By Joe Spears | @joe_spears7
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — One year after suffering a potentially fatal injury at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, James Hinchcliffe will lead the field of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
“I think it’s a huge story, and I would like to have the better one next week,” team owner Sam Schmidt said. “It would make a movie for sure.”
Hinchcliffe claimed his first career pole position with a four-lap average speed of 230.760 miles per hour, .06 ahead of Josef Newgarden.
A year ago, during a practice session on May 18, a mechanical failure caused Hinchcliffe to crash coming out of Turn 3. The car was briefly on its side, and debris from the wreck resulted in a bar puncturing his upper right thigh. He underwent surgery at IU Health Methodist Hospital and missed the rest of the 2015 season.
Hinchcliffe’s plan had been to create a new story this year: “There was definitely a point where it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, is there anything else you want to talk about?’ Let’s lead with that and kind of see where we go from there. But we’ll see. Hopefully this is the topic of conversation for the next week and a week from now we’ve got an even better story to tell.”
Hinchcliffe made his return to the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports family, whom he signed with after the 2014 season after having been with Andretti Autosport from 2012 through 2014. He started off the month with a strong finish in the Angie’s List Grand Prix. Hinchcliffe placed third, the highest-finishing Honda, behind the duo of Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud. This season Hinchcliffe has finished in the Top 10 three times in five races.
A day after a dramatic qualifying session, the second and final day of qualifying provided even more drama. Pippa Mann and Max Chilton were finally able to get on the track and qualify after crashes in Turn 2 claimed both of their cars yesterday. Chilton ended up qualifying 22nd while Mann will start 25th.
The first and only wreck of the day came four drivers in. Much like Mann’s run yesterday where she lost control of her car before taking the green flag, Alex Tagliani lost control of his car rounding Turn 4 before taking the green and hit the wall hard before hitting the attenuator. It would be the only wreck of the day.
Positions 10 through 33 were settled within three hours. Oriol Servia claimed the fastest speed of the remaining 24 cars as he set the pace at 229.060.
Of the five rookies running in the 500, Alexander Rossi had the fastest run of the rookies with an average speed of 228.473, which put him in the fourth row in 12th position.
Towards the end of the first 24 qualifying runs, drama struck again as Juan Pablo Montoya’s car struck a trash bag midway through his third lap. Montoya had run two very fast laps his first time around, and it looked like he would be making his way into the fourth row. After striking the debris, Montoya was slowed down and ended up qualifying in the final row.
Due to interference from the debris, Montoya was allowed to re-qualify. After refueling and putting new tires on the car, Montoya set a pace of 227.684, which put him 17th.
Scott Dixon had his troubles on the day as well. During the practice session, the engine on Dixon’s #9 Target Chevy gave out. Dixon’s team replaced the engine within 65 minutes to get the car ready to qualify. Dixon was able to qualify 13th.
With the rest of the field set, the Fast Nine from yesterday’s round of qualifying prepared to take the track to see who would be in the front row leading the pack. Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis winner and current points leader Simon Pagenaud took to the track first and set the pace at 229.139. After Pagenaud, Carlos Munoz continued his strong week and temporarily took the pole position with a speed of 230.287.
Munoz’s spot at the top of the board did not last long as Newgarden used a very strong run to take the pole position. After a first-lap speed of 231.551 – the first car of the day to surpass 231 miles per hour – Newgarden’s best lap of the final three was 230.706. The speed to beat was 230.700.
Of the five remaining drivers left to qualify, the next three were unable to match Newgarden’s speed. It would come down to the final two drivers of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe to dethrone Newgarden and etch their names at the top of the leaderboard.
Hunter-Reay was the first to try to knock off Newgarden, and for his first three laps, it looked like he would do just that. Hunter-Reay’s first three laps were slightly faster than what Newgarden posted, and he held a small advantage as he rounded Turn 1 on his final lap. As Hunter-Reay crossed the finish line with a speed of 230.401, it rounded his four-lap average to 230.648. This was a mere 0.052 seconds slower than Newgarden’s 230.700 and put the 2014 Indy 500 winner in second.
Hinchcliffe began the final attempt of the day at 5:44 p.m. His first lap speed was 230.885. The second lap was faster, 230.940. The third lap, 230.765, gave Hinchcliffe an opportunity. The fourth-lap speed, 230.450, was the slowest, but it was enough to secure the pole.
“It’s incredible the difference a year makes,” Hinchcliffe said. “It all starts with Ric Peterson and Sam Schmidt. They put together such an incredible organization, and they were so behind me after what happened last year. They’ve built this incredible team of guys that went out and built three race cars that were good enough to start in the top ten of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports had a day to remember. Not only did Hinchcliffe qualify first, Mikhail Aleshin will start 7th and Oriol Servia will start in 10th. But it was team owner Sam Schmidt who started off the day well for the team when he drove a custom Corvette on an emotional trip around the famous Yard of Bricks.
Schmidt suffered a career-ending injury in a crash in early 2000 that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Today he was able to drive around the track in a car that was customized just for him. A breathing apparatus was used for the gas, and a special helmet helped Schmidt steer. In his four-lap trek around the track, Schmidt hit a top speed of 150 mph.
“It almost didn’t happen today because I was so amped for the possibilities here tonight,” Schmidt said. “To be able to do that, hit 152 at the stripe was a personal goal for me. That car drove flawlessly, and it was because of the great team behind me.”
Hinchcliffe will start in the front with Newgarden (2nd) and Hunter-Reay (3rd). The three young drivers will lead a very fast group of cars. Today was a good day for the Schmidt Peterson Motorsport team, but come next Sunday, the team knows that there are bigger things on the horizon.
“I think there’s one big thing to check off the box before we start talking about movie rights,” Hinchcliffe said.