Indy 500 drivers, get set for 'the scariest 10 miles of your life'

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Reigning Indianapolis 500 pole sitter James Hinchcliffe has described qualifying for the epic race as “the scariest 10 miles of your life.”

Two-time Indy 500 pole sitter Ed Carpenter prefers a different adjective to describe what it could be like to complete four 2.5-mile laps at around 230 mph during qualifying weekend for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“I would call it stressful more than scary,” Carpenter said Friday. “When the car is right, it’s not that scary. But there’s definitely a lot of anxiety this weekend. There’s a ton of nervous energy. And, yeah, it can be downright scary when your car is not good.”

The most qualified expert on the subject is Team Penske driver coach Rick Mears, who sat on the Indy 500 pole a record six times and cemented his Hall of Fame legacy with four visits to Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s victory lane. The extreme demands of qualifying today, Mears said, are the same as when he was driving back in the early 1990s.

“It's how do I get through that corner faster than everybody else?” Mears said. “And to get that, you've got to get all four (tire) footprints on the ground working the best they can, get the thing turned out as best you can, get it up on its tiptoes.

“If it's sitting down solid on the track, to me, there's more left on the table. You have to get it up on tiptoes, up on the right rear, freed up and hold your breath. And if you can hold your breath a little longer than the other guys and make it out the other side, you're fortunate, you've done your job.”

Easy, huh?

Hinchcliffe recently said he experiences an elevated heart rate while sitting in his car before attempting a qualifying run.

“I’m stressed just talking about it,” Hinchcliffe said.

The Canadian, who returns in his familiar No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda for the first day of qualifying today, is among a lengthy list of usual suspects for pole as 33 drivers look to secure their spots in the field. One four-lap run secures a position. Drivers can make multiple attempts to qualify for the pole-deciding Fast Nine Shootout at 5 p.m. ET Sunday.

Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves has won this pole four times, most recently in 2010. He quotes Mears in saying there are two kinds of races for this event, the actual 500 and Pole Day.

“And the pole day, to be honest, it’s thrilling,” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet. “You put 33 drivers running to the limit. We're talking about knife edge. We're going through four corners for four laps and absolutely doing everything you can to hang onto the last lap, or the last two laps, basically, because you're running so low downforce.”

One year after Hinchcliffe was seriously injured in a practice crash at IMS, he returned in 2016 to celebrate the first pole of his career and second in the Indy 500 for team co-owner Sam Schmidt, who first enjoyed the achievement with Alex Tagliani in 2011.

Before putting last year’s pole run in perspective, Schmidt reviews past team accomplishments, which includes finishing in the top five in Verizon IndyCar Series points with Simon Pagenaud in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

“But last year truly ranks up there as one of the most special moments as a team owner simply because what Hinchcliffe had been through the previous year, what the team had been through with multiple replacement drivers while waiting for him to come back, then to peak at Indy,” Schmidt said. “The only thing that could have beat it was to go on and win the race.”

Hinchcliffe finished seventh last year, one position back of his career-best sixth in 2012, when he was with Andretti Autosport.

Although he’s celebrated five race wins in seven seasons, including the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April, the Indy 500 pole is still the only one of Hinchcliffe’s series career.

“It was a great team effort moment and very special in my heart,” Schmidt said. “When you lay it out and break it down to the raw fact that, after those 10 miles, he got the pole position by less than 10 feet, it’s pretty incredible.”

The first day of qualifying takes place from 11 a.m.-5:50 p.m. today. Coverage is available from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on WatchESPN and from 4-6 p.m. on ABC.

The nine fastest drivers are locked into the Fast Nine Shootout for the pole at 5 p.m. Sunday. The remaining 24 drivers will re-qualify for spots 10 through 33 from 2:45-5:45 p.m. Sunday. Sunday’s coverage airs from 2:30-4 p.m. on WatchESPN and 4-6 p.m. on ABC.

Visit IMS.com to purchase tickets for the 101st Indianapolis 500.

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