Note from Steve: Once again, we welcome Butch Welsch to TSO. Butch is our favorite guest writer during the “Month of May,” and his yearly previews are a must read. Butch has been to every Indianapolis 500 since 1948 – this year will be his 72nd in a row.. He has been sitting in the front row of the Paddock Penthouse near the start/finish line since those seats were added in 1961. Butch is in the heating and cooling business and Welsch Heating & Cooling has sponsored Robby McGehee in the past and also owns a 1937 midget.
By Butch Welcsh
It appears that every year it becomes more difficult to handicap the field for the Indy “500”. The reason is that every year IT IS more difficult because the quality and the closeness of the field means that there is a possibility of 20 or so different drivers taking the checkered flag first. Compare that to Formula 1. I’ll pick two and give you the other 18 and take my chances. Not in Indy Car. That said I am committed to pass along my thoughts regarding this year’s field of 33.
First a few general comments. We have no pre-500 oval races to provide us with information on how the teams will react to an oval. This year I am not really taking into account whether a driver is powered by a Honda or a Chevy. This really seems to be a non-issue. They both seem to be very close in speed and reliability issues have not surfaced either. It appears that the key to this year’s race has to do with the team’s ability to get the right balance in the handling of the car. We’ve heard multiple statements in interviews about how different the four turns are to drive, with the emphasis on the difficulty in turn 2. For us old timers, it seemed like turn 3 was always the trickiest one, but that has seemed to have changed to turn two.
In fact, the accidents which have occurred, except for Alonzo’s where he just drifted high in turn 3 and pancaked the wall, have all occurred in turn 2, and starting at about the same position on the track. I will now share a real concern I have about this year’s race. The cars which have spun in turn 2 did do with apparently very little or no warning to the driver. I am concerned that if cars are running in the 10 to 15 car packs which we have seen in recent years, if someone loses control like that, with many cars behind him or her, it could be a very serious situation. I hate to be an alarmist but I do think it is something that we will have to watch for.
To summarize, the team which has the ability to make the right changes and improvements to the car’s handling is going to be the one which can pass anywhere and therefore has the best chance to be in front at the end.
So on to my thoughts about this year’s field. I have split them into 3 groups again. Group 1 The most likely; Group 2 the group that if luck falls their way they might do it and finally Group 3, the group that is not going to be drinking the milk on race day.
Starting with the front row. Simon Pagenaud, who a month ago seemed to be in a tenuous position in his job, now is coming off a win in the Indy Grand Prix and his first pole win at the Speedway. Momentum and confidence are an important motivating factor in any sport and that includes auto racing. With his new found confidence, not to mention his Penske team there to make adjustments, certainly puts the Frenchman near the top of the favorites.
Ed Carpenter has shown year in and year out to have speed at the Speedway. Since he grew up at the place, I have wondered if he sneaks out at night and practices racing around the track – he is that good at the Speedway. He is coming off of a close second place finish last year and would love to finish that one place higher. I’m not sure that his team can produce the lightening like pits stops of a Penske, but am sure that an Ed Carpenter win would produce a crowd reaction rivaling that we heard when Tony Kanaan won in 2013.
For my next top group pick, I have gone to fifth starter, Will Power. Will obviously got a big weight off of his shoulders by winning last year. There is no reason to assume that he has slowed down any, and he still has the Penske team making those important pit stops. The only asterisk for Will is that it is very uncommon for there to be back to back winners at the Speedway. Helio Castro Neves was the last in 2001 and 2002 while the previous one before that was Al Unser, Sr. in 1970 and 1971. The odds are not with Will this year.
Keeping with the Penske theme is last year’s Series Champion, Josef Newgarden. This youngster is fast and has obviously shown his consistency by winning the Championship. His luck has not been great at the Speedway with an 8th, 19th, and 3rd the last three years. I truly believe he eventually will be a multi-time winner as he matures. Again, he has the Penske knowledge to help keep up with the car’s handling. Being almost a local boy, since he is from Nashville, a win would be extremely popular.
The 2016 winner. Alexander Rossi, is the highest starting driver from the Michael Andretti stable. After some of the outside passes which Alexander pulled off in 2018, in order to wind up fourth, and since he is in the same car from the same team he definitely has to be high on the favorites list. A first, seventh and fourth in his 3 starts is also impressive. A win would not be surprising.
