INDIANAPOLIS--Qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 can be the most terrifying or rewarding four laps in racing—and sometimes it can be both in the same day.
For Tony Kanaan, the 2005 pole winner who will start his 18th Indianapolis 500 in 16th inside the sixth row, the tricky conditions were ones he had faced before.
“That makes it worse because you know what to expect and how difficult it is,” he said laughing.
“We expected a little bit quicker, but I don’t know, I mean the car felt good. We had to guess a couple of the gears and the speed. It was a very atypical day – extremely windy and hot – which we haven’t had any of these (practice) days so it was more of a guessing (game) than anything else.”
“You can’t control the conditions so you just suck it in and prepare for the race,” said Kanaan, who posted a four-lap average speed of 228.120mph. “This is the beauty of this race, you never know what you got, and even when you know what you got, this place will throw a curve ball at you and come up with the strangest weather so we’ll see.”
Matheus Leist who sailed into last year’s 500 with relative ease, qualifying 11th as a rookie, saw the other side of the coin at this track that has perplexed the veterans including Indy 500 champions.
It only adds to the mystique of qualifying at Indy.
Facing hot windy conditions today for the first time this week, drivers took to the track not really knowing what their cars would do.
Leist had heard the stories–such as in 1966 when A.J. Foyt waved off second fast time in search of the pole, hit the wall on his second attempt, started 18th and got caught in that famed first lap accident.
Leist had a difficult first run with a car that was too loose. He posted three laps in the 227-mph range but his final lap of 224.535mph dipped his average to 226.727mph and a provisional starting spot of 24th.
After the first run, Leist was deeply disappointed, saying, “The conditions were pretty bad, the wind was picking up and it was getting worse and worse all day. I just had so much oversteer, and it kept getting worse. I maximized my tools to correct it but on the last lap there was nothing I could do except lift or I would have crashed. It’s very disappointing.”
A picture is worth a thousand words--Matheus Leist sits alone after his first run.
Less than two hours later he was sitting on the bubble in danger of being bumped out of the top 30 guaranteed starters.
Not waiting to be bumped out, the engineers made some adjustments and the ABC Supply crew rolled out the car for Leist to take another shot. He would not have to forfeit his previous time so if he didn’t improve, he could remain on the bubble.
Fortunately that was not the case.
His second run started with his quickest lap of the day-- over 228mph-- and ended in a four-lap average speed of 227.717mph, good for the 24th starting spot, outside row eight.
The relief was visible in the 20-year-old Brazilian driver who lives north of Miami in Aventura.
“It’s always hard," the youngster said. "This place changes so much and you always want to go and maximize your first run because it’s just so intense, so many things going on. It’s not very fun to drive the car. The car moves around, it’s fast so it’s hard to go through a second run. But as soon as I jumped in the car I was comfortable and I knew the team was giving me a good car to run so I was happy with that."
“The second run in qualifying was way better than the first run," a smiling Leist said. "We debriefed a little bit with the team and Eric (Cowdin, technical director) and Tony (Kanaan) and we just improved the car and managed to be way more consistent through the run and this puts us in a better and safer spot for qualifying. So I think we’re going to be good so I’m looking forward to the race now.”
Qualifying ended today at 5:50PM ET and six drivers are on the outside looking in. Pippa Mann, who was on the bubble, survived the drama to be locked in the top 30. Failing to qualify today were Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonzo, James Hinchcliffe who survived a horrific crash on his first attempt and came back later in the day to try again, Pato O’Ward, Max Chilton, Kyle Kaiser and Sage Karam.
The Last Row qualifying will take place tomorrow starting at 12:15 PM where each driver gets one attempt to qualify (or Monday if it rains).
Those drivers who qualified for the Firestone Fast Nine are Spencer Pigot (230.083mph), Will Power (230.081mph), Simon Pagenaud (229.854mph), Josef Newgarden (229.749mph), Colton Herta (229.478mph), Ed Jones (229.440mph), Ed Carpenter (229.349mph), Alexander Rossi (229.268mph), and Sebastien Bourdais (228.800mph).
The run for the pole will start tomorrow at 1:15 PM ET again each driver will get one attempt. If qualifying for the Fast Nine rains out, the speeds from today will stand with Pigot taking the pole.
NBC begins its three-hour broadcast at 12 noon when the drama of qualifying for the Indy 500 continues.