How crazy was it today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
The exciting conclusion to the first day of qualifying for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil had quadriplegic team co-owner Sam Schmidt cracking jokes about doing a rain dance in his wheelchair for Sunday.
A sick joke? Not at the end of what Schmidt proudly proclaimed “a damn good day.” Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver James Hinchcliffe, who nearly died in a practice crash at Indy last year, qualified first for Sunday’s Fast Nine Shootout during later-than-usual qualifying drama from 6-7 p.m. ET, then teammate Mikhail Aleshin forced his way into the seventh spot with the final four-lap run.
“What?” Schmidt said, moving the wheelchair. “I can dance in this thing.”
Hinchcliffe, just 17th on the no-tow list the day before, was upset with himself after his first run, a 228.959 mph average that wasn’t good enough. As cars filed into line in anticipation of the continual shuffling that would transpire with the benefit of cooler, late-afternoon conditions, Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda rolled off the line a second time at 6:24 p.m. and turned a four-lap average of 230.946 mph.
“Yeah, we made up for it, for sure,” the Canadian said after climbing out of his car. “The first run, I made some mistakes on my shift pattern.”
But Hinchcliffe reminded the drivers have to grip the steering wheels tight yet again on Sunday. The Fast Nine Shootout to decide the pole is from 5-5:45 p.m.
“Being fastest doesn’t really mean anything or pay anything (Saturday), but it’s certainly a nice cherry on top,” he said.
The driver who almost knocked Hinchcliffe from the P1 spot on the scoring pylon was Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay. The 2014 Indy 500 winner went out just before Aleshin at 6:55 p.m. and just missed the top spot at 230.805 mph.
“It’s good to see Hinch up there at the top of the leaderboard after all he’s gone through,” Hunter-Reay said. “I was there at the first test when he got back in the car at Road America (last September). I was blown away that he was right on the pace, right out of the box.
“Absolute first-class guy, great race car driver, it’s great to see him up there. Hopefully (Sunday), though, he’s saying the same about me and we’re better than him. We’ll see.”
Beccy Hunter-Reay had the “privilege” of playing frazzled spouse as her husband went out near the end. “This has been so stressful,” she said.
After Hunter-Reay removed his protective balaclava from his head, he told reporters, “That’s enough fun for one day.”
Team Penske’s Will Power, third fastest for the day, considered it “the hardest qualifying I’ve ever done in this place,” and added, “it’s fun, but not good for the heart.”
Helio Castroneves, a three-time Indy 500 winner, initially bounced his way to the top spot at 6:14 p.m.
“I stopped breathing,” the Brazilian said. “I actually stopped breathing from the first lap.
“I don’t know if it will stand, but I tell you what, that was the best I could do.”
It didn’t stand. Castroneves eventually dropped to fourth in the pecking order, not that it matters except for the fact that the drivers will run for the pole in the reverse order of how they qualified today.
If anyone didn’t mind the idea of more drama, it was Aleshin, who was bumped from the top nine two times before succeeding his third time.
“That’s racing, you know?” Aleshin said, “especially qualifying for the Indy 500 because you need to do four laps and you’re holding on for those four laps.”