Marco Andretti has compiled an excellent record at the Speedway, but has just never had that little bit of luck needed to be the winner. Will we ever forget in 2006 when Marco was trailed by his dad at the head of the straightaway coming to the checkered flag and then they both got passed by Sam Hornish as they came to the line. Since he is usually near the front, if Marco can shed the Andretti jinx, a win would be possible.
The Penske driver starting the furthest back is surprisingly Helio Castro Neves. His credentials need no explanation. He is a 3-time winner who would love no more than to join that small club of 4 timers. His concentration is now on sports cars and I wonder if the same intensity and drive are still there? It would, however, be really neat to see him climb the fence for the fourth time.
Tony Kanaan carries the AJ Foyt racing colors from the inside of row 6. Tony is still probably the most popular of Indy Car drivers and the fans would love to see him drink the milk again. The question here is not skill or motivation but whether or not the team can make the changes necessary to stay up with an ever-changing track to keep the car handling to Tony’s satisfaction.
Last but certainly not least in the top group is none other than 18th starting Scott Dixon. It is a real shock to have Scott starting that far back. However, Scott didn’t become a five-time series champion without possessing the ability to overcome adversity. After all, this is a 500-mile race, with around 8 pit stops, and plenty of time for his excellent Chip Ganassi team to make the necessary handling adjustments to put Scott up near the front.
So this completes my group 1. You will note it has only 9. It was extremely difficult separating some of the Group 2 drivers from Group 1 and I could have just added 2 from Group 2 into Group 1. However, I have to go with what I feel are the realistic chances keeping in mind not only the driver but the ability of each team to perform flawlessly. So, on to Group 2.
It may not seem right to put the drivers who are starting 3rd and 4th into Group 2. However, Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones are both out of the Ed Carpenter team. While they have shown good speed at the Speedway, there is still the question of whether or not the team can deliver the pit stops and handling changes necessary to send either one of them to victory lane. It’s true that Jones should have been Rookie of the Year in 2017 when he finished 3rd in a Dale Coyne car, only to be out politicked by Fernando Alonzo. However his performance in a Ganassi car last year was less than stellar. Pigot’s record of an 18th and 19th in the last two “500” are not representative of a challenger. It would be fun to see a car from Ed Carpenter’s team take the checkered flag first, but the boss has the best chance.
The surprise of 2019 has been the performance of Colton Herta and the Harding Steinbrenner team. They have outperformed far and above expectations. That said, however, Colton is a young rookie and the Harding Team is still really in its early stages. While they have a win at The Circuit of the America’s, this is a 500-mile oval track race, and a top ten finish would be an excellent day for this driver and team.
Sebastien Bourdais has an excellent third-row starting position and his Championships in the CART Series are certainly testimonies to his ability. However, I don’t feel that the Dale Coyne Team, even with Vasser and Sullivan, have all of the ingredients to avoid the mistakes which can’t happen for a driver to win over this closely bunched field.
It was with a considerable amount of thought that I have put Takuma Sato and his Teammate Bobby Rahal in Group 2. For Sato, when it all came together under the Andretti Autosports banner in 2017, there was Tako in Victory Lane. However, the Rahal Team is not the same team as Andretti and while they have made steps to improve, they haven’t shown the ability to consistently be a winner in a race as long as the 500. Graham has experienced a mediocre record at the Speedway and the fact that he qualified all the way back in 17th position, makes one wonder if the team has the track figured out this year. An All-American boy from a great pedigree would make a good story but I don’t feel that they are in that position at this time.
Oriol Servia comes to the Speedway each year and typically shows speed. He is a driver who, if everything fell his way could be a surprise. This year he is with the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team and this is a “one-off” race for him. If Oriol had a full-time ride with one of the top teams I believe he might be challenging for the season’s championship. In his current role, a top 10 finish would be a good day for him.
I am delighted to see Dreyer and Reinbold back at the Speedway again this year. Every year they step up to the plate and bring one or two cars. Since they only run at the Speedway, experience has shown that their odds of a top finish are not very good. In Group 2 we have J. R. Hildebrand. I feel J.R. deserves to be in Group 2 because he has shown an ability to be competitive at the Speedway. If anyone should feel the Speedway owes him one – especially the fourth turn – it’s J.R. Hildebrand. While I’m not sure the one-off team can carry him to the win if everything fell into place he is a driver who could definitely race his way home and you can be sure he would make sure he made it through the 4th turn without incident. We’ll get to the D&R second car in group 3.
