Damn, CEP listeners, it’s been awhile! I hope you’ve all been well, and I appreciate you all sticking with my cohosts and I as we come to grips with being more professional. But there’s no better way to return to the World of the HOT BLOG than with the annual Indianapolis 500 preview! It’s that time of year again: The greatest weekend on the calendar for gear heads. I want to jump right in with a look ahead to the world’s greatest race, but before we do that, we need to look back at the weekend that was.
Qualifying weekend at Indianapolis delivered in every way: There was weather to contend with, there were major upsets, there is a new pole winner and 3 drivers left disappointed after the Last Row Shootout (IndyCar’s new term for Bump Day qualifying). Talk about a pressure cooker: The 6 cars that didn’t make the top 30 on Saturday each had one chance to make the final 3 positions on Sunday. One solitary run; 4 laps, 10 miles, for the rest of your life. While there were a few smaller teams in danger, as expected, the real story was the big name drivers and teams fighting for their Indy dreams. Could people’s champ James Hinchcliffe actually miss the race 2 years in a row? He destroyed his primary car in Saturday qualifying, and had to jump in a backup car with very few practice laps and lay it all on the line. Or what about international mega-star Fernando Alonso? The McLaren team both looked and acted overmatched and out of place all month, but surely a team with pockets that deep and resources that profound would find a way to squeak in, right? Well, Hinch snuck in by the last hair on his chinny-chin-chin and will roll off 32nd out of 33, but Mr. Alonso will not be joining him on the last row, thanks to tiny little Juncos Racing.
Alonso was sitting in P33 when Kyle Kaiser went out as the final car to qualify in the Last Row Shootout. Kyle and his team had been through a hellacious month of May to that point. Right as practice opened, their major sponsors backed out. The team’s plan was to try and qualify, then worry about funding to actually contest the 500. Then, later in practice week, Kyle had a hard accident and destroyed the one car the team had prepared. The Juncos boys had to somehow pull a whole race car out of a hat just to get Kaiser in the qualifying line. They worked nonstop overnight to scrap, claw, and assemble an old borrowed race car. Team owner Ricardo Juncos, who immigrated to America as a go-kart mechanic and eventually started his own team, moving up the ladder from karts through junior open wheel to eventually a part-time IndyCar program, said he kept his team fueled with “pizza and Starbucks” as they slaved until 4am to make qualifying tech inspection. With no practice on this car, the 23-year-old Kaiser took to the track for his last ditch effort to make the show. The mission: knock out 2-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso and the mighty Team McLaren. The 4 lap average to beat? 227.353 mph. Kaiser’s first lap was faster than Alonso’s. Encouraging, but he still had three laps left. 2nd lap: faster than Alonso’s. You don’t think….3rd lap, right there, in line with the champ. This can’t be happening…Kaiser rips across the stripe to register a 4 lap average of 227.372 mph. By 0.019 mph over 4 laps, Juncos knocked out McLaren. Kaiser takes down Alonso! David defeats Goliath again! This is exactly what makes the month of May at Indianapolis so special, and one of the many reasons why I can’t WAIT for this weekend. What happened with McLaren? What’s next for Alonso? Don’t worry, that’ll be in my next blog. But for now, let’s focus on the 103rd Indianapolis 500, set to take place this weekend.
I just spent a lot of time focusing on the back of the grid, and that’s because the sharp end is pretty much status quo. The top 9 starting spots are dominated by juggernaut Team Penske and superspeedway specialists Ed Carpenter Racing. Ed is an Indianapolis native, who grew up racing the local dirt tracks, went to school at Butler University, and has started on pole for this race 3 times. He finished 2nd last year, and if he were to move up one more step on that podium, the entire grandstands might collapse from the pandemonium that’s sure to ensue. He’s got a fair shot, as do his two team cars driven by young American Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones, who finished 3rd here as a rookie in 2017. But to accomplish this, ECR needs to run through the buzzsaw that is Team Penske.
Penske also put 3 cars in the first three rows, led by first time Indy polesitter Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman won a championship for Penske in 2016, but has struggled since. There were grumblings for the past year and a half that he was close to being dropped from his contract, but he has responded this year with a brilliant drive in the rain at the Indy GP two weeks ago, running down CEP favorite Scott Dixon from 7 seconds back in just 3 laps to pass for the win. He then qualified on the pole for the biggest race on the calendar, and has history on his side. Last year, Will Power won the Indy GP and followed it up by winning the 500. His team owner? Oh yeah, Roger Penske. Things are looking up for the one they call “The Professor.”
Of course, in a 500 mile race like this we can expect more than just 2 teams to spend time at the front. Herta-mania is in full swing, as the now 19-year-old rookie Colton Herta - already with a race win to his credit in 2019 - was the quickest qualifying Honda-powered car and will roll off from row 2. Andretti Autosport brings a 5-car armada led by former champ Ryan Hunter-Reay and budding superstar Alexander Rossi, who is proving to be a straight up assassin. He doesn’t come to the track to win, he comes to embarrass the competition and does so with no remorse. Drivers like the aforementioned Dixon and Graham Rahal are too experienced, smart and talented to not have some say in how the final results play out. They may start further back in the field, but they’ll find their way to the front through speed, strategy or both. And what about Hinch?? He starts 32nd, but Rossi started there last year and finished in the top 3. After all that The Speedway has put him through in the past few years, I feel like the ol’ girl owes him one.
So, after ALL this talk, who is actually going to win the Indianapolis 500? Below are my 3 favorites, and a few dark horses to watch out for:
1 – Alexander Rossi
2 – Simon Pagenaud
3 – Ed Jones
1 – Connor Daly
2 – James Davison
3 – JR Hildebrand
This is going to be a weekend for the ages. I can feel it! So crack open a cold one, pick your favorite chip/dip combo, and settle in for the greatest show in the world of motor racing. I am fortunate enough to be able to attend once again, and I’ll be wearing my podcast shirt on Sunday, so feel free to say hello if we cross paths. Even if we don’t run into each other (or you avoid me on purpose), be sure to stop and see our friends at the Styled Aesthetic booth. Indiana is broiler-hot at the end of May, so you’ll need a CEP can coolie to keep those drinks cold! Shameless plugs aside, my one wish for any petrol-head out there is that they get as much joy as I do out of watching these 33 gladiators vie for the single greatest trophy in racing. It feels great to be blogging again, and it’ll feel even better to back in the Tower Terrace at Indy this weekend! Let’s GO!