Photos © IndyCar
If there’s anyone who would be forgiven for being a fan of guaranteed starting positions in the Indianapolis 500 for NTT IndyCar Series regulars, it’s James Hinchcliffe.
After all, he’s had a pretty brutal run of luck in qualifying at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the past couple of years.
Last year, due to a series of unfortunate events involving a broken tire pressure sensor and a miscommunication over timing, Hinchcliffe didn’t qualify for the Indy 500 at all. Not only did it cost him a shot at winning North American open-wheel racing’s most coveted prize, but because finishing positions in the 500 award twice the championship points, any hope he’d had of taking a run at the 2018 series title was immediately shot.
“I don’t think any double-points races should exist,” Hinchcliffe told Wheels.ca at a recent Indianapolis 500 media preview event in Toronto. “I think they’re asinine, and I really hope that we never see them after 2019.”
Fast-forward to this year, when Hinchcliffe came within 13 one-hundredths of a second of missing the race again. A brutal crash early in qualifying on Saturday saw his team thrash to piece together a back-up car. It was ready to roll two and a half hours later – a monumental feat in itself – but Hinchcliffe and his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew couldn’t wring enough speed out of it in time to lock in a spot in the field.
That forced the No. 5 Arrow car into Sunday’s Last Row Shootout, a new format for this year that saw Saturday’s six slowest cars get one four-lap run each at claiming the final three spots.
Just as Hinchcliffe had in 2018, three drivers packed up and went home on Sunday afternoon – including Formula One veteran Fernando Alonso, who in a shock twist was bumped out of the 33rd and final position by sophomore entrant and relative unknown Kyle Kaiser.
Hinchcliffe, despite the disadvantage of being the first car out on a track that had just seen hours of heavy rain, will be the lone Canadian in the race on Sunday. His four-lap average speed of 227.543 miles per hour – that’s roughly 366 kilometres per hour, for two and a half minutes straight – was good enough for the 32nd starting position, in the middle of the last row.
The difference between the run that got Hinchcliffe into the field and the one that saw Alonso get bumped was roughly two and a half car lengths. In other words, across four laps and 10 miles (16 kilometres), Hinchcliffe made this year’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing by the length of a transport truck.
“I wouldn’t even really say that it was a joyous moment because it wasn’t,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was an incredible amount of relief. We never expected to be in that position again, so it wasn’t elation. It was just, oh, thank God it didn’t go the other way.
“It was very sobering, the whole thing. But I think we were better equipped to deal with it after what happened last year and understood just how precarious the situation was.”
In light of the harrowing ride he’s been through over the last two years, doesn’t he agree with the growing uprising that suggests full-time competitors in the IndyCar Series, the ones who bring big-money sponsors and invest in all 17 races, deserve to be spared this anguish and granted guaranteed starting spots for the biggest race on the calendar?
“I don’t support locked-in positions,” Hinchcliffe said. “What I support is the Indianapolis 500 being an exhibition race.
“Indy is so unique. It’s not like any other race. It’s not formatted like any other race. It’s not qualified like any other race. It should not pay points like any other race.
“That way, no one can argue that full-time entries deserve a spot. The fastest 33 cars deserve a spot. Yes, the full-time entries have a more vested interest in growing the series as a whole, but if this isn’t part of the championship, they lose part of that argument.
“You’re still going to say it’s about the media exposure, it’s the biggest race, et cetera. Well, that’s fine. Don’t suck. Get in the race.”
As Hinchcliffe says himself, although his day job puts him on the go-fast side of the pit wall, he is still fundamentally a race fan. That’s why, despite the 36 hours of agony he just endured, he sees the value in the Last Row Shootout and doesn’t think it should be toyed with much at all.
“If you look at what happened last year, the bumping was happening while other guys are still trying to get into the Fast Nine (Shootout that sets the first three rows) and other guys are trying to just improve on their position,” Hinchcliffe said. “There wasn’t that moment of, okay, the only focus now is the cars that are trying to qualify.
“And you get one attempt. It’s none of this we’re going to go back, try and cool the car off, make a change and come back. I think that sort of pressure on the teams is exciting for fans, (and) that format is more exciting to watch and keeps the story in one place.”
As for netting a win in the big show on Sunday, history is not in Hinchcliffe’s favour. Although it was another Canadian, Toronto’s Scott Goodyear, who in 1992 came the closest to going from last to first by famously starting 33rd and finishing 2nd to Al Unser, Jr., in what remains the closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history, no driver in 102 races has ever claimed victory after starting in the last row.
When he thinks about what a good day would look like for him on Sunday, Hinchcliffe therefore takes a bigger-picture approach.
“It’s a bit silly, I think, to try to put too much of a numerical goal on what a good day would be,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s the old adage: to finish first, you first must finish. It’s a double points race. (Not finishing) that one is a huge blow to your season.
“We can’t control cautions. We can’t control other cars. We can’t control a lot of things. But as long as we can roll the car in the trailer on Sunday and feel as though we executed on everything we had control over, then I think that’s something we can claim as a successful Indy 500.”
Coverage of the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 begins at 11:00 AM Eastern on Sunday, May 26th and will be available across Canada on NBC.