Tags Bags Pole For 100th Indianapolis 500

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 21 2011

Alex Tagliani and Sam Schmidt Motorsports shocked the big boys on Pole Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Saturday. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Native Canadian Alex Tagliani is fluent in English, French and Italian. And any way he prefers to say it – fast, vite or veloce – Tags was the class of the field during Pole Day qualifications for the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500.

Backing up his impressive speed numbers from practice, Tagliani, of Sam Schmidt Motorsports bagged the PEAK Performance Pole Award presented by AutoZone during the Fast Nine segment Saturday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The final driver to qualify, Tagliani’s four-lap/10-mile average around the 2.5-mile oval of 227.472 mph allowed him to grab P1 from Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, who averaged 227.340 mph. Meanwhile, Oriol Servia of Newman/Haas Racing will start from the outside of the three-car front row after posting a four-lap average of 227.168 mph.

Tagliani, 28, is the first Canadian-born driver to win an Indy 500 pole.  His previous best start at IMS was fifth in 2010, with the FAZZT Race Team he founded. Schmidt, a former IZOD IndyCar Series driver who was paralyzed after an accident in testing in 2000, acquired the assets of FAZZT in March 2011 with the idea of challenging series juggernauts Ganassi Racing and Team Penske.

“I’m probably going to be pinching myself until I go to bed,” said Tagliani, driver of the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Dallara-Honda. “It’s been an amazing team effort. We have a great group of people, and the additions with the other cars. I had good input from

Alex Tagliani picked up some hardware at Indy Saturday.

Townsend (Bell) and Dan (Wheldon) and it’s been nice to work as a big group this week.

“I wanted this one so bad.”

Recall that Tagliani was bumped from the 33-car field in 2009. He did start that race, however, as a replacement for Bruno Junqueira in the Conquest Racing entry and went on to earn Rookie of the Year  honors via an 11th-place finish after starting last.

“This is a reward for Sam as well,” Tagliani said of Schmidt, who is celebrating his 10th year as a team owner at IMS. “He got involved and helped to continue (the organization). He’s an amazing team leader and this is a great result for him. I hope there’s more to come.”

Twenty-four starting positions were filled on the first day, with the remaining nine scheduled to be determined during Sunday’s Bump Day. At least 15 drivers are expected to make qualifying attempts to secure a spot in the May 29 classic, including Andretti Autosport teammates Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti, Mike Conway and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

“I felt that we had a fast car not only today, but all month, and thought we would hit a 226 during today’s qualifying run,” said Patrick, driver of the No. 7 Team GoDaddy entry. “I felt really comfortable with the car, and it felt effortlessly fast and it wasn’t really slow until this morning. All I can think of is something we missed or something happened with the track, maybe, and everyone is putting a new set of rubber on and it changed. We just have to buckle down at this point. I guess we are going to have to risk it a little more come tomorrow.”

Andretti, who was concerned about his car’s lack of speed all week in practice, was equally perplexed after Saturday’s run in the No. 26 Team Venom entry.

“We haven’t made any improvements,”  Andretti said. “We were slow when we rolled off the truck, and we’re still slow in qualifying. It’s beyond me. I don’t have an answer, and

Michael Andretti is stumped at Indy.

that’s why I’m super-frustrated right now. I’m really nervous about qualifying. I think as long as we can field this car, we can win. It’s just whether we can field this car right now. We’re in a bad spot.”

Once 33 spots are filled, the traditional bumping process will begin. Each entrant will have three attempts to qualify for this historic edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

The emotional tone of Tagliani’s and Schmidt’s post-qualifying remarks spoke volumes about their combined wills to succeed.

“Yeah, I mean, I’m rarely at a loss for words, but this has been difficult ever since it happened to put it into words,” said Schmidt, whose career was ended by spinal injuries suffered in an accident at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Fla. At that point, Schmidt had started the Indy 500 in 1997, 1998 and 1999 with a best result of 26th in ’98.

“I mean, in California (I) grew up watching Rick Mears and just dreamed about coming to this place,” said Schmidt, referring to the four-time Indy 500 winner who qualified on-pole a record six times for car-owner Roger Penske. “And then my dad was actually a team-owner here for the Donald Davidsons of the world in 1978 and ’79, and they didn’t have any great success. And then started coming here, drove here. It’s truly huge. Whether it’s the 100th anniversary, whether it’s the adversity that this team has overcome and Alex has overcome personally, whatever. I mean, it’s just really, really large.”

