Qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 a terrifying adventure, an inside look at what goes on behind the wheel

INDIANAPOLIS — “I’ve always hated qualifying,” Santino Ferrucci admitted earlier this week. “I was shaking after my first qualifying run. I was happy it was done.”

Scott Dixon said he was happy his qualifying run was done in each of the last two years and he won the pole both times. He goes to become the first driver to ever win three consecutive poles here and while doing so, would tie Rick Mears for most all-time in the 107 year history of the Indianapolis 500.

Qualifying to set the field for the Indy500 is far different than anything else the NTT INDYCAR SERIES does all year. Here, you have to do a four-lap run. Other ovals, you do two laps with the qualifying speed being the average between the two. At Indy, you double it.

Road and street courses are broken down into three rounds and you’re looking for single lap speed. That’s why qualifying at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway every May is uniquely challenging.

Every lap you’re on edge. The car is driving on a knife’s blade. You’re traveling at speeds upwards of 240-245 mph entering the corners while also having the car feel like it’s driving on ice. You’re heart is pumping harder than it will all year. The car could step out from you at any time and send you as quickly to a hospital as it would to your motorhome.

Qualifying at Indianapolis is staring death right in the eyes. It’s frightening and can cause danger at any of the near three minutes that you’re in the car.

“I think it’s going to be one of the tightest qualifyings in history here, especially to get in the top 12,” said the all-time winningest qualifier, Will Power.

In this era, the difference between a pole and not for the Indy 500 comes down to a game of feet. Yes, a four lap run that lasts 10 miles over a span of 2 1/2-minutes comes down to inches in the end.

So, with four laps at your disposal, which one is the most important one to land right? While some may think that it’s a trick question, it’s really not.

Heck, it starts when you roll out of pit lane.

You may have noticed over the years that the Honda’s looked like they were crawling on the out lap which led to a slower warm up lap around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Chevrolet’s had the opposite game plan. They were flat out early.

Its paid off for Honda.

The strategy was, Honda didn’t want to scrub off speed from their tires by going hard early. They knew that their first laps were going to be their hot laps and the speed would fall off over the course of their four laps. In order to minimize that, why run hard on the warmup lap? Save the lap for the fourth lap.

So, they’d run in the 210’s on the warmup then shoot up to over 230 and some even over 231 mph on Lap 1. As long as they’d stay in the 230 mph range on Lap 4, they were good. If they’d run hard on the warmup, they could fall below 230 on the final lap which would help the Chevy’s.

For the Chevy cars, they didn’t have too much of a fall off over the course of their four laps. They needed to go hard early and put up a big lap on Lap 1 with warmer tires. Their problem was, their big lap was barely over 230 with the Honda’s over 231.

That was the difference in the varying strategies.

See, your Firestone tires fall off over the course of the four-lap qualifying run. You’re going to go slower on Lap 2 than Lap 1 and slower on Lap 3 than Lap 2 and so on. In saying that, do you need a bigger banker lap early or a faster lap later?

“The big first lap is probably been our focus over the last few years,” Josef Newgarden told me. “Everyone wants to see what that 1st lap is because that gives you margin or cushion for the rest, but you can’t fall off either. You’ve got to be consistent. A big 1st lap is always important, but consistency is also really important.”

Take 2021 as an example. Scott Dixon turned a first lap of 232.757 mph. Colton Herta’s opening lap was 232.356 mph. The second lap of Dixon was 231.879 mph. Herta’s was 231.672 mph. That little bit then was the difference.

Herta, was quickest on Laps 3 and 4 and it was honestly by a wider margin than expected. But, Dixon did just enough on Laps 1 and 2 to earn his fourth career pole for the Indianapolis 500.

In 2020, Marco Andretti beat Dixon for the pole on his fourth and final lap. Last year, Dixon won it on his first lap.

Andretti was at 231.826 mph on Lap 1 compared to 231.768 mph for Dixon’s. But, on Lap 2, Dixon (231.163 mph) narrowly beat Andretti’s 231.146 mph. On Lap 3, Dixon was quicker again at 230.941 mph versus 230.771 mph for Andretti. They were virtually equal there.

On Lap 4?

Andretti 230.532 mph against 230.337 mph for Dixon. That equates out to 231.068 mph for lap run for Andretti and 231.051 mph for Dixon. That’s a difference of .17 mph over four laps.

So, which is the most important one?

“I think the last one,” Scott McLaughlin said to me. “The last one is very important. It’s the one that has the most drop off and the most risk. Whether you hold it flat, continue to hold it flat or breath off the throttle. It’s very hard to be accurate when the tires are getting to be worn as the run goes on. I think the last lap for me but I think the second most important one is the opening lap in terms of your opening lap to the green flag.”

Dixon told me that he felt like first and fourth were the most important ones.

The man Dixon is trying to tie in all-time Indy 500 poles, Rick Mears, says that the laps have evolved around here.

“That would vary all the time with the setup,” he told me. “One year you’d have tires that maybe the fronts would go off more than the rears, and vice versa the next year. That was always part of the plan that you started working on early in the month to get a feel for what kind of change you were going to get through the first four laps to adjust everything.

“You might need to start the car out so loose you can’t drive it the first lap to get it to kind of come into its own in the middle, and then it’s the opposite direction at the last lap.

“It was something that’s always changed.

“I think today the cars are more consistent in that respect. It’s not as big a change.

“I used to run for laps and never run one corner the same way twice in four laps. I was having to adjust the pattern and everything due to what the car was telling me from a previous time through.

“It was just a continuous adapting, so it was always about — I think it’s more consistent today, but still, like you’re saying, attention to detail and the finer things, and everything is just a lot tighter.

“It’s relative, but still a little different today.”

Even if you had a quick early run, you’re so on edge, you could have a moment to where you have to lift and ruin a while run. That’s why the ones who start up front will be the ones who can hold a steady wheel while defying physics for 2-minutes and 40-seconds.

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