Even without bumping, qualifying weekend still pressure-packed


Join motor sports insider Nathan Brown as he recaps day two of Indianapolis 500 practice on Thursday, August 13, 2020.

Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS — Part of the allure of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing is its exclusivity. Fewer than 800 men and women since 1911 have taken the green flag for the Indianapolis 500. Many, many more racecar drivers from around the world dream of cruising across the yard of bricks in an open-wheel car, but for 109 years, it’s come down to those with the best package of talent, sponsorship support, equipment, engineering minds – and a little bit of luck.

And outside a late-race pass for the win, some of the biggest fireworks from the Indy 500 in recent years have come from drivers jockeying to make one of those 11 rows of three. James Hinchcliffe, the 2016 pole-sitter, in 2018 and Fernando Alonso, the two-time Formula 1 champion, in 2019 didn’t make it. Both of Team Penske’s entries in 1995 failed.

What decades ago used to be an entire month-long process has, in recent years turned into a pressure-packed day or two. And rain clouds can shrink that into just a few hours. No matter who you are or what you bring to the track, you’ve still got to perform.

Less so, though, this year.

A pandemic-plagued Indy 500 only secured its 33rd entry last weekend. Entering the month of August, only 30 car-and-driver combos had been officially released.

After two consecutive 500s with superstars failing to qualify as one of the series’ biggest storylines, bumping has disappeared from the picture for 2020.

“To be honest, I would love to feel that fear of not making the show, having so many people (competing for race spots), having that pressure,” said Dale Coyne Racing rookie Alex Palou, who hadn’t run a single oval race until June at Texas Motor Speedway. “I think that’s what drives us. I think that’s what makes this thing so special.

“It’s just a shame that my first experience in the Indy 500 is going to be like that – not the full experience.”

Over the 2018 and 2019 Indy 500 qualifying weekends, five drivers with a variety of backgrounds saw their 500 dreams go up in flames: veteran full-season driver Hinchcliffe and one-off specialist Pippa Mann in 2018, followed by rookie Patricio O’Ward, world-renowned F1 driver Alonso and 2017 fourth-place finisher Max Chilton in 2019.

Dreyer and Reinbold driver Sage Karam was the top performer in the last row shootout last season but it came with emotional toil. He had to wait, watch and pray his run was good enough as his competition took their shots. The unknown ate away at him.

To have to re-live that experience — as long as he manages to complete a four-lap run — is quite the relief for the part-time driver trying to help his team build up to a more extensive program in years to come.

“The stress last year was immense, huge,” Karam said. “To have that lifted off your shoulders and already know you’re in the field … I told myself last year that I didn’t want to do that again, and I’m so glad we don’t have to worry about that this year.

“I know (bumping) is a good show for fans to watch. It’s really thrilling, but from a driver’s point of view, the idea of not making (the Indy 500) or just barely making it, it’s super stressful.”

But don’t expect that lack of do-or-die stakes Saturday and Sunday to mean these drivers will be any less laser-focused. For one of the five 2020 Indy 500 rookies, Ed Carpenter Racing driver Rinus VeeKay said the sustained success of his team in qualifications in recent years provides plenty of pressure in a unique way.

“You still have to take risks. Of course, you don’t want to put it in the wall, but at least I want to be in the Fast Nine (on Sunday),” he told IndyStar. “From there, you can work forward.”

VeeKay’s rookie counterpart, Palou, agreed.

“We’re going full. I think I’m in a situation where I need to get my future going. I want to stay in IndyCar, and I haven’t had enough races to show everybody.”

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That emphasis, Palou explained, stemmed from an elevated importance of starting up toward the front on Aug. 23. After the first two days of practice this week, drivers across the paddock have complained about the difficulty they’ve faced in making on-track passes.

With such a large field, starting in the first few rows is always of utmost importance, but facing the unknown temperature conditions that come with an August race, several drivers have classified the Aug. 23 event as a track-position race even more than they’ve experienced recently.

“With how difficult it is to run in traffic right now, that puts an emphasis on qualifying,” Graham Rahal told IndyStar. “You really need to perform well. I think people are still going to want to qualify well, for sure. At least, we will.”

But whether it’s the pressures of race-day positioning or just making the field, Indy 500 veteran James Davison said he doesn’t approach the pressure-packed weekend any differently. In the end, he said, it’s still flying around a 2.5-mile oval just inches off the ground. If you can handle that, some added pressure from grid positioning, or even the risk of not making the field in other years, should pale in comparison.

“You’ve just got to focus on what you can control, and the result of it is what it’ll be,” he said. “Even if you know that if you wreck, you won’t qualify, well, it is what it is. You’re not going to go out and be fast by being conservative and worrying about stuff.”

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.

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