IRL: Indy racers to wait another day for Pole Day

Brian Barnhart prides himself on being fair with the denizens of the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series. For that reason, the president and COO of the League made the difficult decision to postpone MBNA Pole Day until Sunday, May 15th.

Heavy rain falls on Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Photo by Shawn Payne - IRL.
With the rescheduling, some stress to make the "Elite Eleven" at the top of the field this first weekend of qualifying has gone away but, as always the emphasis is on getting that $100,000 check and the attention that comes with being on MBNA Pole for the 89th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

While the pressure might slack a bit, teams will have to contend with cooler, cloudy weather once they get on the track and, for many who missed out on qualifying simulations on Fast Friday when Paul Dana hit the Turn 2 wall, collecting Sam Hornish Jr., Sunday morning practice will show whether preparation efforts and qualifying engines installed yesterday are up to the task.

Dana remains at Methodist Hospital with a fractured T7 vertebra and concussion, according to Dr. Henry Bock, director of medical services for the IMS track and the Indy Racing League. The earliest Dana might be released is Sunday afternoon.

For a driver like Richie Hearn, who has his first opportunity to practice for the full month of May since racing as an Indy rookie in 1996, the lack of practice time yesterday was a step back.

Currently lying 12th in the combined practice times listing with his #70 Meijer/Coca-Cola Panoz/Chevrolet/Firestone, Hearn's Sam Schmidt Motorsports team had just installed a new engine and were preparing for qualifying; they spent much of the week doing race preparations.

"It's really nice to be here the start of the week and we've run without a hitch so far," said Hearn. "We've spent a lot of time on race setup; that's been our main focus. We are preparing to make the top 11 and spend next week readying for the race.

Richie Hearn.
Photo by Jim Haines - IRL.
"This place is different," Hearn admitted. "You can't just cruise around. Experience comes into play on this track, but we're a small team. It's been a big chore to get the Chevy and Panoz together since it hasn't been done before and you really must tune your car for this race."

Hearn hopes a fine result, like his third place in 1996, might be the impetus for more entries as the 17-race IndyCar Series evolves.

The man who beat Hearn to the checkered flags in 1996, Buddy Lazier has a one-off race this month with Byrd Brothers/Panther Racing in a Dallara/Chevy similar to those driven by Tomas Scheckter and rookie Tomas Enge. "I couldn't pass up this opportunity to work with [engineer] Andy Brown. I've never had this kind of program where I could work to make the first three rows before and I think our Chevy has the goods."

As a veteran Lazier realizes "It's a 500-mile race so there are only so many things you can do during the race itself. It's all about how you adapt to these very technical pieces of equipment and the tools available to me are quite substantial." Being on a multi-car team with excellent race engineers offers combined experience that can only benefit the Colorado native.

Rahal Letterman Racing had some new bits to put on Vitor Meira's #17 Menards/Johns Manville Panoz/Honda for qualifying and the Brazilian hoped to test those items on Fast Friday. Unable to do so, the team hoped to test these items this morning, but "of course we had the rain. I feel good about our car for qualifying," Meira declared. "The rain takes some pressure off but my job is to get Pole."

Victor Meira gets gas during a yellow flag break.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.
Team owner Bobby Rahal has plenty of experience with the pressure that is qualifying at Indianapolis. "With how close the competition is, I think 13- 14 cars have a shot. Some may take their run and be happy with it and others may work the strategy and see how it all plays out. It all depends on the first run."

Teams can take three shots at the 22 positions up for grabs tomorrow on MBNA Pole Day with each of their chassis, both the primary and backup. "Waiting is harder on the drivers, especially when it's their first year. But with the larger group looking for position [in the field of 33] strategy might not be so consequential" as it would have been today, Rahal considered.

In the news since Rookie Orientation Program began last Sunday, Danica Patrick holds second place (to Tomas Scheckter) on the speed chart. The Roscoe, IL native is "just looking to drive. It really doesn't matter because everyone gets the same shot" tomorrow. "I think we are very confident with the car's setup because it's something we've worked on all week and we have a lot of data from last year, too."

Laughing at her audacity Patrick said, "I'm hoping for Pole and I can't believe I'm saying that. Being in the first two rows is very important and frankly, I'm just expecting to be faster. I have to do it that way; I have to be confident and assertive. In qualifying I don't want to do something silly or doubt the car," Patrick declared.

There are two drivers who must be part of the top 22 tomorrow afternoon. Team Centrix's Sebastien Bourdais and Bruno Junqueira won't have the opportunity to qualify next weekend. They'll be in Monterrey, Mexico contesting the second race on a 14-event Champ Car World Series calendar.

Bourdais realized he'd be doing little if anything when he awoke to rain this morning. "At least it gave us a chance to catch up on preparing the car; we were pretty behind," the winner of the second IROC race at Texas Motor Speedway noted. "As a driver it is frustrating because you prepare yourself mentally for qualifying and nothing happens."

Shrugging his shoulders, Junqueira recognized there was nothing he could do about the weather. "On ovals you have to be patient. It will be tough to get pole but we are going to go for it and see how close we get. It's supposed to be cooler tomorrow but that doesn't change anything for us. It's more important for us to have a good race than get a good starting spot" so Junqueira's team concentrated on race setups throughout the week.

Part of a three-car Fernandez team for 2005 Scott Sharp feels the change of teams from Kelley Racing "has been a major rejuvenation for me. We've meshed quickly and nicely and I'm more comfortable than ever with this team behind me." Sharp lies first in the qualifying line and can set the tempo for those who follow him.

"Now you might know whether to take a 225 lap, sit back and see what others do before you get back in line if needed. It might be harder to do three attempts per chassis tomorrow" with 22 spots to fill." Sharp appreciates being with a larger team. "You can't simulate race conditions in practice but if you have three cars like we do, you can exchange data to get your setups right."

Roger Yasukawa.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.
The rain and the change in qualifying procedure doesn't have much of an effect on Roger Yasukawa and his Dreyer & Reinbold team, who switched from Chevrolet to Honda power this year. "Playing the weather game is part of the deal at Indy. The good thing is that we'll have more time to think and prepare for qualifying tomorrow."

When the announcement came just after noon that MBNA Pole Day would take place on Sunday, many teams who had completed their preparations during the morning packed up and prepared for an early evening. Few drivers stuck around the garage area and most garages were closed tightly by 3PM.

As is usually the case, once the declaration was made to the many fans still waiting in the paddock area for the rain to stop that they'd have to return another day, the sun began to creep from behind the formerly omnipresent clouds here in Speedway, IN.

It is now bright, sunny and windy and temperatures are beginning to drop. Forecasts call for mostly cloudy skies with a high in the upper 50s for MBNA Pole Day. Twenty-two spots in the field of 33 are open to all takers beginning at 12 noon EST and, to Fernandez Racing managing director Tom Anderson, the most important thing is "making sure everybody gets back in the rhythm because, obviously rain disrupts that."