It was a wild, emotional and sadistic day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday. Or, as we’ve come to know it, qualifying.
You think it wasn’t crazy? Pippa Mann and her little USAC team is safely in the 103rd Indianapolis 500 and Fernando Alonso and McLaren are still outside looking in going into Sunday’s last row shootout.
But on a hot, windy day that nearly put James Hinchcliffe on his head, Spencer Pigot set everyone in Gasoline Alley on their ear. The 25-year-old Floridian turned the fastest speed of the 36 drivers with a sparkling average of 230.083 mph in Ed Carpenter Racing’s Chevrolet — just nipping 2018 Indy winner Will Power, who ran 230.081 mph in the Verizon Chevy of Team Penske.
It left the former Indy Lights champ on the provisional pole with an 80 percent chance of rain Sunday.
“It was a consistent run and I can’t thank ECR and Chevrolet enough but I wouldn’t mind if it rains out tomorrow,” said Pigot, referring to the fact that if weather rules the day and washes out the second round of qualifying, the first three rows will be based on Saturday’s speeds. “It would be nice to kind of relax and not have to go again and be on pole — but if we go again I’ve got all the confidence in the world we’re going to be able to challenge for the pole.”
Power owns 56 IndyCar pole positions but is still searching for his first at the Indy 500.
“It’s definitely the place I want to be and I would love to have a shot tomorrow,” he said. “I feel like there’s five guys that actually have the car to do it. It’s all about the wind, the gusts and the track is probably going to pick the pole position.”
Saturday was all about the early draw because six of the nine drivers that comprise the Fast 9 went out in the first hour when the temperatures were cooler before rocketing up to 84 degrees by 2 o’clock.
Simon Pagenaud, fresh off his come-from-behind victory at the Indy Grand Prix, continued his good month by posting the third-fastest speed and teammate and point leader Josef Newgarden was fourth fastest to give Roger Penske’s four-car armada another stout performance.
But shortly before 5 o’clock Colton Herta showed why he’s no ordinary teenager. Sitting eighth in the line-up, the 19-year-old second generation racer went back out and threw down an impressive run of 229.479 mph in the GESS Honda of Harding/Steinbrenner Racing to grab the fifth slot.
“I knew we could make the Fast 9 if we did it perfect but I didn’t expect to be fifth,” said the youngest winner in IndyCar history, who took the checkers first at COTA in March at the age of 18. “It kind of blew my mind and the car was even a little better than the first run.”
While Team Penske flexed its muscles, so did ECR as all three drivers — just like a year ago — are in the Fast 9. Ed Jones, who runs all the road and street courses for the team, capped off a great week by turning the sixth-fastest speed of 229.440 mph while team boss Ed Carpenter — the only owner/driver in the NTT IndyCar Series — was seventh best and will be looking for his fourth pole at Indy on Sunday.
“Our cars have been fast all week and Chevy has done a great job and Ed has been fastest a lot of the time,” said Carpenter, whose car is sponsored by Preferred Freezer. “I know Spencer is hoping it rains but I think the rest of us are hoping it doesn’t so we can try and beat him.”
Alexander Rossi gave Andretti Autosport its fastest bullet by putting the NAPA Honda in eighth and Sebastian Bourdais secured the final slot in the Fast 9 with Vasser Sullivan’s SealMaster Honda. Weather permitting, all of the Fast 9 will get one run to claim the pole on NBC at 1:30 p.m.
On the other end of the spectrum, Kyle Kaiser, Sage Karam, Patricio O’Ward, Max Chilton, Alonso and Hinchcliffe will each get one run to make the show — the three fastest advancing to May 26.
It was another rough day at IMS for Hinch, who nearly lost his life in a 2015 accident and then missed the show a year ago. He spun coming through Turn 2, slammed the wall and — like Felix Rosenqvist and O’Ward earlier in the week — nearly flipped over before coming back down to earth right-side up.
“I was a little bit loose in Turns 3 and 4 but 1 and 2 were solid so I don’t know if we caught a gust or the wind changed or what,” said the 2016 polesitter, whose Arrow SPM Honda was badly damaged. Still, the Canadian was back on track in his backup car less than three hours later and made three unsuccessful attempts before the day ended.
Mann, who like Hinch was bumped in 2018, wound up 30th in a brand-new team co-owned by USAC regulars Tim Clauson and Richard Marshall and engineered by veteran Will Phillips.
Alonso’s long week continued as he made five attempts in his Chevy-powered McLaren entry and was in, then out, then in, then out in the final hour.
“Obviously it’s a difficult moment for everyone in the team and for me but but there’s not much we can do except try again tomorrow,” said the popular Spaniard.