Next up is a guy who is probably one of the 3 most popular guys at the Speedway, with Tony Kanaan and Ed Carpenter. He is James Hinchcliffe. Hinch had to battle his way into the field through the last row shootout because of his Saturday morning crash. This is a guy who is the type that is the heart and soul of the Speedway. If a guy could be
“willed” into the winner’s circle it would be the Mayor of Hinchtown. Unfortunately, a 31st starting spot is not conducive to a win, so hopefully next year all of the pieces will fall the right way for him to take home the big prize.
The nest Andretti Autosport’s driver was one of the biggest surprises and disappointments of qualifying this year. Ryan Hunter-Reay and his team just never seemed to get their arms around the handling of the car this May. As a result, he is mired all of the way back in the 22nd starting position. While it isn’t impossible to win from that far back in the pack, with the quality of contenders ahead of him, coupled with their inability to get an understanding of their car’s handling, I’m sorry to say that I think this previous winner is in for a long day on Sunday.
Starting way back in 25th position, Jack Harvey has been one of the real pleasant surprises of this young 2019 season. The driver of the Meyer Shank with SPM Racing entry has been very consistent and competitive. We also can’t forget that Jack was running second last year a few laps from the end when he had to make a “splash of fuel” pit stop. My note: I thought either he or the front runner Oriol Servia would take a gamble and go as far as their fuel would take them. A yellow flag around that time might have put one of them into the winner’s circle. But I digress. The point is, that while it is unlikely there is always a possibility of Jack Harvey being the surprise of the day.
That takes us to Group 3. One of the disadvantages of having 33 cars in the field when only 22 are running on a regular basis is that you have several cars and drivers that have only limited experience working together. It appears that today, more than ever, it is a team sport where the driver needs to be able to communicate with the crew and the crew needs to be able to translate those communications into the proper adjustments to the car. It just isn’t as easy when you are only working together for one race.
Conor Daly happily got a ride this year as part of the Andretti Autosports team. He is a great young kid with talent as his 11th starting spot would attest. Unfortunately, his past experiences at the Speedway have been less than stellar and this is essentially his deal for the year. Given a full year with one of the top three teams it would be interesting to see how Conor would fair. However, this year, given the circumstances, he is another for whom a top ten would be a very successful day.
Another Schmidt Peterson car has former Formula 1 chauffeur, Rookie Marcus Erickson, behind the wheel. Hopefully, he will get some laps in and we will get a chance to see what this road course racer can do on an oval. Charlie Kimball is another runner who is in a one-off ride with Carlin Racing. Charlie campaigned with Carlin previously and also had a stint with Chip Ganassi Racing. He has been a competent mid-pack racer but has seldom shown an ability to run up front.
For another year James Davison has managed to get a ride out of the Dale Coyne stable. This year there is additional support from Byrd Racing and Belardi. Byrd is a continuation of Jonathan Byrd Racing whose participation at the Speedway goes back many years. Their initial contact with racing was through midgets and they are to be commended for bringing several of those open wheel young Americans to the Speedway. Belardi meanwhile has been a very strong supporter of the Indy Car Road to Indy program. It is nice to see them get their feet wet by participating in the “big show” as well. They have limited on-track experience together, but it would be nice to see Davison complete the 500 miles somewhere in the top 15.
Rookie Santino Ferrucci is here compliments of Dale Coyne Racing and is running the full season with DCR. He is another driver with very limited experience on an oval and will hopefully stay in the race long enough to get some laps and experience under his belt.
The second car in the A.J. Foyt team is handled by Marcus Leist. This is Marcus’ second year in the Series with the Foyt team. Last year he recorded a 13th place finish at the Brickyard. A.J. is working to help this young man gain the experience to feel comfortable on ovals.
Jordan King is in the 3rd car on track from Rahal, Letterman, Lanigan. Jordan is another driver with very limited Speedway experience. He like several of these young drivers needs to run a bunch of laps at the Speedway to get a full feel of the 2 ½ mile oval.
Ben Hanley is a new driver with a completely new-to-Indycar team named DragonSpeed. Hanley did an excellent job of working himself up to speed on the oval.
The first couple of practice days he was the slowest on the speed charts. As that first week of the practice continued, he got a little faster each day to the point where on Saturday he was able to qualify in the top 30. That was one of the biggest, unheralded accomplishments of qualifying. Unfortunately, a rookie driver with a brand new team is not likely to challenge for the lead, but he is another one who, with some experience under his belt may be one to keep an eye on.
