Qualifying weekend at the Indianapolis 500 delivered drama, tension and heartbreak as six drivers fought for the final three places in the Last Row Shootout.
While there was crushing disappointment for Fernando Alonso, Pato O’Ward and Max Chilton, there was elation at the same time for Sage Karam, James Hinchcliffe and Kyle Kaiser. But even his delight in knowing he will be taking part next weekend’s 103rd Indy 500 could not wipe away the impact of what Karam admits was the most nerve-racking two days of his life.
“I genuinely believed that a run like I did just now, I would be able to bounce back and do that yesterday,” Karam said. “But we just kept slightly missing the balance for the weather, and ended up having to come back today to fight into the field.
“That was the most stressful 48 hours of my life – probably one of the biggest battles I’ve ever gone through mentally.
“We put a good run in [yesterday] and I knew the speed was there,” Karam continued. My teammate did it and our cars are pretty similar. We had a really good car for two laps, but we didn’t really have a great car for four. So today we bettered that drop-off, and that was the difference. If we would have fallen off even a little bit more, who knows then what would have happened; but the team rallied.
“It’s just been a really, really tough month. To be able to say we qualified when we were kind of backs against the wall there for a while… The last row in general, I didn’t have as tough a month as the other two guys (Hinchcliffe and Kaiser). Those guys nearly going upside down, then putting back-up cars together and coming back is pretty frickin’ amazing. It’s an amazing story for those two guys, so I’m happy I got in. In 2014 with the same crew and same car – everything – I started 31st and finished ninth as a rookie; so if it shapes up like that again I’ll be quite happy.”
Hinchcliffe had to run first in the Last Row Shootout and then nervously watch as others attempted to beat his effort. Having missed the show last year, he had fresh memories of just what was at stake.
“My heart goes out to the ones that didn’t make it – to Max, Pato and Fernando,” Hinchcliffe said. “We all know how much they put into this race and how much this means to everybody. I’ve been on the other side of this a year ago, so I know how much it sucks. I hate that we have to send guys home today.
“Man it’s crazy, way more dramatic… I’m getting too old for this stuff. I need a week off now, but we’re back in the cars tomorrow!”
The biggest celebrations were at Juncos, where Kaiser bumped Alonso out by just 0.019mph; a result that was the culmination of a remarkable turnaround following his heavy crash during practice on Friday.
“It felt like we qualified on pole when I came in to be honest, it was pretty wild,” Kaiser said. “I didn’t really know right away, I had no idea. I had somewhat of an idea because I got to see the laps but I heard it was really close. I came across the start/finish and the first thing I asked was ‘Am I in? Did we make it?’ and I just heard screaming, that was a good sign.
“But the last 48 hours have been an absolute whirlwind, it’s been crazy. We had really good pace with our main car, but obviously we had an incident that’s meant I’ve just had no balance since then.
“I have to give the team pretty much all the credit here because they’ve been working super-long nights. I think they had 40 straight hours of work to try and get that car together … just an unbelievable effort. Obviously the back-up car didn’t have the same pace as our main car, but we didn’t give up, this was just an amazing battle from their end.”