INDIANAPOLIS – The world’s most famous racetrack always has rewarded a sublime mix of bravery, experience and skill.
But this week’s IndyCar practice sessions have been a good reminder that sometimes even having all three in abundance still isn’t enough to tame Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Just ask Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 winner of the Indianapolis 500 and 2012 NTT IndyCar Series champion who had a major wiggle Friday before he managed to save his No. 28 Dallara-Honda from becoming the latest victim claimed during a particularly treacherous four-day stretch on the intimidating 2.5-mile oval.
“I’ve got to go change my underwear real quick,” Hunter-Reay told NBCSN’s Marty Snider during the “Fast Friday” practice session. “That was close to writing the car off, no doubt. Yeah, I got away with one there.”
“You just have to put it aside and trust it’s not going to happen again,” he said. “You’ve got to have faith.”
There will 36 IndyCar drivers trying to put aside some uneasy feelings and bad memories to claim one of 33 spots in the 103rd Running of the Indy 500 while ignoring a rather daunting question.
After four consecutive days of harrowing moments and violent crashes (and two cars briefly getting airborne), how much hairier will it be while pushing the limits at 230 mph for four consecutive laps Saturday and Sunday?
“We’re going to earn our money,” Marco Andretti said after ranking second Friday with a 230.851 mph lap.
The No. 25 Honda of his Andretti Autosport teammate Conor Daly topped the speed chart Friday, followed by the Honda of 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato. The top Chevrolet was Spencer Pigot (230.755) in fourth, but it’s expected that Chevys will have an advantage in qualifying.
“Certainly interesting to see what’s going to happen,” said Daly, who also will have the advantage of making the first attempt when qualifying begins at 11 a.m. Saturday (presumably under cooler conditions). “Everyone is closer than we expected, manufacturer-wise. There are some little differences there for sure, but the Honda guys are working super hard step by step make it go as fast as possible.”
In the search for speed, rookies and inexperienced drivers predictably have suffered the most this week.
Kyle Kaiser and Fernando Alonso, both of whom are making their second Indy 500 starts, also crashed and put their teams behind. Juncos Racing is scrambling to have a backup ready for Kaiser to qualify Saturday, while McLaren Racing lost Thursday’s practice before putting Alonso back on track Friday for the 24th-fastest speed (229.328).
But there have been several veterans – namely Hunter-Reay — who also have seemed spooked by one of racing’s most treacherous tracks, particularly with Friday’s boost of 50 horsepower.
Sage Karam, who aims to make his sixth start in the Indy 500, was flummoxed by the performance of his No. 24 Dallara-Chevrolet.
“This definitely is the most difficult year for difficulty in traffic,” the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing driver said. “It’s really hard to drive. It’s 100 percent grip one second, and boom, it goes away. It’s just not consistent. It’s a really tricky car this year.
“My main concern is getting in the show. I’ve got to figure something out.”
Karam was 32nd on the list of non-tow speeds, which can be the most indicative of the single-car conditions of qualifying (which is unaffected by drafting and traffic).
Among the others who could be in trouble are Rosenqvist (26th) and Alonso, who is 30th. The two-time Formula One champion admitted he had concerns about qualifying after making 77 laps Friday.
“It’s the same for everybody,” he said. “Surprises can happen. Hopefully tomorrow we are a good surprise.”
The two-fastest non-tow laps were turned by the Chevys of teammates Ed Jones and Ed Carpenter, whose Ed Carpenter Racing car has won the Indy 500 pole in three of the past six seasons.
Alexander Rossi (who finished fourth in last year’s Indy 500 after qualifying a disappointing 32nd) was third fastest on the non-tow speed chart, and the No. 27 Honda driver is expecting that temperature fluctuations over the weekend will have major impacts on speed.
“I think it’s the most weather-sensitive track we go to just because the margins are so small, and everything is already kind of on such a knife edge,” Rossi told Snider on the NBC Sports Gold broadcast. “You have 5 degrees of track temperature, and it makes a difference on the car.
“Just trying to have a full arsenal of stuff because we know how important qualifying is going to be.”
Many drivers were anxious about the qualifying draw that was conducted early Friday evening. Though there are unlimited attempts at qualifying, those making their first attempts in late morning and early afternoon are likely to have much conditions conducive to faster speeds.
“When you will do the run is going to be a big factor if it’s a hot day,” Alonso said. “So yeah, if we are in the wrong moment of the day, which it seems that the luck will put us in that moment this week … ”
Rosenqvist also will be seeking to change his fortunes. The Indy 500 would mark the first career oval race for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who admitted Friday he is adapting to the mental challenge of navigating Indy.
“It is a very tricky place,” Rosenqvist said “It can just bite you really hard, no matter how slowly you go through it, the limit is the limit. It’s a tricky place.
“Almost like the length of the whole thing makes it even harder because if you feel comfortable, maybe you tend to just stop there and not continue to work. If you don’t feel good, you know there’s a panic to get quicker. … It’s probably more mental than anything else I’ve done or any other race I’ve done.”