Senior staff writer
The merry month of May could not have been worse for fans expecting to see qualifying speeds in excess of 230 mph Sunday, or for Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Ed Carpenter’s airborne crash off Turn 2 Sunday morning was the third such incident in three days that involved three drivers who escaped without injuries. The accident prompted a gathering of IndyCar Series and track officials who decided that all cars would qualify with their race-day setups, meaning less turbocharger pressure and more downforce rather than with higher boost and less downforce.
For Sunday’s qualifications, which had been washed out Saturday, slower was indeed better. There would be no Fast Nine shootout or points awarded for the one-shot time trials.
Carpenter and the combined CFHR team came into the Speedway on a high note after fourth-year driver Josef Newgarden won his first Verizon IndyCar Series road course race in Alabama.
Then came the setbacks for the team.
First, Newgarden was involved in a first-lap crash May 9 in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and finished a lap down.
Second, Newgarden’s No. 21 Century 21 Dallara/Chevrolet slid in Turn 1 during practice for the Indy 500, made contact with the wall, became airborne and did a three-quarter roll. The 2011 Indy Lights champion was not injured and returned May 15 and posted his fastest lap of the week at 227.855 mph.
On the morning of May 17, teammate and co-team owner Carpenter slid in Turn 2, hit the wall, became airborne, struck the catch fence, slid on its side and came to a stop on the backstretch.
Carpenter, totally dejected over the incident, was interviewed on the track’s public address system and said, “These cars are pretty unpredictable with all the changes; there are other things at play other than the aero kits.”
The lengthy meeting favored Carpenter and the CFHR team, which frantically tried to save the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. Instead, the team prepped Carpenter’s back-up car. Five hours after his crash, Carpenter gamely qualified at 224.883 mph, 12th in the starting field.
“When I was upside-down in the car I wasn’t sure if we would have a chance to qualify at all,” said Carpenter, who had sought his third straight 500 pole. “I’m thankful for the way the day turned out timingwise. Especially thankful for the entire CFHR team for thrashing and getting a car together that handled well and had a lot of speed.”
About 80 minutes later, Newgarden qualified for his fourth 500 at 225.187 mph, ninth on the grid. The CFHR crew had rebuilt Newgarden’s car Thursday. J.R. Hildebrand qualified the team’s third entry at 225.099 mph, 10th fastest.
“It’s been a long week for all of us,” Newgarden said. “We had to rebuild a brand-new car and get back up to speed. We have a good team. It’s all about adversity and how all three of our cars are solidly in the field.”
The front row consists of pole winner Scott Dixon, who also won the pole in 2008 and the race in 2007. He qualified the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet at 226.760 mph. Reigning series champion and Team Penske driver Will Power sits in the middle of the row with a speed of 226.350 mph, and teammate Simon Pagenaud is on the outside with a speed of 226.145 mph.
The pole speed was the slowest since 2012, when Ryan Briscoe qualified at 226.484 mph. Carpenter’s pole speed last year was 231.067 mph.
The 99th Indianapolis 500 unfolds Sunday at 12:15 p.m. and no longer appears to be the grand experiment with new aero kits. The fastest five qualifiers were powered by Chevrolet with Justin Wilson, driving for Andretti Autosport, starting sixth with Honda power.
With speeds creeping closer to the 1996 one-lap qualifying record of 237.498 by Arie Luyendyk, series and race officials took a hard look at driver and spectator safety after finding no answers to why the cars involved in the accidents became airborne.
Publicly, most drivers agreed with the qualifying changes, although the Honda camp was miffed because none of its cars were involved in the accidents. Driver Graham Rahal said there was no proof that the Honda would behave the same way in a crash.
KVSH team founder Kevin Kalkhoven said, “The politically correct answer is there could have been more testing, and that would have made a difference. There is still an uncertainty about these body kits.”