Why Pole Day at Indianapolis is still one of racing’s greatest days

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So, you’re wondering if Indianapolis 500 Pole Day still registers? Let me explain the ways it does.

  • Pole at Indy gets you a week’s worth of media attention and spotlight usually reserved only for race winners. In some respects, pole at Indy gets more attention than some race wins over the course of the season.
  • The format has changed to where you need to register not one, but at least two perfect runs to score the pole position.
  • Every starting position pays points, which could make the difference at the end of the season.
  • It’s the toughest 4 laps and 2 minutes, 40 seconds an IndyCar driver will do all year.

Here’s what you can see, with qualifying on Saturday on the NBC Sports Network at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. ET, and Sunday at noon ET. Qualifying will also be live streamed both days on NBC Sports Live Extra for mobile devices.

The build-up to Pole Day at Indy has been reduced in recent years, but come today, it’s all out preparation. One day of dialing in qualifying setups, thanks to the extra boost provided by IndyCar to the two engine manufacturers, will see the field truly “on it” for the first time all week.

The format of qualifying has evolved from where each car only had three attempts total for the month, to having multiple attempts per day. That may make it seem like there’s less pressure in that if you screw up, you have more chances to redeem yourself. But what it can do is amplify the pressure because you can take multiple shots at the pole, if you and the team so desire.

Qualifying begins Saturday morning and after several hours, the top 24 on the grid will be set and the fastest nine advance to a 90-minute shootout. There, all nine cars will have at least one attempt for the pole, slotted from slowest to fastest. And once they’re all through, if anyone cares to have a crack at P1, they can go for it.

And to explain the magnitude, again, of an Indy pole, look no further than last year’s polesitter, Ryan Briscoe. Briscoe almost certainly earned more attention on a national level for taking the pole here than he did for winning the race at Sonoma at August, which strangely, marks the last race a Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing-entered car won in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Briscoe should be among those with a chance on Saturday. He has the motivation of wanting to beat Penske, his former team, as he’s back in the Ganassi stable this month.

But when you factor in the quintet of Andretti Autosport drivers, the veterans from Penske and Ganassi, the rising stars of the sport like Takuma Sato, JR Hildebrand and Josef Newgarden or veterans like Tony Kanaan, Alex Tagliani and Oriol Servia, you suddenly have anywhere from 15 to 20 drivers who could contend for the fast nine. And from there, you have to boil it down even further to find a possible polesitter.

There are no guarantees. But there is prestige for whoever secures the top spot.

Rick Mears is perhaps the Speedway’s greatest master. He’s one of three four-time race winners, and a legend alone in qualifying as the only driver in history with six poles. In an interview he did with the IMS website in 2011 for its list of “The Greatest 33” in Indy history, he explained the magnitude of pole at Indianapolis.

“Qualifying at Indy is the pressure cooker of anything I’ve ever done,” he said at the time. “The race is 500 miles to get it sorted. But qualifying is intense – that is, if you’re in the hunt. You have to run four laps – not just the best of two. You’ve got four laps and there’s no doing it over. If you blow one corner, you’ve blown all four laps. That’s the pressure cooker, but I loved it. It’s the most pressure but the most fun. In the race, you just see what you have and then dial it from there.”

Mears is a champion, a gentleman, and perhaps the greatest sage when it comes to those four laps on Pole Day. Nail it right this year, and you’ll be entered into history among the greats on Saturday at Indianapolis.

NBC Sports Network’s Indy 500 Qualifying Coverage (subject to change, all times ET):

Date Coverage Time Commentators
Sat., May 18 Qualifying 11 a.m. Leigh Diffey, Gil de Ferran, Jon Beekhuis, Kevin Lee, Marty Snider, Robin Miller, Will Buxton
Sat., May 18 Qualifying 4:30 p.m. Leigh Diffey, Gil de Ferran, Jon Beekhuis, Kevin Lee, Marty Snider, Robin Miller, Will Buxton
Sun., May 19 Qualifying Noon Leigh Diffey, Gil de Ferran, Jon Beekhuis, Kevin Lee, Marty Snider, Robin Miller, Will Buxton

Michael Andretti looking forward to new Australian Supercars venture

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If it seems like Michael Andretti is out to conquer the world, he is – kind of.

The former IndyCar star turned prolific team owner has won three of the last four Indianapolis 500s and five overall, second only to Roger Penske’s 16 Indy 500 triumphs.

Along the way, in addition to expanding his own IndyCar and Indy Lights operation, the son of Mario Andretti and the primary shareholder of Andretti Autosport has also branched out into Global RallyCross and Formula E racing in recent years.

And now, Andretti has further expanded his brand internationally, following Penske to the world down under — as in the world of Australian V8 Supercars.

Andretti has teamed with Supercars team owner Ryan Walkinshaw, along with veteran motorsports marketer and executive director of McLaren Technology Group and United Autosports owner and chairman, Zak Brown.

Together, the three have formed Walkinshaw Andretti United, based in suburban Melbourne, Australia. The new team kicks off the new season with the Adelaide 500 from March 1-4.

“It’s just extending our brand and putting it out there,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “The Supercars are such a great series.

“It all started with Zach Brown calling me and said ‘You have to talk to Ryan Walkinshaw. He’s got something interesting to talk to you about.’

“We talked and literally in like a half-hour, we said, ‘Let’s figure out how we’re going to make this work.’ And then Zack was like, ‘Hey, what about me?’ And then Zack came in as a partner and it’s cool now that we have the Walkinshaw Andretti United team.

“I’m really excited about that program, the guys at the shop are excited about it, we’ve been doing a lot of things to try and help it because it’s such a cool series and the cars are so cool.

“I went down there to Bathurst, which was to me one of the coolest tracks in the world. I wish I could have driven it, I really do. It looks like a blast.

“It’s amazing how big that series is when you go down there. It’s one of the biggest sports in Australia. It was just a great opportunity for us to extend our portfolio.”

Admittedly, Andretti had some extra incentive to want to get involved in the Supercars world: Penske joined forces with legendary Dick Johnson Racing in September 2014.

The organization came together quickly and the rebranded DJR Team Penske went on to win the 2017 V8 Supercars championship.

“Roger was down there the last few years,” Andretti said, adding that fact as incentive to get his own organization into the series. “So it’s cool to go race head-to-head with Roger. That was also in the back of our minds.”

This is no start-up venture for Andretti. The roots of the new venture began in 1990 as the Holden Racing Team, which went on to become one of the most successful organizations in Australian V8 Supercar racing, having won the drivers’ championship six times and the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship’s top race, the Bathurst 1000 (essentially Australia’s version of the Indy 500), seven times.

Last season, Holden Racing team morphed into Triple Eight Race Engineering and was renamed Mobil 1 HSV Racing.

And now the company has been renamed once again for the 2018 campaign under the Walkinshaw Andretti United banner.

The team will be composed of two Holden ZB Commodores with drivers James Courtney and Scott Pye, as well as a Porsche 911 GT3-R in the Australian GT championship.

What’s next for Andretti’s motorsports portfolio? Right now, it’s pretty full, but you can bet running for championships from Australia (Supercars) to globally (GRC) to Indianapolis (Indy 500) to the U.S. (Verizon IndyCar Series) are at the top of this year’s list.