Immensely popular Hélio Castroneves, whose personality once reenergized a flagging Indy Racing League, is both back on the track and “back on track” after beating a federal tax evasion charge. He has captured his 3rd Indianapolis 500 pole position in the same number of attempts, but at a younger age, than all-time pole record holder Rick Mears.
Castroneves is a two-time Indy 500 champion who, always in the #3 red and white Team Penske entry, has won an astounding US$ 5,625,623.00 in eight outings here, but has never won from the pole. And this year he will be competing against Canadian Paul Tracy for the first time since a controversial Indianapolis 500 win over Tracy in 2002.
Iron-man Tony Kanaan comes into the 2009 Indianapolis 500 leading the Formula Indy championship race by a single point over Castroneves’ teammate Ryan Briscoe. Kanaan, who drives the #11 green and white 7-Eleven car, has never started an Indy 500 from worse than 6th position, where he will start this year.
Kanaan, who is the only driver to have led in each of his first outings at Indianapolis, had to cannibalize body parts from teammate Hideki Muto’s car – which has a completely different paint scheme – to qualify on the outside of row two.
Vitor Meira is now driving the red, white and blue #14 ABC Supply car for four-time Indy 500 champion AJ Foyt. Panther Racing inexplicably let Vitor go last year although he had racked up his 2nd second place finish at Indy in only six years in spite of the fact that he had never started from better than Kanaan’s worst starting position, 6th.
Mário Moraes is now a teammate of Paul Tracy on a team that was only formed this year and has surprised everyone by generating so much speed. Mário is significantly faster than last year and qualified just behind Kanaan in 7th. The Thursday after Moraes qualified he had the fastest car in practice, besting even pole sitter Castroneves.
Moraes’ was involved in one of the most bizarre happenings at the track in many years when late in practice on the Friday before the final weekend of qualifying the suction produced by the down-force of his #5 white, black and orange KV Racing entry fractured a brick in the famed “yard of bricks,” which ended the day’s proceedings.
The yard of bricks is three foot (literal ‘yard’) span of red paving bricks at the start-finish line which has been preserved from the years when the two and a half mile oval was completely surfaced in paving bricks. Many winners have ceremonially kissed the bricks at some point after the race.
Raphael Matos will be vying for Rookie of the Year in his first start in the crown jewel of Formula Indy, driving the #2 blue and gray US Air Force-McAfee car. Matos finished first three times while winning the Formula Indy “Indy Lights” developmental league title last year racing for Tony Kanaan’s Andretti-Green Racing team.
Though Kanaan is starting 6th, Moraes 7th, Matos 10th and Meira 12th, less than six tenths of one mile per hour separates their four qualifying speeds. Meira and Kanaan are very arguably the best two Formula Indy drivers to never have won at Indianapolis, and at Indy alone Meira has won US $2,971,735.00 and Kanaan US $2,866,414.00.
There is still a chance that a sixth Brazilian, Bruno Junqueira, who captured the pole in 2002 and finished 5th in both 2001, when he started from the 20th position, and 2004, will qualify. It was only on the morning of the 3rd day of qualifying, that Junqueira “got a ride,” with Conquest Racing. Junqueira would doubtless have been the 2001 Rookie of the Year had not another rookie, Castroneves, won that year!
Conquest was unable to make Junqueira’s #36 car qualification-ready before the end of the 3rd day of qualifications, and 33 cars have now provisionally qualified. That means that Junqueira will have to post a faster speed than one of the 33 provisional entries on “bump day” to displace them in the field.
Finally, there are three more Brazilians “waiting in the wings.” Ana Beatriz Figueiredo, or “Bia,” Mário Romancini and Rodrigo Barbosa are all following in the footsteps of Matos, in Indy Lights. In 2008 Bia became the first woman to win an Indy Lights race.
Bia, Romancini and Barbosa will all suit up for the Indy Lights Freedom 100, which will take place on the Indianapolis track on the Friday before the Sunday Indianapolis 500. Bia, who drives the green and white Healthy Choice entry for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, finished 5th in the Freedom 100 last year.
See the complete starting grid for the 2009 Indianapolis 500 at http://www.indy500.com/grid.
Phillip Wagner, a long-time contributor to Brazzil Magazine, has covered the 500 since 2001. He is the co-founder and director of Georgia based Rhythm of Hope in Brazil, www.rhythmofhope.org, which is actively seeking door support after recently gaining federal nonprofit status. Phillip maintains, and invites Brazzil readers to see, a chronicle of his work at http://rhythmofhope.spaces.live.com/.