Tagliani earned the second IndyCar pole for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. The team’s other pole came in 2001 at Richmond, Va., with Jaques Lazier driving. Tagliani, who now resides in Indianapolis, is a native of Lachenaie, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal. The previous best starting spot for a Canadian driver was third by Scott Goodyear in 1995.

Row 2 is occupied by Bell, whose fourth grid spot in the No. 99 Herbalife Schmidt Pelfrey Racing entry is a career-best at IMS ; IndyCar Series points-leader Will Power – who

Townsend Bell was a Pole Day qualifier at Indy on Saturday.

started on-pole for Team Penske in the first four races of 2011 in the No. 12 Verizon car – and 2005 Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon in the No. 98 William Rast-Curb/Big Machine car.

Buddy Rice, the ’04 race-winner, qualified in Row 3 in the No. 44 Panther Racing car alongside Ed Carpenter’s No. 67 Dollar General/Sarah Fisher Racing entry and Dario Franchitti, the two-time/reigning Indy 500 champion in TCGR’s No. 10 Dallara-Honda.

Franchitti appeared to be on pace to grab the provisional pole with an average of 227.043 mph through three laps during the Fast Nine.  Incredibly, the No. 10 car ran out of fuel on the final lap. Ganassi teammate Dixon said his car also ran out of fuel, but after completing the 10-mile sprint.

“We were pretty close on setup with the Target car, but not good enough for the pole today,” said Franchitti, the three-time/reigning IndyCar Series champion. “We were definitely good enough for third place. We obviously ran out of fuel at the end of the third lap and that was it. It’s disappointing for us, but I’m happy for Sam Schmidt, Allen McDonald (Franchitti’s former engineer), Alex Tagliani and their whole team.”

Franchitti’s ninth-place grid spot is the Scotsman’s lowest Indy 500 starting position since 2006, when he qualified 17th. Franchitti started third in each of the last three years he has participated in the Indy 500 _ in 2007, 2009 and 2010. He went on to win series championships in each of those seasons.

A brief shower cut short the first round of qualifying by 23 minutes and limited the

A dazed Ryan Briscoe is removed from his car after a crash at Indy.

scheduled 90 minutes of the Fast Nine to one attempt by each entrant. After Rice posted a four-lap average of 225.786 mph in the No. 44 Panther car, Servia checked-in at 227.168 mph in the No. 2 Telemundo entry to move into second. The Brazilian sat there until supplanted by Dixon and Tagliani.

“I couldn’t believe we were in the top nine and then we decided to go all-out at it and the Telemundo car was really fast,” said Servia, who did not compete in the IndyCar Series in 2010. “I’m just very proud of the whole crew. The work they put in over the winter, even with the uncertainty, when we didn’t know 100 percent what the program was going to be. To be on the front row is just unbelievable.”

Servia’s run put Newman/Haas Racing on Row 1 for the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since 1993, when Mario Andretti started second.

In addition, this is the first time since 2005 that three different teams occupy the front row for the Indy 500 – SSM on-pole with Tagliani, Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dixon second and Newman/Haas Racing’s Servia  third. In 2005, the front row saw Andretti Green Racing’s Tony Kanaan on-pole, Marlboro Team Penske’s Sam Hornish Jr., second and Delphi Fernandez Racing third with Scott Sharp.

Saturday’s results also marked the first time since 2004 that a Team Penske car failed qualify on the front row. Helio Castroneves, a three-time race-winner, will start 16th – the inside of Row 6 in the No. 3 Shell V-Power/Pennzoil Ultra Team entry. It’s the Brazilian’s lowest grid spot in 11 starts. His previous low was 13th in 2002, when he earned his second victory. This will be Castroneves’ 11th Indy 500 start.

“The track definitely changed for us from Friday to today; the same for everyone,” said

Helio Castroneves did not win this year's Indy 500 pole.

Castroneves, who posted the fastest lap of the month at 228.611 mph during Fast Friday. “The wind was a big factor. Certainly, we tried everything we could. We went a little bit conservative this morning. We started pushing, and it wasn’t quite the way we expected. So we decided to go back like yesterday when we were very solid; great. But all of the sudden, we were just 225.2. The gear wasn’t pulling the speed we wanted. So it’s a big question mark.

