2023 Indy Qual Day 1 wrap up

What! A! Day!

As an old, traditionalist curmudgeon, I’ve made no secret about the fact that I would love to see the Indianapolis 500 return to it’s old, time-honored qualification procedure with each car getting to take the green flag a maximum of three times and only getting to take the checkered flag one time. But with the non-stop action that took place today, including a record shattering 85 qualification attempts, I am starting to understand more and more the allure of this format.

Let’s start with the good stories of the day. First and foremost, the fact that Abel Motorsports, a team that has run an Indy car on track exactly four days now safely qualified in the 29th position, ahead of four full-time IndyCar entrants and an Indy one-off should not ever be overlooked. This is the type of story that has built the lore of the Indianapolis 500 over many, many decades and the type of story that the Hulman-George family sought to preserve for many, many years. This is certainly a storyline that makes guys like John Menard and Ron Hemelgarn proud. While many prognosticators justifiably put Abel Motorsports and RC Enerson on the short list of teams likely to occupy the unfortunate 34th position at the end of qualifying, the upstart IndyCar team showed what deliberate hard work will do.

Speaking of the smaller teams, storylines 1b and 1c for the day have to be the days of Juncos Hollinger Racing and AJ Foyt Racing, both small teams who had great days for different reasons. For JHR and the #77 car of Callum Ilott, the reversal of fortune over the last 24 hours has been little short of miraculous.

After suffering through several practices in what could only be described as an “evil” car, the JHR team made the difficult decision late yesterday afternoon to abandon the primary car and move to the back up. In a major effort, the team had most of the car put together and ready for action by 10:00 last night, well in advance of this morning’s 8:30 practice. When Ilott took the car onto the track for practice, speed was still slow to come, but the car reportedly felt much better than the primary car had felt all along. Ilott’s first attempt was not fast enough to qualify, but his second effort put him solidly in the field, ultimately settling in 28th position (inside Row 10) and only one spot behind his teammate.

On the other end of the pylon, the AJ Foyt Racing teammates of Santino Ferrucci and Benjamin Pedersen both turned in stellar performances and put both Foyt cars into the Top 12 shootout tomorrow. While Foyt has had some good runs at Indianapolis recently (particularly in 2018 with Tony Kanaan), it has mostly been tough sledding for the Texas-based outfit. Ferrucci showed promising speed on Friday with a lap good enough for P7, but Pedersen hadn’t showed matching speed. Nonetheless, both drivers had excellent runs and are now locked into the top four rows.

But unfortunately for the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team, today simply confirmed what we had feared all week. That team is in serious trouble, and it now seems almost assured one of their drivers will be on the sideline of the Indianapolis 500 next week. All three of the teams full-time entrants failed to secure a Top 30 spot today and will join Dale Coyne Racing’s Sting Ray Robb in the Last Chance Shootout tomorrow. Only Katherine Legge, the team’s one-off entry, saved the Ohio-based outfit from complete disaster with a run just barely fast enough to lock her into the field. She’ll start next Sunday’s race in the 30th position, but she will be starting the race (assuming no backdoor antics play out over the next few days).

For whatever reason, the RLLR team just seems lost and unable to find their way back. It’s a surprising and shocking turnaround from the team that won the 2020 Indianapolis 500 and put Graham Rahal in a position to win the 2021 race. In September 2022, RLLR announced they had hired Stefano Sordo as their new technical director after a six-year run with the McLaren F1 team. In a result not totally dissimilar to when Schmidt Peterson Motorsports hired sports car engineer Leena Gade to engineer James Hinchcliffe’s car in 2018 and ended in him being bumped from the field, the highly-credentialed European road racing veteran doesn’t seem to be improving the fortunes of RLLR’s oval program. After what can only be described as a disastrous month thus far, it will be interesting to see what changes stem from the team’s post-mortem. One thing is for certain though – Bobby Rahal isn’t going to accept the status quo for much longer. Nor is Graham Rahal, who has already publicly questioned whether he will drive for the team next year or seek greener pastures.

Team Penske also suffered through another lackluster performance today (though not RLLR-level lackluster), placing only one driver (Will Power) into the Top 12 despite of making multiple attempts with both Scott McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden. Both McLaughlin and Newgarden passed on their original qualifying position and elected to make their first qualifying runs later in the day. Whether or not that truly impacted their ultimate failure to make the Top 12 is tough to say. Nonetheless, the cars of McLaughlin and Newgarden will start from the middle of rows five and six, respectively, and Will Power doesn’t seem destined to start very much further forward than those two. Newgarden was quick to say the team simply didn’t perform well again today while heaping praise on the efforts of both Arrow McLaren (who put all four of their cars into the Top 12) and Chevrolet (who claimed eight of the Top 12 positions).

Speaking of Arrow McLaren, it was obviously a great day for that team as Felix Rosenqvist, Alexander Rossi, Tony Kanaan, and Pato O’Ward all put their cars in the Top 12. While many were wondering earlier in the week if Ganassi Racing would finally match Penske’s 1988 feat of sweeping the entire front row (a feat still not duplicated), the question is quickly shifting to whether McLaren can pull off that feat. Rossi sat atop the provisional lineup for most of the day until teammate Rosenqvist swiped that spot late in the day. Whatever that team has figured out has really made them strong here this week, and they are going to be tough to beat tomorrow and next Sunday!

It was also a less-than-pleasing day for the Andretti Autosport quintet. While they did lock in all five of their cars, their speeds were only good enough for positions 15 (Kirkwood), 19 (Grosjean), 21 (Herta), 24 (Andretti), and 26 (DeFrancesco). Those are definitely not the qualifying results the team was hoping for when they looked strong earlier in the week, but it likely reflects where that team really is right now.

It’s ben a while since I remember a day actually nicer than this at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Sunny skies and temperatures in the 60s throughout the day made for pleasant viewing. I’m awful with trying to even guess the crowd size, but it appeared today’s crowd was quite healthy. No, it wasn’t 150,000 like there used to be, but I would guess maybe a solid 20,000-30,000? Regardless of how many people were here, I think they were thoroughly entertained. I don’t believe I ever remember a qualifying day where the track was never opened for practice as qualifying runs pretty much run unbroken from the 11:00 start to the 5:50 closing gun.

With an exciting qualifying format that keeps drama going throughout the day and qualifying speeds that are getting very close to the track record, hopefully IMS and INDYCAR have hit on a magic combination that will bring bigger crowds back to the facility for qualifying days. I’m sure it would greatly help if we had 38-40 cars vying for those 33 positions, but that is a full post for another time. What we have now is what we have, and so long as there are 34 or 35 cars gunning for 33 positions, this will still be an exciting show.

With that, I’ll wrap it up for today here at IMS. Tomorrow is a late starting day with the schedule as follows:

  • 11:30 – 12:30; practice for Top 12
  • 12:30 – 1:30; practice for Last Chance Qualifiers
  • 2:00 – 3:00; Top 12 qualifying (one attempt per car)
  • 4:00 – 5:00; Last Chance Qualifying (each car has unlimited attempts within the time slot)
  • 5:15 – 5:45; Firestone Fast Six (one attempt per car)

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