette 225.285: and James Hinchcliffe 225.572 were next to qualify with Graham Rahal’s 223.822 being the 8th qualifier in the first half hour of the session as everything was moving along very briskly with nary a team passing on their assigned position.

     Rookie J.R. Hildebrand, the fastest rookie all month long, remained in that position after he posted a 225.579 to put his Panther Racing National Guard sponsored car in the field.

     At 11:40 A.M. rookie Ho-Pin Tung became the first victim of the brutal winds in the first turn losing control of his car on the forth lap of his run and striking the SAFER Barrier hard.  He was assisted from the car and transported to Methodist Hospital where it was determined that he suffered a mild concussion was not cleared to drive any more this weekend, thus ending his quest to be the first driver from China to make the Indy 500.

     Will Power then averaged 226.089 in a Penske car to put it in the provisional front row with Tagliani and Wheldon as the first hour of qualifying ended with 10 cars in the provisional line up despite losing time for the clean-up of the Tung car.

     Davey Hamilton, 225.250; Pippa Mann, 223.070; Paul Tracy, 224.353; Tomas Scheckter, 224.117; and Jay Howard, 224.483 quickly filled the field to 15 before Briscoe went out in his backup car.
    It was clear from the onset of the run that the increased wind speed coupled with the fact that he was in a backup car played on the results of his run averaging 223.435 to put him in serious jeopardy of making the field today.  “The backup car, although tested, was just not as quick as the car I bent up,” said Briscoe, who had run in the top five for most of the month in practice. “We will need more time to work on it.”

     Marco Andretti was next averaging 223.389 to be number 17 as 2004 500 champion Buddy Rice in a team car to Hildebrand was the 18th car to qualify with an average of 225.746 as he flirted with the top five all week only to be 7th at this point in the qualifying day.

     Bruno Junqueira, 224.236; Ryan Hunter-Reay, 222.951; Raphael Matos, 222.786; E.J.Viso, 224.732; Townsend Bell, 226.277 and Vitor Meira 225.590 filled the twenty-four berths in the starting line-up available today and it was only 1:00 P.M.

     This meant that just two hours into the session bumping would begin.  For those new to Indianapolis qualifying the slowest speed would then be eliminated from the provisional line-up by a car that was faster than the slowest car in the field to that point.

     At this juncture it was Saavedra who was slowest and Justin Wilson bumped him from the grid with a speed of 225.511.  Mike Conway than bumped Jakes from the lineup with 222.247 but up and down pit road the safe speed was determined to be in the low 224 mile-per-hour average bracket so anyone lower was not deemed safe.

     Helio Castroneves, the defending and winner of the last two Indy 500 pole positions was out next and posted a disappointing 225.216 four lap average being bothered by the wind in the first turn on two of the four laps.  This put the three time race winner in jeopardy of making the nine car shootout for the pole at 4:30 today but at this point Castroneves and his Penske racing crew thought they had enough time to re-qualify.

     Takuma Sato’s 225.736 bumped Matos; Scott Dixon’s 226.701 put him in the front row while bumping Hunter-Reay; John Andretti’s 223.393 bumped Mann; Oriol Servia’s 225.775 bumped Marco Andretti; Ana Beatriz’s 224.258 bumped John Andretti; Tony Kanaan’s 224.417 bumped Briscoe; Danica Patrick’s 223.837 bumped Rahal; Dario Franchitti moved into the front row with 226.379 while bumping Patrick in the process.

     When Alex Lloyd went out at 1:53 P.M. he completed the cars in the initial draw and opened up the track to any car that wanted to make an attempt.

     De Silvestro was the first out as her team could not draw for her last night due to not knowing if she would be cleared to drive today.  She averaged 223.681 for her attempt which was too slow to make the top 24.

     It continued to be “all business” in the qualifying line as Ed Carpenter took his Sarah Fisher Racing/Dollar General sponsored car to the track and with an opening lap of 226.403 brought the crowd to life as he was within striking distance of Tagliani’s speed but a brush with the wall on the second lap scrubbed speed and after a 225 lap came back with two strong 226’s to place his car in the top 9.  Carpenter was fast all month long and backed that up with his white knuckle run today that bumped Sckeckter from the line-up.

     Briscoe made his second of the three allowed attempts but with an average of 223.644 he was still not fast enough to be in the line-up.

     Marco Andretti, Lloyd, and John Andretti all made attempts but with speeds to slow to attain that coveted 224, they waived off the attempts.

     De Silvestro, who fast became the crowd favorite of the day with her persistence, averaged 224.237 to bump Junqueira from the field. Jakes was out next and too slow and then Scheckter bumped his way back into the race knocking De Silvestro out.

     Patrick made her second attempt and was too slow as was Mann who followed her out and then Rahal could only post one lap before pulling off the track.

