- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
- 0 Shares
INDIANAPOLIS -- In terms of interesting storylines, Pole Day 2011 ranked among the best in the 100-year history of the Indianapolis 500.
There was a surprising pole winner. The most successful team in the history of the Indy 500 struggled, and the defending race champion ran out of fuel on a qualifying run. Four of Saturday's nine fastest qualifiers are part-time participants in the Izod IndyCar Series; meanwhile, a top team featuring the sport's most popular driver qualified only one of its five cars. Finally, the sport's emerging female star came back from a fiery accident to lock in the final first-day qualifying berth.
The drama started at 8:16 a.m., when Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe crashed heavily in practice, and didn't end until after 6 p.m., when the day's final qualifier -- Alex Tagliani, driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports -- went fast enough to snatch pole position.
Maybe it's not really a surprise that the 38-year-old French-Canadian earned his first Indy pole, because he was consistently among the fastest drivers all week in practice. But on Pole Day, the experience of the vaunted Penske and Ganassi teams was supposed to prevail.
Instead, they both had off days. Team Penske's day got off to a bad start when Briscoe wadded up his Dallara-Honda, and it didn't get much better. The Australian failed to make the top 24 locked in on Pole Day, four-time Indy pole winner Helio Castroneves managed only 16th place, while IndyCar Series championship leader Will Power was the team's only representative in the Fast Nine shootout. Power qualified fifth and seemed mystified by his lack of speed.
"The car was solid all day and pretty trimmed out, so I don't know what else I could have done," Power said. "I just didn't have the speed."
Meanwhile, Target Chip Ganassi Racing cut its fuel calculations too close and ran Franchitti out in Turn 1 of his fourth and final qualifying lap. That cost the Scotsman fourth place; he instead will line up ninth. Scott Dixon's car also ran dry, and he thought it might have been enough to cost him pole position.
"It's frustrating, but it goes back to the old saying, 'That's racing,'" said Dixon. "Today was a real strange mixture of people and efforts. I mean, you see Helio is back in 16th and he's normally quite good around here."
The uncharacteristic struggles of Indy car racing's dominant teams opened the door for Tagliani and SSM. Tagliani formed FAZZT Racing last year and completed the season as owner-driver. The team's participation this year in the IndyCar Series was in question until Schmidt, the most successful team owner in the Indy Lights development series, stepped up to join in partnership with FAZZT.
Tagliani earned five poles and one win in CART-sanctioned Indy car racing but got left on the sidelines during the 2008 open-wheel reunification. With FAZZT, he put together a strong team that includes team manager Rob Edwards (ex-Walker Racing) and engineer Allen McDonald, who worked effectively with Franchitti at Andretti Green Racing for many years.
"It's difficult to explain all the sacrifice and tears I've had throughout my career," Tagliani said. "Everyone accepted my offer to be part of this team last year, and we're still intact even though they risked their reputations. I'm at the shop every day and I see the passion these boys have.
"Sam said this entity deserved to continue, and to do this on the 100th anniversary is very special."
But Tagliani wasn't SSM's only feel-good story on Pole Day. Townsend Bell qualified a second Schmidt car on the inside of Row 2, while Bertrand Baguette solidly qualified the SSM car entered in conjunction with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 14th place.
Oriol Servia qualified on the outside of the front row and brought some joy to Newman/Haas Racing, the legendary Indy car team going through a transitional period with team founder Carl Haas in declining health.
Former Indianapolis winner Dan Wheldon teamed with one of his former Andretti Green Racing teammates to qualify Bryan Herta Autosport's entry sixth fastest. Buddy Rice, another former winner, will line up seventh in Panther Racing's second car. And Ed Carpenter received the biggest cheers of the day when he put Sarah Fisher Racing's entry into the Fast Nine shootout.
"That's Indianapolis," Wheldon said. "It's incredibly competitive and people value Indianapolis so much that they will put so much effort into that one race and that stirs things up a bit. Testing is limited, but at Indianapolis the smaller teams have track time to perfect their cars."
It's difficult to explain all the sacrifice and tears I've had throughout my career. Everyone accepted my offer to be part of this team last year, and we're still intact even though they risked their reputations.
”-- Alex Tagliani
Meanwhile, several high-profile drivers and teams failed to secure one of the 24 starting positions up for grabs Saturday. Most notably, Indy-only driver John Andretti was the only one of Andretti Autosport's fivesome who went fast enough to make the cut.
"We're out to lunch," admitted AA team manager Kyle Moyer.
"We were slow when we rolled off the truck and we were still slow in qualifying," said Marco Andretti. "I don't have an answer and that's why I'm super-frustrated right now."
Mike Conway won the IndyCar race four weeks ago on the Long Beach street course, but he appears to be a bit spooked by Indianapolis, where he suffered a season-ending crash a year ago.
"We're struggling," Hunter-Reay observed. "We tried every setup in the spectrum and it just didn't have any speed."
The slowest of the day's 24 qualifiers was undoubtedly the bravest. Forty-eight hours after suffering second-degree burns to her hand in a frightening accident, Simona De Silvestro returned to qualify HVM Racing's backup car. For now, her 224.392 mph average is the bubble speed, though there may be slower qualifiers Sunday when the 33-car field is initially filled.
"After the crash I think it was a crazy time for me," said the "Swiss Miss" after her second fiery accident in a two-year Indy car career.
"I was really scared and didn't know if I really wanted to get back into a race car. But the team was really good and let me think about it. I think it was really important for me to get back in the car today, because if not all those mixed emotions would have stayed with me for a while."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.