Who Will Miss The Indianapolis 500?
INDIANAPOLIS — With qualifying for the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 looming, the question on many minds, certainly those of the teams and drivers, is who’s not going to make the exclusive field of 33?
With 40 plus driver and car combinations vying for a spot, that question is more critical than it at anytime in recent years. There are no provisional starters, no series champion’s provision, no provision for owner’s points for the Indianapolis 500. Either you’re one of the fastest 33, or you go home.
That demand is no respecter of a person’s talent, resources. Through the years many deserving teams and drivers have been left on the outside looking in.
Roger Penske knows the feeling. After winning the 1994 500, Penske could not get his high dollar cars, or high profile drivers, Al Unser, Jr., and Emerson Fittipaldi into the 1995 race. Paul Tracy experienced the gut wrenching emotion last year, after he was bumped, and couldn’t make his way back in.
Three-time winner, Johnny Rutherford, knows too. He missed the race during a frenetic closing hour of qualifying in 1989.
The grand old race track has left dozens tearful when the 6 p.m. closing gun sounded on Sunday, the last day of qualifying. It will no be different this year. There will be seven or eight drivers going home.
With three practice days lost to weather in an already shortened month of May, the pressure is on. This is the biggest race in the world, and even the most experienced veteran can succumb to the stress that trying to make the field can generate.
The Speedway is a hard, challenging track that changes drastically with only slight changes in temperature, wind, and cloud cover. Missing the setup for those transitions can cost a team a spot in the race. That’s what happened to Penske in 1995.
“This is a very unique place,” emphasizes Danica Patrick about the frustration of changing conditions. “It’s its own person, this track. You can go out there, come back to the garage, go back out with the same car, it feels totally different. You have to keep your head on straight and stay confident.”
Sometimes even veterans can’t manage to do that, and the odds are that at least one name driver, even one that runs the circuit full time, won’t hear, “Back Home Again in Indiana” in a fire suit on race morning.
If veterans have difficulty maintaining composure under fire, it’s doubly difficult for a rookie. There are eight of them entered this year, with a variety of experience.
Some come, like Scott Speed, and Jay Howard, with Indy car experience, but no Indianapolis experience. Others like Pippa Mann, J.R. Hildebrand, Charlie Kimball and James Hinchcliffe, have made their way up through the Indy Lights series, and have competed at Indianapolis in those cars. James Jakes and Ho-Pin Tung, on the other hand, have high speed, open wheel experience, but no Indy car time.
But, none of that matters. The learning curve in an Indy car at Indianapolis is steep. Some catch on immediately, others fight it. But the odds are that a large percentage of those missing the 2011 500, will be rookies.
Another group that could experience that sinking feeling come Sunday night is those with the Indy only programs. Indy car racing has become so competitive, that it’s difficult for a driver, or a team, to arrive at Indianapolis and be competitive. There are some that will pull it off, and probably excel in the race, but the odds are not in their favor.
Thomas Scheckter, an Indy only driver this year, once said that Indianapolis is the race that you lay awake a night thinking about.
When this year’s Indianapolis 500 qualifying comes to a close, there will be those lying awake Sunday night, wondering what they could’ve done different to make the 500.
The question is who will they be?