Was there a more impressive performance delivered at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday than the one from the fish-out-of-water Clauson-Marshall Racing team?
Making its IndyCar debut, the USAC short oval dirt racing specialists defied months of predictions saying they’d be an easy out — among the first teams bumped from the field — during qualifying for the 103rd Indy 500.
A single-car team, blessed with a sprinkling of IndyCar veterans to accelerate its giant learning curve, out-qualified drivers from Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and McLaren on the way to securing a 30th-place start with veteran British driver Pippa Mann piloting the No. 39 Chevy.
As James Hinchcliffe and Fernando Alonso sweat bullets overnight as they hope to make it onto the final row of the 33-car field during Sunday afternoon’s last chance qualifying session, Mann, Tim Clauson, and Richard Marshall can briefly celebrate after achieving something that was seemingly impossible.
“I’m very thankful for the week we’ve had so far with the Driven2SaveLives Chevrolet,” Mann told RACER. “I think the entire team has done an incredible job building up the car. We’ve been trying to be really smart, really sensible. Yes, we wish we’d have gone out there and run just a little bit quicker in terms of our average speed over that qualifying run, but overall, given the wind conditions we faced — specifically on my run and how it kept changing while I was out there — I think we’ll take that.”
The No. 39 program, done in honor of Mann’s former Indy 500 teammate and Clauson’s late son Bryan, has been adopted by Indy’s fans at Indy. Drawing from the rich tradition of Midwestern short oval racing, the crossover of dirt racing teams tackling the most famous oval race in the world was once a popular annual occurrence.
But with that ritual largely forgotten, the emergence of a non-IndyCar team making big waves at the 500 with Mann, led the audience in attendance on Saturday to give the seven-time Indy 500 starter rousing applause throughout her four-lap qualifying run.
“You know, that’s really, really cool to hear,” she said. “I know that when I was announced as the driver of this program, something Tim and I talked about a lot is, yes, I was Tim’s choice to come and do this, but this is a dirt racing team and they’ve chosen a road racer to come lead this program. It’s certainly due to my friendship with Tim and my friendship with Bryan, who sadly is no longer here, but I felt very honored to have this opportunity, very grateful to drive their race car.”