Heroics and heartbreak on Indianapolis 500 Qualifying Day

There was no shortage of drama in trying to advance to the pole round or avoiding a DNQ

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star
Credit: Kristin Enzor/For IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

It was the heroics and heartbreaks of Indianapolis 500 qualifying personified.

Rinus Veekay, having crashed his No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet in the first 30 minutes of the seven-hour session, had already qualified inside the top-30 in his second attempt but made a gutsy decision in the final minutes.

He withdrew his time, which was already good for 29th, but then pulled out a four-lap average that placed him 11th and into the pole shootout. It was a bold decision because if he crashed again, or should there have been a mechanical failure, it would have left him without a time and forced him into Sunday’s Last Row Shootout.

Instead, one of the most prolific qualifiers of the past half-decade will have another shot at earning his first pole in five attempts.     

“Like I said earlier, it would be a really cool story, but I like boring stories more,” Veekay said.

What all needed to be replaced after his crash?

“Well, I know what not had to be replaced and it was basically the tub and the engine,” Veekay said. “Everything else kind of had to get swapped out. It was all spare parts, which it’s not ideal, but we made it happen, and it’s pretty awesome.”

Veekay also exited the car with a limp but shook it off, was released from infield care and expected to have lunch before returning to the paddock to cheer on his guys as they worked to get ready for one more shot to avoid the last row shootout.

To his surprise …

“I went to go have some lunch, and I came back, and the car was already pieced back together, and that’s an hour later,” Veekay said. “They did a really good job on getting it done early.

“We had two runs after the incident which usually you don’t expect the car to go out on the same day again, so that’s a great job by them. I know this team works quickly. They’ve done it several times. But to actually get the speed out of there was unexpected for most.”

Fast 12 Shootout Drivers

  • Will Power
  • Scott McLaughlin
  • Josef Newgarden
  • Alexander Rossi
  • Kyle Kirkwood
  • Kyle Larson
  • Felix Rosenqvist
  • Santino Ferrucci
  • Takuma Sato
  • Pato O’Ward
  • Rinus Veekay
  • Ryan Hunter Reay

Penske perfect but McLaren threatens

Just as they had done on Fast Friday, the final qualifying practice session before the weekend, Team Penske swept the top three spots on Saturday time trials with Will Power, Scott McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden in order.

“Yeah, it was a good smooth run,” Power said. “Obviously got an early draw, which helps. Would like to
have run in the heat, but Roger (Penske) didn’t want us to go out.

“We’ll do the practice tomorrow. I think (Alexander) Rossi is the one that could break up an all-Penske
front row, but I think one of us will get the pole, I hope. We put a lot of work in. All the cars are about the same speed and it’ll be about the run.”

Rossi was the best of three Arrow McLaren cars that made the Fast 12, alongside Kyle Larson and Pato O’Ward. There’s a lot for the papaya cars to feel optimistic about, right?

“Yeah, 100 percent,” said Rossi, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 back in 2016. “I think this place always presents new variables and new challenges but you have to be able to be adaptable, and we knew that
despite the performance in qualifying we had last year that we still had to make a step, and I still don’t think we’re all the way there yet.

“Obviously there’s three good cars in front of us still. But we’re chipping away at it, we’re getting there, and I have all the confidence in everyone that overnight we’ll be able to bring three cars and put our best foot forward.”

Rahal bumped … again

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star
Credit: Gary Mook/For IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

Veekay finished his run with just seconds remaining on the clock and it gave Graham Rahal one more shot to avoid falling into the Last Row Shootout for a second consecutive season.

It took just a lap for his Rahal Letterman Lanigan team to realize they didn’t have enough speed and that was that.

Indeed, for the second year in a row, Rahal is at risk of missing the show. Rahal was actually bumped from the Greatest Spectacle in Racing last year and only ended up starting the race due to an injury sustained to Stefan Wilson earlier in the day.

