by Mary Champion
Sunday, May 22 – If the last year of James Hinhcliffe’s life were presented to a Hollywood producer as a film script it would be rejected as too unbelievable.
One year ago, Hinchcliffe was recovering from near fatal injuries suffered May 18, 2015 in a freak accident at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He first got back into an Indycar last fall and this month he returned to the Speedway.
Today he wrote a new chapter of the script when, as the last car to qualify, he captured the pole position for next Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500.
In the post-qualifying press conference, Hinchcliffe agreed that it was an improbable scenario but that it was not quite done yet.
“The accident was a big deal for everyone. It was a big deal to me too but you have to focus on the here and now. Hopefully, a week from now, we will have an even better story to tell,” he said.
There was plenty of drama at the track today to add to Hinchcliffe’s story.
The second portion of qualifying today was the “Fast Nine” in which the drivers with the nine fastest speeds from yesterday qualified. Each driver was allowed only one four-lap qualifying attempt.
The drivers went out in reverse order from slowest to fastest. Josef Newgarden was the fourth driver to go out and he got everyone’s attention when he posted a four-lap average speed of 230.700, including a lap at over 231 mph.
It put him on the provisional pole and into playing a waiting game to see if his speed would hold up.
Next out on the track was Townsend Bell, who posted speeds over 230 mph, but he did not exceed Newgarden’s time.
The next two drivers to take to the track, Helio Castroneves and Will Power did not have speeds that posed a threat to Newgarden’s provisional pole.
The next to last driver out to qualify was Ryan Hunter-Reay. He came extremely close to Newgarden’s speed but was just .052 mph off of Newgarden’s speed.
With just one driver to go, James Hinchcliffe, Newgarden basically held his breath as Hinchcliffe ran his laps. He speed was close, oh so close to Newgarden’s on each of his laps and when Hinchcliffe got the checkered, he had done it! His speed was just .060 mph faster than Newgarden’s for the four-lap average, giving him the pole.
Newgarden was philosophical about losing the pole. “The pole is incredible. I wanted it so bad. The pole would have been best but we got the second best,” he said.
The front row was now set with a Canadian and two Americans, Hinchcliffe, Newgarden and Hunter-Reay in the top three spots, with a total speed difference from first to third of just 0.112 mph.
Hinchcliffe’s team, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, was ecstatic with the team’s performance as all three of their cars qualified in the top ten with Hinchcliffe’s pole, Mikhail Aleshin qualifying seventh and Oriol Servia qualifying tenth, the fastest of the first qualifying group.
Team co-owner Sam Schmidt was extremely happy with the team’s results. “This is unbelievable. It’s five years to the day since we won our first pole with Alex Tagliani. We’ve got all three cars in the top ten. We’ve got some incredible team members. This is fantastic!” he said.
Hinchcliffe and team co-owner, Ric Peterson, both echoed Schmidt’s heavy praise for the team members and their hard work.
Hincliffe commented that placing three cars in the top ten was a result of having a good team. “For all the guys working on the cars this is a special point of pride,” he said.
Highlights of the first qualifying session were one crash and a rather bizarre incident.
Coming to the green flag when completing his warm-up lap, Alex Tagliani, did a quarter spin to the left coming off Turn 4, slid across the track and hit the attenuator at pit in with the nose of the car. The car then made three spins to the right before hitting the inside pit wall. The car spun again and hit the outside wall. Tagliani was unhurt but did not make a qualifying attempt and will start 33rd in the field with no time and no speed.
In the most bizarre incident of the day, Juan Pablo Montoya was on his qualifying run and had completed two laps in the 229 and 228 mph speed range when he drastically slowed on his third and fourth laps.
It was noted that something that looked like a garbage bag came out the rear of the car as he started his third lap. It turned out it was a plastic garbage bag that had blown onto the track in Turn 3 and Montoya picked it up. In Turn 1 the bag blew out the back of the car but had hit the radiator in the meantime and he slowed tremendously on his last two laps.
After he came into the pits, the track went yellow for debris and the bag was picked up.
IndyCar officials allowed Montoya to refuel and change tires and make another run.
That run went much better as Montoya ran four laps with a 227.6 mph average, placing him 17th on the grid.
The field of 33 cars is now set for next Sunday’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.