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The Unusual Suspects Heat Up Indianapolis

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 26 2010

Ed Carpenter was among the group of unlikely stars of Pole Day weekend at Indy. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD Indy Racing League)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Indianapolis – Their names are fairly familiar. Their faces, kind of familiar. The names of their teams, familiar in some cases.

But there they sat last Saturday, on stage in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway media center as part of the group which will start the biggest race in the world from the front three rows.

So, when it comes to top candidates to win the 2010 Indianapolis 500, call them the Unusual Suspects.

And a great story they are. Dario Franchitti, the Target Chip Ganassi driver who won the 2007 500 and who will start Sunday’s race from the front row, called the group of unlikely contenders the “real story” of qualifying weekend.

That group includes:

Graham Rahal – The son of the 1986 500 winner, Bobby Rahal, who started the season without a full-time ride. He has hooked up with an ad hoc team put together by his father and

Graham Rahal put a car that had not been on a track in a year at the front of the Indy 500 grid. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD Indy Racing League)

is using equipment which has sat under tarps in the Rahal Letterman Racing shop since last year’s race. He qualified seventh fastest.

Alex Tagliani – A wonderfully personable Canadian, he has been a big story at Indy since the track opened for practice a week and a half ago. He has been flat fast. He is driving for something called FAZZT Race team. The new team is owned by a group of partners, one of whom is actor and former driver, Jason Priestley. “Tags” qualified fifth.

Ed Carpenter – Carpenter was thrown out of work when Vision Racing went on hiatus from the series earlier this year. But, with help from Panther Racing and getting sponsorship from the vodka brand owned by golfer Fuzzy Zoeller, the team showed up at Indy ready to race. Carpenter qualified eighth.

Hideki Mutoh – Mutoh, who drove for Michael Andretti’s team the last two seasons and was the top rookie qualifier at Indy in 2008, is driving for Newman/Haas/Lanigan this year. Make no mistake, this is not the N/H/L team of past years. With Paul Newman’s death and Carl Haas taking a lesser roll, the team is no longer a power. But it was powerful on Pole Day and Mutoh will start ninth.

The success of the Unusual Suspects has surprised some of the drivers themselves.

“For us,” Rahal said, “we only decided to do this two weeks ago. The cars were still blue from last year, kind of sitting in the corner of the shop. I think for our guys to bolt something together, to come out here, I think we feel pretty good.”

Carpenter, on the other hand, said while he did not expect to challenge for the pole, he figured he might be in pretty good shape at Indy.

“I feel that coming in, the cars had good speed,” he said. “Dan (Wheldon, Panther’s full-time driver) was really fast at Kansas. It wasn’t like we didn’t think we were going to have a chance at the top nine.”

Qualifying well for the 500 is tough. Winning the race is tougher.

Over the course of the Sunday before Memorial Day, the top teams generally stake out the fronts of the fields.

In this decade, only once has a driver seated in a car owned by somebody other than top teams Target Chip Ganassi, Team Penske and Andretti Autosport won the 500. That one driver was Buddy Rice, who was driving for a Rahal Letterman team which at that time – 2004 – was also a top-tier team.

“Now the work starts,” Tagliani said. “You have a long race. A lot of things happen.”

Good things can happen too. They can be made to happen.

“I’m here to win the Indy 500. First and foremost,” Carpenter said. “I think that is priority No. 1.”

To achieve the top priority, it can be extremely helpful to start at the front of the field. And this group has that going for it.

“I think Scott Roembke’s (the long-time Rahal Letterman general manager) line when we first showed up here was, ‘If you want to be a fast guy, run with the fast guys.’ For us to start up there, it’s extremely important. To be able to run with the guys that you know are going to be in contention at the end of this, it’s a good starting spot for us.”

You can call that group at the front of the field underdogs or surprises or Unusual Suspects. Just don’t call them lucky.

“As drivers,” Carpenter said, “you believe in yourself and you know what you are capable of. I learned a long time not to worry about what people think of me.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 26 2010
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