Qualifying for the Indy 500 is the fastest, most frenzied and sometimes the scariest 10 miles in sports.
And for the NTT IndyCar Series drivers who have survived the white-knuckle terror of 240 mph at the end of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the straightaways, it can be four laps that take 3 minutes but feel like three years.
Tim Layden interviewed several IndyCar stars for a story and video feature (which you can watch above or by clicking here) about qualifying for the 107th Indy 500 this weekend as drivers prepare to go fast, turn left and hang on around the 2.5-mile oval.
HOW TO WATCH INDY 500 QUALIFYING: Full weekend schedule, details
“I don’t think there’s anything like qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, just the intensity level,” said Scott Dixon, who is bidding to become the first driver to win three consecutive Indy 500 pole positions. “As an event, it’s something that everybody kind of puts a spotlight on.”
With 34 cars entered this year, at least one driver will suffer the disappointment of being bumped (which happened to a two-time Formula One champion in 2019).
“Qualifying at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the most intense moment you can get in a race car,” defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson said. “To do like 230 mph average? Yeah, it’s mind-blowing. The intensity and the adrenaline you get from doing qualifying, it’s hard to get anywhere else.”
Here’s a selection of what several IndyCar driver told Layden about Indy 500 qualifying:
Dixon: “Personally as a driver, I think it’s the most intense, most stressful four laps of anything. You don’t really do practice in the morning, so the first laps are those four laps that you do on that day most of the time. And you’re going into Turn 1 almost 250 mph, and you’re hoping it’ll come out the other side. So the stress level is through the roof, especially on days where the weather conditions are tricky, but it’s super intense, but also super rewarding.
“We start qualifying preparation pretty much after the Indy 500 the previous year, and trying to make the most of it and how we can improve. Because you’re never looking for four or five or six big things. It’s hundreds of small details that maybe you saw another team do, or something that we think that we could do a little bit better, or the cooling process of the car.
“The goal is to win the race, but I think to win the pole and to lead the field of 33 is for me was an amazing achievement. I’ve been lucky enough to do it five times. … The feeling generally for me is a lot of butterflies, very nervous. There’s a lot on the line and you don’t want to crash the car, but you want to push it to the limits, and you want to make the most of that run you have. And especially in the first one because it may lock you into progressing further on. So for me, it’s super intense. The cars are fairly complicated now with weight jackers, and mixture settings, and roll bar settings, and a load of different things. So I think it’s just making sure that you know what you got to do, go in prepared, but you’re nervous as hell, man.”
Colton Herta: “Qualifying is such a hustle here. You’re holding onto the car for four laps at over 240 mph. It is probably some of the most difficult conditions that we are put in as drivers. And if your car isn’t perfect, it is the hardest thing to do in our sport. When the car is all good and dandy, it’s still one of the hardest things to do in our sport.
“It’s an amazing experience. It’s hard to describe what it’s like going that fast.”
Tony Kanaan: “It’s a very lonely moment. You’re part of the car, the car is part of you and you’re there to do one job, which is the four hardest, fastest laps. The most precise of your life. So, it’s a very unique moment, very special. It’s thrilling. It’s addicting. You want to do it all over again. Like right before qualifying, when you go through the line, if somebody will give you an option (that) ‘You can leave right now,’ you probably would because you’re nervous, and you don’t want to do it. But then once you start the engine and they send you out, you’re like, ‘All right, game on.’ That is addicting. I would qualify every day here if I could. The sensation of speed, how close you get to the wall, how low you get to below the white line and all the corners. It’s something that I’m not sure I’m doing a fair justice to try to explain to you guys.”
Simon Pagenaud: “Pole position day is something else. It raises your hair on your arms. You are in an arena, and everybody’s like lions, and when I talk about lions, I’m talking about the drivers. You’re out there to kill. You’re out there to go fast and only go as fast as you can do it and not really think about any consequence. Wind conditions don’t matter at that point. You cannot forget about anything else and you just focus on one goal, which is to be the fastest. It’s a thrilling exercise, but it’s a daring exercise. It’s like being a daredevil.
“To me, qualifying you go as hard as possible. I don’t think you ever lift. If you lift, you know you’re not going to be on the pole and it’s a failure. You want to start on the front because it’s Indianapolis and only first place matters here. Second doesn’t matter at all. So to me, when it comes to qualifying day, it’s about giving it everything, it’s a one-off. There’s nothing else that matters at that point. It’s staying full throttle. You know what you’ve got underneath you, you’ve got to trust it even if you don’t know and that’s when you just going to unplug the brain and just do it.
“Qualifying in Indy to me is it’s the most stressful moment of your life. It’s stressful but also enjoyable in many ways, but you enjoy it after you’ve done it, not during because it’s such a difficult exercise that you know you could crash at any moment. You could lose it, you know you can be a hero, but you can be a zero really easily. It’s just a very anxious, stressful, exciting, thrilling day.”
Alexander Rossi: “Qualifying at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indy 500 is one of the most extreme things that I think you’ll do in motorsports. And certainly, it’s the most difficult qualifying session that you could ever participate in because the first laps usually (are) pretty easy, the second lap still fairly easy, the third lap gets challenging, and the fourth lap is borderline impossible. Because if you’re easy flat for four laps, then you carry too much downforce and thus drag. If you’re lifting, you’re obviously not going to be competitive, so it’s finding that balance of how much you can get away with, and it really changes based on ambient conditions, wind, track temp, so it’s a very hard thing to get absolutely perfect.
“It’s hypercritical to get everything just right because at Indy, every small decision that you make has a compounding effect. And as soon as you make one small mistake in any of those laps, in any of those corners, it’s impossible to recover because it’s a momentum game, in a lot of respects. So that even plays a role in shifting. Every time you shift, you’re losing time. So you got to play that game of how much limiter is the right amount of limiter, and the team can’t tell you that live because the data doesn’t transfer that quickly. So you got to make that decision based on a gut instinct and a feel. So it’s a lot to think about in what ultimately, is three minutes, but it’s also a lot of fun.”