Under a new format the first 11 places in the field of 33 are filled on Pole Day for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Six hours of official qualification runs began at noon on Saturday. And on a day when this reporter had to apply SPF 50 sun block five times in ten hours Brazilians Hélio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan were hot and, at the very last minute, scorching.
Under the new rules drivers may have up to three attempts at qualifying. Before they may begin subsequent attempts though they have to withdraw their earlier qualification (assuming they had qualified) and risk not making the field.
Starting from the backÂ – the second 11 spots are filled on the second day of qualifications and the final 11 spots on the following SaturdayÂ – is bad news. Brazilian Felipe Giaffone started 25th and finished 15th in 2004, and Brazilian Airton Dare, in four appearances between 2001 and 2006 started on average from the 31st position and finished on average in 16th.
We have to wonder how much better Airton's fortunes might have been if he had been given a better ride. But the Brazilians, on balance, boast gaudy statistics at Indy. Over the past six years Brazilians have won three times, finished second four times, finished third at least twice and in 2003 swept to a one-two-three finish. In one two-year period (2001-2002) they accounted for eight top-ten finishes.
The sheer number of Brazilians who have qualified for and competed in the Indianapolis 500 since 2001 is overwhelming. They include, Castroneves, Kanaan, Giaffone, Dare, Bruno Junqueira, Raul Boesel, Gil de Ferran, Vitor Meira and Thiago Medeiros. An average number of five Brazilians have competed at Indianapolis since 2001, with a high of seven in 2002. The anticipated number of three this year is a seven year low, but the Brazilians are conceding nothing.
Two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Hélio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, arguably, the best driver to never actually win the 500, were at the center of high drama in the closing minutes of Pole Day 2007. Throughout the preceding week of practice Tony had posted speeds among the top five every day but one. Castroneves had also been rabbit quick all week.
Hélio and Tony are members of two of the top three racing teams at Indy, Team Penske and Andretti Green Racing respectively. Those teams and the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team dominated the proceedings. As the clock wound down Castroneves and Kanaan were sitting in third and fourth place behind Scotsman Dario Franchitti of Andretti Green Racing and New Zealander Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
With about four minutes before the close of qualifications Castroneves, who had withdrawn his starting row 3rd position qualifying run was closing in on securing the Pole in dramatic fashion. There would only be time for one other qualifying run, and Kanaan – who had already withdrawn his first place in the second row qualifying timeÂ – was preparing to take the track.
In a heartbeat Kanaan eclipsed the speed needed to take the Pole from Hélio on the first of his four qualifying laps. His second lap was even faster! Kanaan's third lap was a tad slower, but he still had an average fast enough to overtake Castroneves. The tension was palpable, the fans that had remained for the closing drama rose to their feet, clapping and shouting their approval. Kanaan's final qualifying lap fell just short, the prestige and the US$ 100,000 that accompanied it were Hélio's.
For Team Penske, which has won the 500 with Brazilians Emerson Fittipaldi, Hélio (twice) and Gil de Ferran, this was the fourteenth Pole captured to match fourteen race-day victories. The 2007 event will be the 91st running of the 500, which was founded in 1911 but interrupted during World War II.
How happy was Hélio following the drama? "I think I need a moment here!" he exclaimed as the AAMCO Transmission Pole trophy was presented. Moments later he pointed to his friend Kanaan and shouted "He's right there … there he is … there he is … job well done," then turned back with a broad smile and added "Give me that check, that's it!"
The Close Call
At both the trophy presentation and the press conference which followed, Hélio suggested the decision to withdraw his earlier front row 3rd position qualifying time was influenced by the aggressive confidence of the Team Penske race team. "They told me," he said, a little tongue-in-cheek "whatever decision you make we're 100% behind you and I thought 'darn it,' now I gotta go for it."
He later confessed that "Sometimes it's a little bit tough, I mean you have to hold it, you have to make it, but it's really great that you can have guys (behind you) that you trust".
As the press conference wound down Hélio added that "Like Tim says" (Team Penske President Tim Cindric), "this is the place to take a chance." Fortunately for racing fans the good-natured Hélio's gamble was better than his English.
"It's like crabs," he said to ripples of amusement "a roll of the dice". Say it any way you like, Hélio, the stands will be full of fans at the world's largest single day sporting event come May 27, and many, many of them will be rooting for you!
Phillip Wagner is a long-time contributor to Brazzil Magazine, and has covered the Indianapolis 500 since 2001. He is, at present, at Indiana University where he is doing post-graduate studies after receiving a Masters in Latin American and Caribbean Studies in 2006. He is the founder and director of Rhythm of Hope in Brazil at www.rhythmofhope.org and has personal web pages at www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm.