That wily veteran Jimmy Vasser stole the thunder from the balance of 17 competitors vying for Bridgestone Pole Position for tomorrow's Time Warner Cable Road Runner 225 presented by US Bank on the venerable Milwaukee Mile.
The final driver to take timed laps after having the fastest practice speed earlier in the day in his #12 Gulfstream Lola/Ford-Cosworth/Bridgestone challenger, Vasser performed only one tour of the 1.032-mile historic oval at 21.081 seconds (176.235mph) to earn the top spot.
"It was pretty easy but all credit to the team. The car was really going and when everything comes together, it's easy to massage the car around this place," the 1996 CART champion disclosed.
Taking his ninth career pole position and realizing his first lap was good enough, "There was no sense in pushing it for another lap. Why bother?" While it's taken longer to get his PKV Racing team to the sharp end of the grid than he'd like, "We've improved the team technically with better management and it's good for us. We've got the program in place to move PKV forward," Vasser stressed. "We've got good chemistry and energy here.
"I felt like I had a shot at the Pole when we unloaded today. When you get all the things right like it happened for us today, everything comes together," Vasser grinned.
Starting second, A.J. Allmendinger is one guy who's come a long way since his first start on the Milwaukee Mile in 2004. At that time the driver of the #10 RuSPORT/Red Bull Lola was literally petrified when he got out of his car after qualifying. While Allmendinger still isn't in love with ovals, he's gotten better at driving them, putting up his second lap at 21.109 seconds (176.001mph).
"I'm very pleased overall," Allmendinger said. "I was looking to be in the top three rows so this is great for the team. I was loose and trying to suck it up and not let it scare me [again]," he confessed. "The car was better than this morning and we found things after our long run that'll help in tomorrow's race.
"Yeah, I'm still a little freaked because the car was so loose; I was doing everything to hold on," Allmendinger continued. "The old man got us by a little bit but that's okay." Vasser and Allmendinger comprise the first all-American Champ Car front row since Scott Pruett and Vasser occupied that space at California Speedway in 1998!
Teammate Justin Wilson, who's been chasing Allmendinger all year long, starts third in the #9 RuSPORT/SanDisk Lola with his lap of 21.125 seconds (175.867mph). "The run was okay," the laconic Briton said. "I picked up oversteer on the first lap so lap two wasn't quite as quick. If the weather holds tomorrow, I think we'll be okay.
"I'm more comfortable with the situation [racing on ovals] than I was last year and more comfortable with this team. I think you could say I'm more positive." After not driving on an oval since Las Vegas last September Wilson found the circuit "so different. At the test last month it was like I'd never done this before."
Qualifying was held under cool, gray conditions at mid-afternoon, about the time the Champ Cars will complete their 225 miles of racing tomorrow afternoon. The open wheelers' track time occurred right after ARCA/ReMax practice so the bias ply tires on those sedans surely messed things up for the first cars out.
By the time Cristiano da Matta brought his #21 Bell Micro/PKV Lola to the stripes, the track had improved measurably, allowing the 2002 CART champ to put up a lap of 21.261 seconds (174.742mph) on his first of two tours. "We've been quick since we unloaded," da Matta confirmed "and we finessed the car a bit for qualifying. We were a bit more aggressive with the tires this afternoon and we know we have a good setup for the race," when he starts fourth.
Paul Tracy thought his qualifying laps in the #3 Indeck/Forsythe Championship Racing Lola (21.268sec/174.685mph) were just "Okay, nothing special. We had too much understeer and may have been a bit conservative with our setup this afternoon.
"This morning," Tracy advised, "we worked on qualifying at the beginning and then spent most of the practice on race setup. We thought the track would be looser this afternoon but we guessed wrong. It tightened up."
2003 CART champ Tracy shares space on the third row with current Champ Car titleholder Sebastien Bourdais, driver of the #1 McDonald's Lola. Bourdais' first lap at 21.356 seconds (173.965mph) put him sixth on the grid. "We are struggling in Milwaukee again and it's tough to improve when you only race on a mile oval once a season.
"Every time we are here," Bourdais explained, "the conditions are different. The car was loose and neutral in Turns 1 and 2 and was pushing and loose in [Turns] 3 and 4. I have never had that before and we don't understand why it is this way."
Last year's runaway Milwaukee Mile winner Ryan Hunter-Reay starts seventh with the #31 Briggs and Stratton Lola after lapping at 21.454 seconds (173.171mph). Not terribly pleased with his run, Hunter-Reay believes his Rocketsports team will "have to make major changes to be good in traffic. I know what a good car feels like around here and we're not there yet."
Rookie Bjorn Wirdheim's lap of 21.584 seconds (172.128mph) in the #4 HVM Lola was good for eighth but still, "I was not super happy with the lap after being ninth in practice. We had the potential to be higher up, so I hoped to improve but didn't. We didn't get as much practice in traffic as I wanted," Wirdheim admitted. "I find oval racing exciting to watch on TV. I always wanted to do one so now I'm here!"
Substituting on a single-race basis for injured Bruno Junqueira in the #2 PacifiCare Lola, Oriol Servia assumes ninth on the 17-car grid with his lap of 21.609 seconds (171.928mph). The Spaniard's car was "lacking front grip but it feels solid, which is good for the race, just not in qualifying. Our performance this afternoon wasn't as good as I had hoped but we are working in the right direction," Servia declared.
A disappointed Mario Dominguez rounds out the top ten in his #7 Indeck/Forsythe Championship Racing Lola with a lap of 21.632 seconds (171.746mph). The Mexican was "very fast in the test and nowhere today. We had a lot of understeer and no matter what we did, nothing helps."
Alex Tagliani gained 11th on the grid with his #15 Aussie Vineyards Lola, stating he was "paying the price for mistakes" in setting up his car. "We made mistakes and this is where we deserve to be. I hope to finish the weekend where we were in the test, but it was very slippery out there this afternoon."
Nelson Philippe earned 12th grid slot with his #34 Wellbox Lola, making a single qualifying lap at the end of the session when his team needed extra time after he'd slapped the wall in practice. "I did the best I could," Philippe said. Teammate and rookie Andrew Ranger's #27 Mi-Jack Lola starts 13th; he too brushed the wall in practice. "I know the car will be good for the race but I had to lift [on the slippery surface] so I lost some time."
Rookie Timo Glock's #8 DHL Global Mail Lola starts 14th and he found qualifying "not too bad. I did not have the speed I had at the test," but he didn't hit the wall either. The German is "ready for traffic; the car is stable but the speed just isn't there." He did seem a bit "wall shy" in practice this morning.
Rookie Marcus Marshall's #5 Aussie Vineyards Lola starts 15th, followed by rookie Ronnie Bremer's #55 HVM Lola and lastly, the #19 American Medical Response Lola of Ricardo Sperafico starts 17th. The Brazilian never even drove the Mile until this morning, did 170 laps in traffic but still needed more time.
Race #3 on a 14-event calendar, the Time Warner Cable Road Runner 225 presented by US Bank gets underway at the crack of noon tomorrow. While forecasters currently predict a 30 percent chance of thunder showers, they also stated today would be warm and clear. The race will be shown on CBS.