As Ed Carpenter climbed from his car on Sunday afternoon after setting his pole-position winning time, he removed his helmet and took a deep breath. The cameras noticed a Dan Wheldon tribute located on the rear of Carpenter’s HANS neck safety device and for a brief moment, the sun shone brighter than it had all day. Ed looked to the sky before being smothered by his jubilant wife and crew.
Aside from the close bond the two shared (really, Wheldon was close with everybody), Carpenter and Wheldon were from a rare breed of oval-racing specialists. Fifteen of Wheldon’s 16 career IndyCar Series victories came on ovals, which may by all likelihood be one of the things which connected the two drivers.
Carpenter’s 231.067mph (371.866kph) performance was nothing short of spectacular. Throughout his four-lap Fast Nine Shootout run, it was clear the No 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra-Premium Vodka Dallara DW12 Chevrolet entry was on rails. Where his eight pole position rivals wiggled ever so slightly in the closing stages of their respective runs, dropping precious ounces of speed, Carpenter only got faster. At the same time, back in pit lane, media and champagne bottles prepared to uncork were gathered around James Hinchcliffe, who was in the box seat until the Indianapolis native crossed the yard of bricks to deny the Andretti driver his maiden Indy pole position.
Now, the focus now moves to Sunday May 25 and the 98th running of the ‘Greatest Show in Motorsports’ – the Indianapolis 500. The quest for the ceremonial bottle of buttermilk at the end of 200 laps will consume every fibre of each driver’s physical, mental and emotional form through until the chequered flag falls on Sunday afternoon. Sitting alongside Carpenter into Turn 1 will be ‘Hinch’ and Will Power, all three gunning for their first success at The Brickyard.
For once, Carpenter will have a team-mate to share data with in J.R. Hildebrand. Hildebrand has his own bittersweet memories of the 500, almost literally tasting the milk in 2011 before contact with the wall on the outside of Turn 4 on the final lap brought him back to reality with the most devastating of ego-crunching thuds. As we all know, he lost the race to Dan Wheldon at that point, but the momentum of his stricken chassis carried him over the line in second place. He will start in 9th place on Sunday; not a terrible starting position by any means, and a winner has come from ninth in the past, that being Emerson Fittipaldi in 1993. It can be done, and has been done.
For the first time, there will be three Australians in the field aiming to become the first local product to etch their likeness onto the Borg-Warner trophy. Aside from Power in third, rookie James Davison will line up 28th and Ryan Briscoe in 30th. Both have it all to do and nothing short of a miracle or the biggest payoff in strategy gambling history will be necessary to see either of these two make history for Australia. But stranger things have happened at Indy so it can’t be ruled out.
Defending champion Tony Kanaan is nothing if not a mercurial overtaker on ovals. Onboard cameras on Kanaan’s car in the early laps can often resemble that of a video game – such is his prowess at finding gaps where others dare not to tread in the early stages. Hungry as ever, TK starts from sixteenth in the car vacated by Dario Franchitti, and with little to nothing left to prove in a hall-of-fame career, is out to add to his already well decorated trophy cabinet.
With every Indy 500 come a bevy of new faces, some familiar, some not, some old and some from a cross-promotional standpoint. Former 500 winner and Formula One World Champion Jacques Villeneuve has linked with Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports in conjunction with Team Pelfrey to try and claim the record for the longest gap between Indy 500 victories at 19 years. The current holder of said claim is the incomparable Al Unser Snr who took his first win in 1970 and his last in
1987 – 17 years. Villeneuve will take the green flag from 27th position and with little expectation, it should be fun to watch him re-ignite the open-wheel spark.
Alex Tagliani returns to the series as a once-off entry for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing; Former winner Buddy Lazier dusts himself off for his annual tilt at reclaiming past glory in his own self-funded entry; Up and coming Aussie James Davison will strap into a fourth KV Racing entry, while part-time racer and NBC Sports commentator Townsend Bell returns for another shot at the top prize, also for KV Racing.
Pippa Mann will take up the female charge for Dale Coyne Racing and 2013 Indy Lights champion Sage Karam has been given the opportunity of a lifetime for the resurrected Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in conjunction with Chip Ganassi Racing. Karam is absolutely ripe with potential and his 31st place starting position is absolutely no indication of his talent.
Finally, this year we will see a driver try to take on the IndyCar/NASCAR double at Charlotte Speedway that evening, with Kurt Busch stepping up to the challenge. Busch will suit up for Andretti Autosport and has qualified extremely well in 12th place. As a casual viewer of NASCAR, I am not totally versed in his career but I know he is a former Nextel Cup Series champion and is no stranger to success. It is difficult to predict what kind of performance Busch might deliver and whether his entire focus will be on gunning for the win or simply getting out of the car in one piece and getting to the airport in time for his flight to North Carolina.
To paraphrase from another major American tradition, Indianapolis is the “showcase of the immortals”, where a driver can cement his or her legacy and live forever. Memorial Day weekend in America must be acknowledged and remembered first for the bravery and sacrifice of the country’s servicemen and women fighting for freedom, and then celebrated with another chapter in the storybook that is the Indy 500.
And when Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban drops the green flag as honorary starter, another man or woman will write their own chapter and ascend into the echelons of open-wheel legend.