Zach Veach is in one of the other Andretti Autosport’s entries. Zach has worked extremely hard to get to this position in racing and deserves some success. So far, however, despite being with the strong Andretti team he has not produced the high finishes one would expect. Perhaps this will be the race he will stand out and his star will shine. I believe a top 10 finish would be just what the doctor ordered.
Another one of the big disappointments of the earlier part of May was the plight of Felix Rosenquist. Felix had shown good speed at previous tracks and was sometimes quicker than his Ganassi teammate, Scott Dixon. Unfortunately, he got a little low in turn 2 during practice resulting in a hair raising ride and significant contact with the outside and inside walls. While his team was able to put a car back together for him, in the limited amount of practice remaining before qualifying, he didn’t show the spark of speed he had shown earlier. This resulted in a 29th starting place following qualifying. Hopefully, with the Monday practice and Carb day, he will regain his confidence and be able to move up to a position closer to where he was expected to run.
One of the feel good stories of this and any year at the Speedway is the fact that Pippa Mann successfully qualified in the top 30 and thus avoided the Sunday 6 car shootout. The emotion and tears she showed at the conclusion of Saturday qualifying is a beautiful testament as to how much just being in the 500 means to this young lady. No one helps promote the sport more than Pippa. She is continuously on social media doing or saying something that is positive about the sport of auto racing and the Indy 500 in particular. The other thing that makes this accomplishment special is that the team for whom Pippa is driving is owned by Clausen Marshall racing. For those not aware, Tim Clausen is the father of open wheel champion and previous Indy 500 starter, Brian Clausen, who unfortunately was killed in a midget race at Belleville, Kansas. Since then, Tim Clausen and the Clausen’s close friend Richard Marshall have campaigned midgets in the USAC National Midget series providing excellent drives and equipment for up and coming drivers. They wanted to take it a step further and move onto the Indianapolis Speedway and chose Pippa, I believe for her dedication to the sport which coincides with theirs. It is of note that Clausen and Marshall were also part of the very successful BC39 midget race held inside the third turn at IMS last September. The BC39 is for Brian Clausen and his favored number 39. While my heart would love to see Pippa do well, my head says I hope she has a good safe race and completes the entire 500 miles. By the way, her car number is 39.
Starting on the inside of row 11 and one of the successful drivers at the shootout is Dryer and Reinbold driver Sage Karem. Sage is driving as a teammate to J.R. Hildebrand. Sage is from the Nazareth PA area, the home of the Andrettis, and is another driver who has paid his dues to get into the 500. Unfortunately, this too is a one time ride, but hopefully Sage will be able to show off his talent sufficiently enough that it will lead to other opportunities.
The 33rd driver on the list is another one of the exceptional feel good stories from this year’s Indy 500. The driver is Kyle Kaiser and his team is Juncos Racing. Juncos has been a supporter of the “Road to Indy” who is also working to break into the big show.
They are not a well-funded team and, in fact, were running their Speedway car with a blank white paint job – not a sponsor name in sight. Unfortunately, Kyle was a victim of the turn 2 issues which have been a problem and substantially tore apart his blank white car. Fortunately, Kyle was uninjured in the accident, but there was concern following the accident as to whether or not Juncos had the resources to put a replacement car back together for Kyle.
Ricardo Juncos was not to be denied. Under his direction, the team worked 48 hours in a row putting together pieces from spare cars to make a competitive speedway machine. They even avoided the brief Sunday morning practice session in order to make sure everything was as safely and properly put together on the car as possible. When the track had been dried and prepared for the 6 car shootout for the last three positions, there was the car number 32 in its proper place in line. A little editorializing here. I saw the car and got some pictures of the car going through tech, just prior to them pushing it out into the qualifying line. I’ll be polite and say it didn’t look like a Penske masterpiece. It was clear that pieces had been gathered from different cars and the mix of various paint schemes was obvious. It did appear that they had been very careful in the areas of safety and aerodynamics.
Now it is time. The other 5 cars have made their qualifying attempts and posted their speeds. Who is on the bubble but none other than two-time world champion Fernando Alonzo. Kaiser took to the track and a short 4 minutes later returned with a qualifying speed that was, in fact, quicker than Alonzo’s. The cheers from the crowd and the tears from the team were overwhelming. If there was ever a case of a little team proving that it could succeed at the Speedway this was it. I’m not sure where Kyle will end up after 500 miles, but in my eyes, he is already a champion. I just hope he has a safe race.
There you have it. One person’s thoughts regarding what I believe is going to be an exciting 500-mile race.