IndyCar Open Wheel

EMBURY: Pace Predictions Exceeded On Wild Pole Day

In what will be the final month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Dallara DW12 chassis in its present form, Sunday’s Pole Day for the 101st Indianapolis 500 saw many unique moments.

From all-out pace to white-knuckle moments near the SAFER barriers, several notable occurrences were laid down in both the consolation phase and the Firestone Fast Nine that followed. Among them were bizarre speed postings.

In the battle for the tenth position, Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay recovered from a discouraging effort on Saturday to post at the time, the fastest four-lap attempt since Helio Castroneves’ 231.725 MPH output in 2003. With no one showing the ability to reach the high 231 range, the 2014 Indy 500 champion displayed the potential to be the first fast qualifier not to win the pole since Kenny Brack did so in 2005.

Although the sight was outstanding, the nine finalists for the Verizon P1 Award had many aces yet to put down. Defending Indy 500 champion Alexander Rossi bested his Andretti teammate with a run just under 231.5 MPH. While the NAPA Auto Parts Honda pilot was stout, even the second-year IndyCar star had to do at least a double take when Chip Ganassi Racing entrant Scott Dixon took to the 2.5-mile oval.

Despite facing ever-increasing track temperatures and wind gusts, the Iceman managed to break into realms that had not even been considered for two decades. The two-time Indy pole-sitter ripped off an opening stanza at an unbelievable 232.595 MPH, the fastest single pass since 1996. He even pulled off three encore laps to average 232.164 MPH, also unheard of numbers dating back two decades. With the New Zealander all but assured his third $100,000 pole-winning payout, Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato and owner-driver Ed Carpenter took their shots.

While both performers put up one 232 MPH lap, neither could maintain the close margins that the Kiwi did. Still, with 2017 time trials at the Brickyard concluded, here are some notable facts from this remarkable day.

-The front row of Scott Dixon, Ed Carpenter, and Alexander Rossi is the second-fastest front row in race history. Only the 1996 qualified top-three of Scott Brayton, Tony Stewart, and Davy Jones was faster (Brayton was tragically killed in a practice a week after Pole Day, and Stewart started from P1 on race day).

-Dixon’s 232.164 MPH pole time is the third-fastest top spot earning run in history. Only Roberto Guerrero in 1992 (232.482) and Scott Brayton in 1996 (233.718) were quicker.

-Six of the 33 starters for the 101st edition of this event posted a four-lap run over 231 MPH, that is the most since the edition mentioned above when nine drivers eclipsed this barrier.

-Fifteen qualifiers posted 230 MPH averages, while four others also ran at least one lap over 230 on Pole Day, both are month of May records.

-Dixon’s P1 effort also puts him second behind Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves among active Indy 500 drivers in total top starting spots claimed. The Brazilian has four, while Rick Mears leads the list all-time with six.

-With the tremendous speed explosion, the outer walls managed to snatch multiple drivers on Sunday. Despite the warning shot fired followed Sebastien Bourdais’ massive shunt in turn two during pre-qualifying, at least seven hit or brushed the barriers on Sunday, yet all were able to complete their attempts in full.

Following Sunday’s closest surge to Arie Luyendyk’s track record runs, the anticipation toward 2018 and the new car designs may be at an all-time summit.


The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

IndyCar Open Wheel

Indy 500 Memories: No Ride To Victory Lane

The 1987 Indianapolis 500 was an upset win, but not concerning the talent the eventual winner possessed.

Sure, Al Unser, Sr. had won at the Brickyard three times, but 30 years ago things were different. Despite winning the CART Championship in 1985, Roger Penske released Big Al after the 1986 season. With Unser out, the Captain filled his seat with veteran Danny Ongais. In addition to the inclusion of the Flyin’ Hawaiian, the squad chose to run its own chassis, the Penske PC-16. The in-house design coupled with a developing Chevrolet-Ilmor engine were off the pace when practice open.

One driver that figured out the new GM power plant is Newman-Haas Racing’s Mario Andretti. The 1969 winner is fast during the opening week and easily snatched the pole position.

Unable to post a competitive time with his own car, Roger Penske reverts to the familiar March chassis. Rick Mears immediately joins the chase upfront and qualifies on the outside of the front row. After a slow four-lap average with the PC-16, Sullivan also moves to the March and posts a safer speed. Ongais however, is unable to join in the party. The veteran crashes two days before Pole Day and suffers a concussion with doctors not clearing him to participate for the rest of the month.

With one place in his operation open, Penske calls on Unser, who has been on the sidelines for the first week supporting his son’s effort at Shierson Racing.

“Penske called me if I would run the car and I said, Heck yes, Unser told IMS Productions. “I didn’t have to take a second guess about it because that is a team capable of winning.”

Even the team owner understood the reasoning behind the three-time champion’s decision to wait for the best opportunity.

“The thing about Unser was he wasn’t going to drive anything that was not a decent car,” said Penske. “He would certainly be the first guy you would call.”