“It’s just so interesting how one small change we did turned out to be kind of like a big change out there. But this is Indy, baby.”

Takuma Sato qualified 10th, an Indianapolis 500 career-best for the driver of the No. 5 Monavie-Panasonic –KV Racing Technology Lotus. Sato’s previous best was 31st in 2010, his only previous start. And JR Hildebrand, driver of the No. 4 National Guard entry of Panther Racing, emerged as the highest-qualifying rookie in 12th. It’s the highest starting position by a rookie since 2009, when Raphael Matos also qualified 12th.

Earning the 24th spot was second-year IndyCar regular Simona de Silvestro, who was cleared to drive Friday after suffering second-degree burns to her right hand and superficial burns to left hand in a crash during practice on Thursday. De Silvestro posted a four-lap average of 224.392 mph in her backup No. 78 car fielded by HVM Racing.

“I was pretty nervous out there,”  said de Silvestro, the 2010 Indianapolis 500 Chase

Simona de Silvestro is in the field.

Rookie of the Year.  “I really have to thank Nuclear Clean Air Energy for the support they’ve given me. The team, too, they worked really hard to get the car back together. A day ago, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get back in the car. I was really freaked-out about it. But I think I made the right decision to get back in, and the doctors have taken really good care of me.

“After the crash, I was like, ‘I don’t need this. This is too crazy. It’s way too dangerous.’ You know, after a while you’re back to being a race car driver and thinking, ‘Nah, I can do this.’ And you suck it up. This morning, I felt pretty good. Then I went to qualify and thought, ‘Ah, I’m not too sure about that.’ And especially when you’re sitting (waiting to go qualify) and they’re showing your crash on the screen. It’s like, really? Thanks. But it’s great, the crowd, too. They’ve really lifted me up yesterday and today. Because of them, I really want to do something well here.”

Earlier, rookie Ho-Pin Tung of China sustained a “minor” concussion in the only incident during qualifying when the No. 8 Dragon Schmidt Racing car made hard contact in Turn 2.

Results of qualifying Saturday for the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 IZOD IndyCar Series event on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with Rank, car number in parentheses, driver, chassis-engine, time and speed in parentheses:

1. (77) Alex Tagliani, Dallara-Honda, 02:38.2613 (227.472)

2. (9) Scott Dixon, Dallara-Honda, 02:38.3528 (227.340)

3. (2) Oriol Servia, Dallara-Honda, 02:38.4727 (227.168)

4. (99) Townsend Bell, Dallara-Honda, 02:38.6696 (226.887)

5. (12) Will Power, Dallara-Honda, 02:38.7493 (226.773)

6. (98) Dan Wheldon, Dallara-Honda, 02:38.9477 (226.171)

7. (44) Buddy Rice, Dallara-Honda, 02:39.4431 (225.786)

8. (67) Ed Carpenter, Dallara-Honda, 02:39.9137 (225.121)

9. (10) Dario Franchitti, Dallara-Honda, 02:39.0253 (226.379)

10. (5) Takuma Sato, Dallara-Honda, 02:39.4785 (225.736)

11. (14) Vitor Meira, Dallara-Honda, 02:39.5814 (225.590)

12. (4) JR Hildebrand, Dallara-Honda, 02:39.5895 (225.579)

13. (06) James Hinchcliffe, Dallara-Honda, 02:39.5942 (225.572)

14. (30) Bertrand Baguette, Dallara-Honda, 02:39.7973 (225.285)

15. (11) Davey Hamilton, Dallara-Honda, 02:39.8223 (225.250)

16. (3) Helio Castroneves, Dallara-Honda, 02:39.8464 (225.216)

17. (43) John Andretti, Dallara-Honda, 02:40.0133 (224.981)

18. (59) EJ Viso, Dallara-Honda, 02:40.1907 (224.732)

19. (41) Bruno Junqueira, Dallara-Honda, 02:40.2203 (224.691)

20. (22) Justin Wilson, Dallara-Honda, 02:40.3488 (224.511)

21. (88) Jay Howard, Dallara-Honda, 02:40.3685 (224.483)

22. (07) Tomas Scheckter, Dallara-Honda, 02:40.4040 (224.433)

23. (82) Tony Kanaan, Dallara-Honda, 02:40.4156 (224.417)

24. (78T) Simona de Silvestro, Dallara-Honda, 02:40.4335 (224.392)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 21 2011
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