     De Silvestro then came back for her third and final attempt of the day and at 224.393 bumped Kimball from the race.

     Marco Andretti made his third attempt of the day but could muster only 224.074, not fast enough while Junqueira re-qualified for the race by bumping Kimball with a 224.691 average.

     John Andretti made his third and final attempt work by making significant changes to his car prior to the run and then average 224.981 to bump Tracy from the race.

     Briscoe than made his third attempt but was still too slow and Kimball was on the track when the skies broke and rain began to fall at 3:34 P.M. placing the rest of the day in jeopardy and when the 4:00 P.M. deadline arrived and with a wet race track the day was complete with the top 9 set for the shootout, if the track could be dried, and without Castroneves in the top 9.

    Tagliani, Dixon, Franchitti, Wheldon, Bell, Carpenter, Power, Servia and Rice finished the session as the top 9 and would start the race no lower than 9th despite the outcome of the shootout and then waited while track crews worked feverously to dry the track and get the shootout in.

     When it was clear the track could be made ready Speedway officials announced a change to the original shootout format by allowing only one attempt by each car because they would not have the luxury of an hour and half for the shootout.  In the original format each qualifying car would have to make one attempt in the session but could make as many as liked during the time period.

     Also the lineup for the shootout would be in reverse with the 9th place car, Rice going out first and so on.

     Rice averaged 225.786 to kick off the shootout posting speeds equal to what he had done earlier in the day.

     Next out was Servia and he vastly improved himself posting the first 227 mile-per-hour laps of the day averaging 227.059 to lay claim to the pole.  Power, in Team Penske’s only entry in the shootout averaged 226.773 with Carpenter next at 225.121.  Bell’s 226.887 was close to Servia but fell short as Wheldon’s 226.490.

     Franchitti then posted three laps a over 227 only to slow on the track on the final lap and dropped from third to 9th in the starting line-up as his as his Target-Ganassi car ran out of fuel due to a miscalculation on the part of his crew prior to the run.  His teammate, Dixon, was next out and four nearly identical laps over 227 snared the top spot from Servia with an average of 227.340.

     That set the stage of Tagliani and he was at his best:  227.733, 227.488; 227.430 and 227.238 to average 227.472 and edge Servia for the top starting spot in the 500 giving Sam Schmidt Motorsports it’s first 500 pole in heart stopping fashion and only the second pole in organization history with the first coming in 2001 at Richmond, Va. with Buddy Lazier driving.

     The roar that went up from the brave fans that waited through the rain delay to see an exciting shootout indicated that they did, in fact, know what they were witnessing in the appreciation showed Tagliani and Schmidt in the pit area following the run.

     “This is quite difficult to explain,” said a humble Tagliani following his run when asked about being the pole winner of the 100th Anniversary race.  “First I have to thank our team.  They accepted my decision to sell the team to Sam (Schmidt) and went with the program and have worked day and night since trying to make our cars better.”

     “We have been accused of concentrating entirely on the pole this week,” Tagliani continued but we have worked on down force and balance and I think we are in a good position for the race”

     “I’m at a loss for words,” said a tearful Schmidt.  “This is really large, really large.  Winning the pole in the 100th Anniversay is an accomplishment that no one else can duplicate.  I grew up in California idolizing Mears (Rick) and now that I am part of a team that did something that he did is truly humbling.  Yes I’ve overcome some adversity in my time but we all have and we did that today and hopefully will continue to do that in the future.”

     Tagliani continued that when Schmidt approached him about the team he told him that we were a good entity and that we should continue and with his help we have.  “We were good last year and better this year thanks to Sam,” Tagliani said, “It’s (Indy) is a good place to show that the team is very, very strong.”

     “We gave it our best shot and fell just short,” said Dixon.  “I really feel sorry for Dario (Franchitti) he lost much more than I did today.  He went from 3rd to 9th and will start in his lowest position at Indy with our team.  I think is it real good for our sport to see someone like Sam and his teams succeed.”

     Servia will start his 3rd 500 in third and thinks that will suit him just fine.  “I want to thank our team for giving me a great car,” said Servia.  “I told them that I wanted to make a run for pole in the shootout and they agreed, I’m only sorry that I came up a bit short.  The car was just a bit too loose the final two laps to post a good speed.”

    It was truly an exciting day at Indy today as the “David’s” showed with the “Goliath’s” in what I referenced yesterday that the teams are so close.  Only one Penske car in the field, only one of five of the Andretti cars were in the show while cars of the new made an impressive show as did those cars that are only running he Indy 500 this year.  This will all change next year when all the equipment is new and the teams that have the engineering and backing will again move to the forefront while the rest catch up   Enjoy this year’s race, if it is anything like today’s qualifying it will be anybody’s race.