“I can say this, and I know a lot of you guys are probably sitting in (the media center) thinking I’m out of my mind, but we did make gains this year, it’s that simple,” Rahal said of getting bumped two years in a row. “If we had stayed static to where we were last year, we’d be in the 228s, based on where Ganassi is. We were five to six miles an hour off.

We’re not there anymore, but unfortunately a few things have happened, and the Chevys have stepped up their game. That’s factual.”

He also said he was hurt by his late qualifying draw but ultimately they have problems to overcome.

“We seemed to degrade as the day went on,” Rahal said. “We had to shorten our gears, which you shouldn’t have to do, but we couldn’t get it to accelerate otherwise. We couldn’t get the top speed out of the car. We reduced scrub.

“The second to last run was a really good, fairly neutral balance, for me at least, and it still is nowhere near quick enough.

“We go back tonight, we’ll look at all the componentry, we’ll try to make sure everything is in line and nothing is wearing itself out or anything like that, and that’s all we can do.

“Frankly, that’s all we can do. Honda today was great to us. I’ll say it time and time again. We did have an engine issue. That was factual. They borescope it, they asked us to remove it, but they made the decision quick. They didn’t leave us hanging. They’re a great partner in that regard, and we changed it as quick as we could, but you guys saw it; even with a new bullet, we went out and did the exact same speed.

“It just doesn’t line up. This has got to be something mechanically that’s holding us back, and unfortunately that takes a lot of work to find it.”

Last Row Shootout Drivers

On Sunday, one of these four drivers will be eliminated following one attempt at a four-lap qualifying average.

  • Graham Rahal
  • Katherine Legge
  • Marcus Ericsson
  • Nolan Siegel

Ericsson bumped

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star
Credit: Gary Mook/For IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

Another surprise, alongside Rahal, in the Last Row Shootout in 2022 winner Marcus Ericsson, who has just an awful experience this week as well.

He crashed his primary Andretti Global car in Thursday practice and then failed to escape the bottom four in Saturday time trials. His backup car did not have the speed as teammates Kyle Kirkwood and Colton Herta, whom qualified fifth and 13th, respectively.

“It’s tough, for sure,” Ericsson said. “You know, this place has very high, highs and very low lows and I think today was one of those, but I can only blame myself.

“I put ourselves in this position with my crash and the team has been amazing, rebuilding and a new car and working so hard all day to get me out for new runs.

“You sort of feel like you’re doing 234s [mph laps] but you’re doing 230s, and yeah, it’s quite tricky.”

He didn’t mince words about what the experience on Sunday would be like.

“I’m out there driving with a gun to my throat, it feels like – it’s really, really tough. It’s very, very low grip, it’s sliding on every run, trying to get everything out of it,” Ericsson said.

“It’s going to be high pressure tomorrow, but I’ve done this long enough to know how to deal with that. [My] mindset is to go out and fight and do my best. We still have some potential.”

Larson locks in

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star
Credit: Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK

Kyle Larson will race for the pole in his first ever attempt in making the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

It didn’t start out that triumphantly as Larson actually was forced to abort his first attempt, within the first 30 minutes minutes, as an plenum fire within his engine cost him a chance to turn laps in optimal conditions.

What that means, and more on this below, is a sudden ignition of fuel in the plenum gasket that occures during shifting, leading to a loss of power.

It was a common issue for several Chevrolet teams on Saturday.

It ultimately didn’t matter, however, as Larson still posted what amounted to the sixth fastest laps while in the heat of day.

“Happy with the balance of the car, proud of the team for all of us not freaking out after not getting to complete that first run,” Larson said afterward. “Just great to be in the show … An awesome opportunity and having a blast so far.”

Larson also said the aborted first run actually took some of the edge off his second.

“I feel like the nerves were a lot less going the second time, even without completing the first run, I just felt less nervous,” Larson said. “It’s just good to get a run in. I don’t ever get to qualify like that, where you get multiple shots at it … I felt much more comfortable there that last time.”

Larson’s teammate, Rossi, has known him for years and was not surprised by the comfort in qualifying an Indy car here.

