Special to the Tribune-Star
In the words of Al Unser Jr. as he stood in the winners circle in 1992, “You just don’t know what Indy means.”
At the culmination of the Centennial Celebration today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one more will know.
Almost fittingly, this May has been a throwback to years past when it was all about David versus Goliath, mNew names Alex Tagliani and Sam Schmidt have emerged as players while old names Helio Castroneves and Michael Andretti have struggled.
Tagliani, driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, sits on the Centennial pole. It was no fluke, nor accident, but determination.
“You know, it’s just like we all know what’s at stake. We want this team to succeed. We don’t put our sweat, our tears, our effort just to come here and parade and just say we’re part of the Indy 500 or we’re just going to compete in IndyCar.”
This is Schmidt’s first year as a full-time team in the IZOD IndyCar Series, but has long been a powerhouse team in the Firestone Indy Lights support series. Schmidt began his career as a driver, but survived a devastating test crash in Orlando in 2000 that left him a quadriplegic. His passion for the sport equals that of Tagliani’s.
“I’m rarely at a loss for words, but this has been difficult ever since it happened to put it into words,” said Schmidt. “Whether it’s the 100th anniversary, whether it’s the adversity that this team has overcome and Alex has overcome personally, whatever, I mean, it’s just really, really large.”
Of the four former winners starting in the first three rows, only Target Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti are full-time series contenders. Dixon starts second in his ninth Indy 500. “I think it will make the race fantastic. You’re going to see some good cars coming from a little further back and maybe some cars that haven’t concentrated on race setup too much slip up.”
Teammate Franchitti starts in ninth, after running out of fuel in the pole qualifying session.
Dan Wheldon, winner in 2005, is running a limited schedule with Bryan Herta Motorsports in collaboration with Schmidt. This is the team’s first effort for the season and possibly could be the only race. He starts sixth carrying the historic number 98 of Parnelli Jones on his car. Herta and Wheldon were teammates with Andretti-Green when Wheldon won in ’05. Now Herta is the boss, but the respect remains.
“He is a man of his word, which is very rare these days. I had some good opportunities for this race. When I spoke to Bryan, I said ‘Bryan, you know how important this race is to me. It’s potentially my only race that I’m going to do all year; can you give me a fast enough race car?’ And he said, ‘I’ll absolutely make sure that you have one.’ ”
Buddy Rice joined Panther Racing for a one-race deal. The 2004 winner will start on the inside of row three. He shot down the idea that Panther has limited resources for a second team.
“I think their track record speaks for itself,” Rice said. “They finished second here the last three years. The bar gets set high with both Penske and Ganassi. That’s what everybody looks at. But as you can see, I think that everybody has had these cars for so long, everybody is creeping up and there’s only so much you can keep going on the same car, so it’s allowing everybody to catch up.”
Townsend Bell is another one-race deal. He also is running for Schmidt Motorsports. Bell qualified fourth for his fifth Indy 500. “It’s pretty impressive when you look at the organization that Sam has and the amount of things that he has going on, and to still produce the quality that he’s given us here is exceptional. If this is the only race I do this year -- maybe I’ll do more, I never know. But you just savor every minute you’re at this wonderful speedway and driving cars fast and all of that good stuff. I just savor it.”
One other surprise team starts in the second best slot of them all. Oriol Servia for Newman-Haas sat on the pole until Dixon ousted him, but he’s ready for his third Indy with his third team. “It just feels great, especially after a year without racing last year. “It just seems like people have appreciated me walking around last year and trying to find a deal right and left, and it’s just great.”
Only one Team Penske driver is in the top nine. Will Power will start fifth. The current point’s leader is not terribly concerned about not having teammates nearby.
“At the end of the day we’re all aiming for the same thing.” He said it is more about choosing the right strategy.
Castroneves will start from his worst starting position ever, 16th, while Ryan Briscoe will start 27th.
Four women will make the historic start this year. Joining Danica Patrick in her seventh Indy start is rookie Pippa Mann, Ana Beatriz and Simona De Silvestro.
Silvestro is starting 24th, the highest of the four, but had to overcome a horrendous crash, burnt hands and a few demons to get the job done.
“I don’t need this. It’s way too dangerous,” she said. “And then you suck it up.”
Silvestro was especially grateful for the support of the fans.
“They’ve really lifted me up,” she emphasized. “Because of them, I really want to do something well here.”
For all of the lap times, small teams, large teams and starting positions, the Indianapolis 500 has a life all her own. Tony Kanaan said he greets and talks to her every day he is here.
“The track is alive,” he explained. “The track talks to me.”
IMS president Jeff Belskus calls the Indianapolis 500 an “iconic event that transcends all sports.”
IZOD IndyCar Series president Randy Bernard watched his very first Indy 500 just last year.
“The passion that the fans have, the purists and the traditionalists, IndyCar means everything to them,” he said. “This race is a staple in America. It is more than just an event. It’s a fabric of Indiana. It’s a fabric of motorsports.”
Bernard added that if asked about their remembrance of Memorable Day weekend, most will say “the Indy 500.”