HPD Blog

Monday, June 14, 2010

Paddock Report – Indy 500 Qualifying

-Dan Layton

It’s been a little while since we’ve done one of these, but 17 days at Indy was jammed with action, so let’s get right to it.

Walking through the garage area for the first (of what would be many, many) times, you noticed right away that Luzco Dragon Racing/De Ferran Motorsports is now simply de Ferran Dragon Racing – not exactly as short and to the point as “Team Penske Jr.”, but definitely less of a mouthful. The new team logos look cool, too.

But apart from the new team name and new logo, nothing else in the management structure changes. Gil de Ferran runs the team day-to-day with support from his California-based partners Steve Luczo and Jay Penske.

One other team-name change, however, DOES indicate a significant shuffle at the top, as Newman Haas Lanigan Racing has once again become Newman Haas Racing. Mike Lanigan is out of the management picture for the Chicago-based team, and what that means for the long-term future of the operation is anyone’s guess. Paul Newman passed away nearly two years ago now, and co-ower Carl Haas is in poor health, leaving his wife Bernice (Bernie) running things.

Hopefully, some new blood will be brought in soon to secure the future of what was once one of the very top teams in the sport.

A late, but positive, addition to this year’s “500” field was the return of Rahal Letterman Racing with an entry for Graham Rahal. Another returnee to Indy after an absence of several years was the still-very-popular Roberto Guerrero, looking almost unchanged from his driving days and hanging out in the Bryan Herta Autosport garage to coach fellow Colombian and “500” rookie Sebastian Saavedra.

Among the many welcome changes to the Indy schedule for 2010, both veterans and rookies (instead of just rookies) were on-track for Opening Day, which resulted in the best crowd I’ve seen on the first day of practice in several years.

Also, there were no “down” days this year. In previous years, we had seven or so days of practice spread out over two weeks time, with days (usually Mondays and Tuesdays) of no on-track activity. But this year, we had seven consecutive days of practice (well, six actually, following Monday’s rainout), PLENTY of time for everybody to get their acts together. Although, of course, not everyone did…..

For me, one of the highlights of Opening Day was watching Andretti Autosport’s Tony Kanaan jump in and out of all five team cars in one day, in theory to establish a baseline setup for all of the team’s entries. That just might be a Speedway record for most cars driven by one person in a single day!

As the week of practice progressed under cooler-than-normal conditions, a couple things became apparent: 1) Team Penske was going to be tough to beat for the pole – and had a good chance of locking up the entire front row; and 2) Andretti Autosport was struggling.

We ended up with 38 drivers turning laps at the old Brickyard this year, including late addition Bruno Junqueira and ultra-late addition Jaques Lazier, so we had real bumping and a fair bit of drama on both qualifying days. And we had, by the standards of the times, great crowds for both days of qualifying, as well.

The biggest change from practice to qualifying was the increasing temperatures. While big guns Penske, Ganassi and the impressive, small FAZZT operation coped well with the increasing heat, two other expected front-runners – Andretti and KV Racing – had already-tough weekends turn far, far worse when it counted.

In KV’s case, it was due to crashes, crashes, still more crashes, and one VERY unexpected DNQ. E.J. Viso and Takuma Sato each crashed; Paul Tracy brushed the Turn 4 wall once; Mario Moraes crashed TWICE; and – incredibly – PT was unable to make the show.

Andretti came into qualifying at the very bottom of the sine curve that had characterized its week – and then it got worse. Tony Kanaan inexplicably had two nearly identical crashes on Saturday AND Sunday, coming within a gnat’s eyelash of joining Tracy on the sidelines. Danica Patrick had a very disappointing qualifying run and then earned a chorus of boos from the crowd when she slagged off her team over the track public address system. Marco and John Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay had quieter, but no less frustrating weekends, as all three qualified deep in the field.

But drama is what makes Indy unique, and the qualifying weekend had it in spades, so I call it a success. Helio Castroneves’ pole run during the first-ever “Top 9” shootout was jaw-dropping fast, as were the repeated attempts by Will Power and Dario Franchitti to unseat him.

It also was great to the see the FAZZT team, new this season, as a legitimate front-row contender with Alex Tagliani, and post the fastest Bump Day time with Junqueira. RLR and Panther were other teams to exceed expectations in qualifying, with Rahal and Ed Carpenter both making the “Fast Nine”.

At the other end of the spectum, it was nail-biting time watching truly talented racers like Kanaan and Sato barely scrape into the show. And only at Indy can one driver (Saavedra) find out he has made the field while lying on his back at Methodist Hospital (the result of a crash earlier that day).

On to race day.

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