“It’s been great, man,” Rossi said. “I’ve known Kyle for a lot of years now, both being from northern California, and I expected exactly this, quite honestly.

“Coming in as a rookie is a lot easier when you have really good equipment and good people around you. I had that benefit in 2016, so it makes that transition a lot easier.

“With his pedigree and everything he’s done across various disciplines, it’s not a surprise at all. In terms of working with him, it’s pretty straightforward because everything for him is just good.

“It’s like — it’s kind of weird. It’s like, ‘is anything ever bad?’ He’s like, ‘not yet.’ It’s like, ‘okay, sweet.’ But it’s awesome for Arrow McLaren to be a part of him attempting to do the double and everything that goes along with that, and just the association has been a very cool thing for all of us, and it’s an honor and a privilege to be his teammate.”

Plenum fires?

IndyCar: 108th Running of Indianapolis 500-Practice
Credit: IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

Both Jim Campbell, president of Chevrolet’s racing programs in North America, and Rob Buckner, General Motors IndyCar manager has a lot to sort out in advance of pole day on Sunday.

Starting with Chevrolet’s plenum fire, which affected Larson, Ed Carpenter, Christian Rasmussen, Connor Daly, O’Ward and Augustine Canapino.

Buckner detailed how even the slightest of errant shifts can lead to a plenum fire.

“These engines are being operated on a knife edge here this weekend, and we’re pushing for every bit of performance,” Buckner said. “So on top of the cylinder heads in the air inlet system of the engine is a plenum, and there’s some port fuel injectors up there, so while these engines are sustained high speed, that plenum is very full of fuel, and if we have any event over a downshift that can ignore that fuel, it ends up evaporating the plenum of its fuel air charge, temperatures rise rapidly, and it pretty much — to the driver it’s a perceived engine kill, and they vary in duration, they vary in severity.

“Unfortunately here today, the ones we had were very noticeable to the drivers. Anything around Indianapolis is very noticeable to the drivers. It pretty much scrapped those runs, which we really hate for all those drivers that we impacted their day.”

With that said, Buckner said it still should not have happened.

“Yeah, the only acceptable number is zero,” he said. “That’s the standard we try to push to. One is too many, so immediately when (Larson’s) event happened, we’re looking at ways to mitigate it, and unfortunately
throughout the afternoon, they were increasing in frequency.

“We don’t have a full understanding of why, but again, just full confidence in our technical group, our
partners at Ilmor, everyone at GM motorsports. We will figure it out, and we’ll learn from it, and we’ll come back with a better package.”

Campbell praised that nine of the Fast 12 were Chevrolets, and none in the Last Row Shootout, and that the plenum fires are both a byproduct of pushing the limit and a concern for teams chasing the pole on Sunday.

“As I said, we’re pushing as hard as we can, and we had about six plenum events … and so the good news is the engines, no harm to the engines,” Campbell said. “Engines are strong and great. So that’s good. We do — obviously have put those drivers at a deficit when they’ve been trying to make their fast four laps.

“The team, our team is going to work here overnight, running in dynos around — our dyno facilities around the world. We’re going to be running overnight, and then we’re working on ways to mitigate the issue and eliminate them.

“Obviously there’s some team strategy that will — as the ambient conditions are clear for tomorrow, we have the forecast, but as we get closer to it, there’s some decisions they can make, as well, so we’ll be working with them on that.

“That’s what I want to say. We’re pushing as hard as we can. This year we have nine out of the Fast 12. Last year, we had eight out of the Fast 12, but we did not get the pole last year, so we’re pushing to get to the pole.”

And when he says people will be working around the globe on this, he means it.

“Everybody,” Campbell said. “Everybody. We do have teams in different parts of the world that will be running dynos that we have access to around the world.

“So we’ll be running the dynos there, and then our team here will be pouring through all the data, all the data analysis is what you have to do. We’ve got to be ready to go tomorrow.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

Mentioned in this article:

More About: