Column: Indy 500 off to fast and fascinating start
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Roger Penske couldn't ask for much more in the buildup to the Indianapolis 500 after the fastest weekend in 107 years of “The Greatest Spectacle of Racing.”
Well, he could have hoped his own three cars had qualified better. But a Team Penske win Sunday isn't going to make or break the owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, who closed on its purchase roughly eight weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the world.
His first 500 as owner was held in front of empty grandstands, and only 150,000 or so were permitted on the sprawling grounds for the 2021 race. Last year was closer to a typical Indy 500, but now Penske has the place as close to perfection as possible.
He considers the speedway the motorsports version of Augusta National Golf Club, and with a fast field and ticket sales on the rise, the show on Sunday could be one of the best ever.
So far, so good after a dramatic weekend of qualifying.
Alex Palou set the fastest pole qualifying mark in Indy 500 history at 234.217 mph to become the first Spaniard to land there and make Chip Ganassi Racing the first team to win three consecutive poles since Penske won four-straight from 1988-91. Palou will line up alongside Rinus VeeKay of Ed Carpenter Racing and Felix Rosenqvist of Arrow McLaren Racing in the fastest front row at a 234.180 mph average.
It already had been a terribly tense Sunday in which Rahal Letterman Lanigan put all three of its full-time cars through a brutal qualifying session just to make the race. It took Jack Harvey, a British driver with both his seat at RLL and his IndyCar career on the line, three qualifying runs to ultimately bump teammate Graham Rahal from the race.
“We’re going to be starting 30th, 31st and 33rd, and I hated it. Felt like we were in the ‘Hunger Games’ with our own team," Harvey said. "There’s a lot of emotions. Like, massively grateful to be in the race, massively sad that we bumped out a teammate because I know what that means for the entire team.
“It's about as humbling a moment as I’ve had at a racetrack. I don’t want to do this dance again, and neither do the team. I said to Graham, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not sorry.’ What do you say to someone in that moment? I want to be in the race."
Graham Rahal is the son of the team owner, the most sponsored driver on the team, and at 34 years old has made it clear he's not interested in driving uncompetitive cars. He was in tears after Harvey bumped him from the field, but returned to the speedway Monday and helped the other three RLL cars — which includes Katherine Legge, the only woman in the 33-car field, whose qualifying average of 231.596 was the fastest ever for a woman.
Rahal said he was too proud to push Harvey or another driver out of the race by buying the seat.
“There’s still a lot I can add here, trying to be here for all the teammates, see how much better we can make their cars and go compete,” Rahal said. “I want to make sure I’m here to help the organization get as far forward as I can.”
The Rahal team's situation didn't improve during Monday's two-hour practice: Legge was involved in the first crash of Indy 500 preparations when she ran into the back of a slowing Stefan Wilson. Both cars were destroyed, though Legge's team was trying to repair her's in time for Carb Day, and Wilson was transported to the hospital for evaluation.
Meanwhile, it's been a magical start to the month for lean and underfunded A.J. Foyt Racing, which landed both its cars in the Fast 12 shootout. Santino Ferruci had a shot at the pole and wound up fourth, where four-time winner A.J. Foyt started in his final two Indy 500 victories. It was his team's best qualifying effort since the current format was introduced in 2010, and Foyt, which is the lowest-ranked full-time IndyCar team, out-qualfied all of Team Penske.
Reigning series champion Will Power, who paced Monday's practice session, is the best-starting Penske driver at 12th. Penske for so long has been the class of the Chevrolet camp but was outqualified by all four cars from Arrow McLaren, which this year added Alexander Rossi to its full-time roster and brought in Tony Kanaan for a fourth entry.
McLaren is the only team that has matched Ganassi's on-track dominance during Indy 500 prep, so it was a bit awkward when Palou and Rosenqvist were seated side-by-side for the post-qualifying news conference.
Palou drives for Ganassi but tried last year to get out of his contract and move to McLaren — in Rosenqvist's seat. The issue was settled in mediation but Palou is expected to leave Ganassi, where he was the 2021 IndyCar champion, for McLaren next season.
Unless Rosenqvist performs well enough to convince McLaren to expand to four cars, he could be searching for a job.
“We just have to ride the wave, and I feel like that wave is going to get bigger as the year goes on, and what happens for me in the future, I don’t know, and I don’t really think about it right now,” Rosenqvist said. "I just try to be in the now, extract everything I can every race, and I always tell myself things work themselves out if you just focus on what you do in the car.”
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