With the deal in place, there was still a problem  what car would Unser drive? Ongais had destroyed the PC-16, and the organization was low on Chevy engines. Penske did have access to another year-old March chassis that was equipped with a Cosworth engine, which was being utilized as a show car, on display in the lobby of a Sheraton hotel in Pennsylvania. After retrieving the machine and bringing it to Indianapolis, Unser qualified solidly on the second weekend in 20th.

Unser’s shot to win his fourth Indy 500 still seemed like a long shot when the green flag flew on race day, especially with the way Andretti was running. The No. 5 Hanna Auto Wash Chevrolet crushed the competition through the first 450 miles, leading 170 circuits and building a one-lap advantage on second-place Roberto Guerrero. As attrition began to eliminate the rest of the field, Unser quietly became a factor running a solid third.

Suddenly, Andretti’s car slowed to a halt with electrical problems ending his quest for a second Indy win. Guerrero took over first, but the Colombian required a splash of fuel to make the finish. When the Vince Granatelli Racing pilot completed his pit stop, he stalled out. and for a moment the No. 4 True Value Cosworth laid stranded on the pit lane with his crew not realizing the situation.

The two mishaps in only four laps  vaulted Big Al to the number one position with just 18 laps to go. Even a late caution period could not prevent the No. 25 Hertz Special from reaching the checkered flag first. Guerrero recovered from his pit road malady to take runner-up honors, while Italian newcomer Fabrizio Barbazza finished third to secure Rookie of the Year.

The victory allowed Unser to join A.J. Foyt as a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, a feat that would be repeated in 1991 when his Penske teammate Rick Mears outlasted Michael Andretti to win from the pole position.

“It’s nice to be able to win four, and I’m very grateful (of that),” said Unser. “(Indy) is hard, it has a finesse to it to where there are many excuses for being unable to win it, you are lucky to be able to win it once.”

Stay tuned to POPULAR SPEED during the month of May for more memories on the road to the 101st Indianapolis 500.


The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

IndyCar Open Wheel

Spotter 101: Breaking Down Their Role

Keeping drivers safe is paramount in motorsports. It is so easy to become numb of the danger faced every time he or she climbs in the cockpit. And that is why there are spotters located in a high vantage point above the track and in radio communication to warn of any hazards.    

The Verizon IndyCar Series mandates spotters for each driver on every oval track during all sessions. At the Phoenix one-mile oval, they are located on top of the grandstands and suites in Turn 1. For the 2.5-mile oval at Indianapolis, two spotters are required, perched at the top of Turn 1 and Turn 3, allowing each to see about half the track.

The driver cannot see outside the car right beside him, or what’s happening behind, even with rearview mirrors. Sitting low in the car, they cannot see who is overtaking them until that driver is ahead of their cockpit. Quite often you will hear on the radio, “inside,” “outside,” “clear,” “looking,” and “coming to you.” Those commands depict when a car is setting up for a pass, which side the pass is on, and when they are no longer close enough to be a concern.

“The spotter’s job is to let the driver know what’s going on around him,” said Rick Mears, who serves as Helio Castroneves’ spotter. “But a spotter is your backup, not your eyes. A good driver can get into spots where he judges quickly to avoid something and can’t always wait for the spotter. The original purpose of having a spotter was to tell the driver what was ahead. It’s important to have spotters who can warn a driver if something happens because the closing rate is so fast. But the driver should not rely 100% on his spotter.”

Spotters are also instrumental in warning a driver when there is an incident on the track. The driver should see that the caution light is on and immediately slow down; but he may not know where on the track the incident has taken place. That’s when the spotter lets the driver know what is happening, and can recommend which direction to go to avoid being caught up in the crash.

The driver still needs to steer the car and make decisions even without guidance. One track that is challenging for the spotters to keep their driver in view is at Pocono’s Tricky Triangle, the 2.5-mile tri-oval. With only three turns, the straightaway between Turns 1 and 2, that binoculars can be needed to distinguish the cars.

“Pocono is very challenging,” explained Graham Rahal’s spotter, Steve Turner. “The backstretch is one mile away so binoculars would be a huge help there. But then you lose your peripheral vision. It can take a few seconds to pick up a driver. So you really can’t do a good job of spotting with binoculars. You lose depth of field and aren’t always able to tell if a driver is moving to the inside or outside. When the cars are coming towards you or are going away from you, you lose depth perception.”

Turner unintentionally made a lot of points with Rahal’s sponsor, Steak ‘N Shake, when the TV broadcast aired his radio transmission congratulating the 2015 Auto Club Speedway winner when he said, “Steak burgers for everyone!”

Although not required, spotters can also be instrumental at road courses and can warm their driver at certain turns that are known to be trouble spots. Usually they have experience behind the wheel – whether now retired, or upcoming from another series.

And when two drivers have a misunderstanding on the track, they can pass a message through their spotters. If a competitor suddenly slows down in front, it could upset whoever is following. By spotters speaking to each other on the stand, they can clarify what happened, such as an electrical issue, to avoid conflict. That can keep tempers from escalating and prevent retaliation.

“I always trust my spotter,” stated Rahal. “His eyes are peeled on my exhaust. He is in constant communication. I’m thankful for those guys. They keep us safe.”


The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.