By: Tony DiZinno, IndyCar correspondent
Part-timers prepare for Centennial 500
- Former Indy 500 champions Wheldon, Rice return to fold
- American aces Bell, Carpenter, others seek success
Pit stops notwithstanding, great chance for a surprise win
One thing IZOD IndyCar Series full-timers, one-offers and rookies alike could all agree on going into this year’s Indianapolis 500 was that making the 33-car field with 41 cars entered was an accomplishment in itself.
Even more than just making it, one thing that has stuck out this month is how incredibly competitive this batch of Indianapolis-only or part-timers are.
While every driver will always claim they are “in it to win it,” that mantra has become more than just an optimistic assessment this year. In 2011, it’s somewhat realistic that a non-full-season competitor could steal a win at the centennial ’500.
Guys do what they can to keep the doors open.
Speed isn’t the question, several drivers related, as they just hopped in their cars and got up to snuff straight away. Perhaps the only issue is whether their crews, which will have to perform 7 or 8 pit stops, can deliver at the same breakneck pace as the series regulars.
Four of the Fast Nine qualifiers make their initial starts of the 2011 season this race, in a far cry from the years when the Indy-only competitors were just in the field to fill the field.
Two of those four — Dan Wheldon and Buddy Rice — are former Indianapolis 500 winners, and Americans Townsend Bell and Ed Carpenter have shown increased flashes of brilliance at the Speedway over the past few years.
Rice, the 2004 ’500 champion, came in at the right time and with the right team for Indy success. Panther Racing has finished runner-up in this race three years running.
“I’m not the only one (who’s been sitting out),” Rice said. “Other guys have issues finding rides; from the business side. Guys do what they can to keep the doors open.”
A win to Carpenter would mean an incredible amount to the native Hoosier and team owner Sarah Fisher.
The Indy 500 is what made me want to be a race car driver
Fisher’s team has been through a roller coaster in four years since starting in 2008. A sponsor nearly left the team sidelined but thanks to last minute support from new backers and fans, Fisher made it in her first year.
Last year Fisher’s team had a second car entered, but withdrew a qualified time in an attempt to go faster. The loss was a detrimental setback to the team’s progress.
The singular focus on Carpenter has left the team in attack mode this year and with its best shot at winning.
“The Indy 500 is what made me want to be a race car driver, but it’s hard to say it means more to me,” Carpenter said. “We all say this means the most, whether you’re from Indy or Brazil. It’s all at the top of our goals.”
Fisher’s pain was Bryan Herta Autosport’s gain, as rookie Sebastian Saavedra made the 2010 field while watching from a hospital bed. A year later, Herta is back in action with 2005 Indy winner Dan Wheldon behind the wheel, and a sixth place starting position. A technical alliance with Sam Schmidt has seen the William Rast-backed No. 98 Dallara-Honda near the top of the timesheets all month.
Bell is in a Schmidt-only entry. Although Bell lamented the relative lack of horsepower for the current car compared to the 850-900 horsepower beasts he drove when he started, the driver still has to drive the wheels off the current car.
“Speed, and the search for speed, is what made this sport great,” Bell said. “But, if you have any doubt about what we’re all doing, hop in the back of a two-seater in qualifying trim and tell me this car isn’t wicked.”
Those four aside, there are others with stories to tell this month.
Davey Hamilton is working hand in hand with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing general manager Larry Curry, a setup specialist, whose car was the one that lost control at Texas in 2001 which caused Hamilton’s savage accident that broke his legs.
Bertrand Baguette makes his second start at Indy with Rahal Letterman Lanigan, and a bevy of the same crew which engineered Rice’s car to the 2004 win.
Alex Lloyd returns to Dale Coyne Racing for the first time with the relief of knowing that A., he had a ride for the ovals in 2011, and B., he went old-school on everybody wheeling a Dale Coyne car into the show with less than 10 minutes left. He now gets that chance to better his fourth place in 2010 in what would be an even greater result.
John Andretti and Tomas Scheckter have provided support and speed to Andretti Autosport and KV Racing Technology-Lotus, respectively, in limited track time.
And then there’s Paul Tracy. Never shy of a good quote or a chance to recall his, we’ll call it mixed luck at Indy, “PT” is back in the field after failing to qualify in 2010. He was the fastest second day qualifier over four laps, but that didn’t guarantee anything other than bragging rights.
“No prize money, they gave ($10,000) to Danica (Patrick),” Tracy said. “I got kind of jipped again. The fastest second day qualifier gets that amount, and she had the fastest one lap. I guess tradition and history strike again.”
Joking aside, if one of these part-timers could deliver a centennial Indy victory, it would have to qualify as an upset for the ages.