From Four Laps to 500 Miles: Notes on a Day at the Track

Scott Dixon - Indianapolis 500 Front Row Photo Shoot -- Photo by: James Black

2021 Indianapolis 500 pole winner, Scott Dixon. [Photo by: James Black]

by Paul Gohde

It was a weekend that many had predicted as “old-timer” Scott Dixon beat the season’s “young guns” to capture the pole; but just barely. It was also a time of several surprises as Team Penske faltered, crowds were strong and Helio and TK showed that each one should (could) have a full-time IndyCar ride.
The three biggest surprises:

• Team Penske is an organization built on the idea that each of its drivers should have a car with no advantage over another team driver. Of all the team’s drivers to lead the qualifying parade, the results of rookie Scott Mclaughlin were most impressive compared to his teammates, if starting 17th could be labeled as impressive. Don’t even try to ask “The Captain” what went wrong as his other drivers: Josef Newgarden (21st), Simon Pagenaud 26th and Will Power (32nd), all having to struggle to find a place in the field. The Team Penske garage doors were shut shortly after qualifying ended. There are those who feel that the veteran presence in the team will help the aforementioned drivers work their way to the front by mid-race and become contenders at the finish. They have much work to do for that to happen next Sunday. We’ll find out more then.

• Scott Dixon was the first driver to hit the track for Saturday’s opening qualifying for the 35 entrants. The veteran New Zealander’s stellar run put him on the pole immediately; a run that stood up all day. Colton Herta was right on Dixon’s tail with veteran Tony Kanaan 3rd. The “The Fast Nine” from Saturday had to run once more for final up-front race positions on Sunday afternoon. Dixon went out last and edged Herta for the top spot followed by fellow front row starter Rinus VeeKay. Dixon grabbed the pole by just 000.030 mph. At 40 years-old, Dixon’s age is just one year older than the combined ages of Herta and VeeKay (41 years old together). Too bad the smaller Sunday gathering had to wait until later in the afternoon to see Dixon’s dramatic run. Shouldn’t the pole be determined on the first day with more in attendance to enjoy that drama?

• Three drivers that drew the loudest cheers after their runs were car-owner/driver Ed Carpenter, former 500 winner Helio Castroneves and soon to retire Tony Kanaan. Carpenter, the Indianapolis resident, oval-track specialist and three-time 500 pole winner, had the crowd cheering him on but settled for the inside of row two. Castroneves, the personable three-time 500 winner returned to 16th and Georgetown Rd. for a one-off shot at win number four after a try at the IMSA sports car series for Penske the past two years. His run to an eighth place starting spot with the Meyer Shank team brought an enthusiastic response from the large crowd. He will compete in a total of six NTT IndyCar events in 2021. Kanaan, who planned to leave the sport after last season, returned to have his final season in a year with a more stable schedule, sharing the No.48 Honda with road course rookie Jimmie Johnson. Surprisingly, these three part-timers, though veterans all, earned starting spots in rows two or three for Sunday’s 500.

• Notes on an interesting weekend…The work that Roger Penske and his associates have put into IMS since he purchased the track certainly is visible to this writer who hasn’t been to the track since he took over. From overall cleanliness to landscape maintenance and well-placed signage, everything one sees tells the visitor that ownership cares about the facility and cares about the fans and sponsors alike…NBC television dedicated over 13 hours of airtime to qualifications over their three broadcast platforms (NBC network, NBC Sports and Peacock) along with four hours of practice, not counting practice sessions during the week leading up to qualifications. One wonders just where IndyCar television will land when NBC Sports ceases broadcasting next season…Friday practice and Saturday’s trials saw strong crowds attend activities at IMS. Though four days of Time Trials in the 1960’s and 70’s often drew 200,000 + crowds for the opening day run for the pole among 60-70 entries, the 2021 version, with 35 cars competing for 33 spots saw an encouraging attendance…With Team Penske struggling along with other Chevrolet teams, Honda landed nine cars in the top 11…With the popular Toronto race weekend cancelled for the second year due to pandemic rules for entering Canada, no new venue or doubleheader replacements has been announced…Alex Palou’s team did a yeoman’s job getting his Ganassi Honda race-worthy after its Saturday crash in Turn 2…Fifty-nine qualifying attempts were recorded on Saturday though several of them were not completed.

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