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F1 drivers will shake off Indy crashes; Hinch should just take care of his own business

Written by Norris McDonald

Fernando Alonso crashed, as did Felix Rosenquist. Good work. Now that the F1 drivers have got that out of the way, they can now settle down and get their cars into qualifying trim for this weekend’s Indy 500 time trials to set the field for the May 26 Indianapolis 500.

Thirty-six-plus cars were on track today and 33 of them will make the show. Our James Hinchcliffe of Oakville once again drove all four team cars out of the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports stable, which makes sense in one way and not in another.

It makes sense because, yes, he is the only one with recent experience in high-speed IndyCar oval speedway racing. His teammate, Marcus Ericsson has never driven on an oval, particularly one as fast and dangerous as Indianapolis. Somebody has to set the car up for him. Ditto for Oriol Servia, who is making a one-off in the car being saved for the injured Robert Wickens of Gueph (seen in the photo above, hitching a ride from Hinchcliffe). Servia will catch on quickly but the team wants all the cars to make the field this year, not just 50 per cent as was the case last year (Wickens qualified; Hinchcliffe didn’t). The fourth car is the team spare, in case one of the cars with a driver develops a problem. So Hinchcliffe, as team leader, is driving all of them to make sure they’re all up to snuff.

But when I say this doesn’t make sense in another way, I mean this: Hinchcliffe missed the biggest race in the world in 2018. He handled it well, but it was crushing for him, don’t ever forget that. If I was advising him, which I am not, I would tell him to stop worrying about the cars the others will drive and pick one for himself and drive it in practice with a singular focus – to either win the pole or qualify solidly near the front of the field. I mean, can you imagine if . . .

And don’t ever forget: qualifying at Indy can be a crap shoot. If conditions are right – if the track isn’t too hot and there isn’t much wind and it’s in the middle of the day when the driver is in peak shape – then swell. But if your number comes up when it gets windy, or the weather is too hot or too cold, it can have a negative effect on your run. The difference between a 228 mph average and a 224 is – are you ready for this? – 39.4 seconds compared with 40 seconds. There is no room for even the slightest error.

Getting back to the crashing, I know people will suggest that Alonso and Rosenquist are in trouble. Forget it. These guys are great racing drivers and will shrug those off. Remember 2014? Kurt Busch, a stock car driver who had never raced an open-wheel car, never mind an Indy car, and who was racing in the biggest race in the world as a raw rookie, finished sixth and was rookie-of-the-year and that was after he went into the wall in a big crash, compared to the bumps the two guys who went off today experienced. Those two F1 guys will be fine.

Fastest to date, of course, are the Penske cars. Will Power, last year’s race winner, was fastest today, followed by Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden. Fourth-car driver Helio Castroneves, now a regular in IMSA sports cars, was eighth fastest. The usual suspects – Scott Dixon, Ed Carpenter and Sebastien Bourdais – were all inside the top ten.

Hinchcliffe was 32nd, 36th, 37th and 41st (other drivers were out in spare cars). Servia was 24th and Ericsson was 31st – both faster than James.

I rest my case.

Tony Bettenhausen, “Panzer Tony,” of Tinley Park, Ill., who nicknamed his cars the “Tinley Park Express,” patriarch of the Bettenhausen racing family – Gary, Merle, Tony Jr. – was killed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1961 when he took out the car of his pal, Paul Russo, prior to the first weekend of qualifying to try to sort out why Russo couldn’t get it up to speed. Bettenhausen, the original Intimidator, was a man of contradictions. A church-going, neighbourly man with what was described as a courtly charm, he could be fierce at the drop of a hat. “By gar, if it’s fighting you want, let’s get at it,” he’d say, before starting an afternoon of brawling at some roadhouse on what was then the USAC Championship Trail made up mostly of dirt-track racing on mile ovals.

Art Pollard, of Dragon, Utah, raced at Indianapolis from 1965 till 1973 when he lost control of his car during qualifications and died in the wreck. Pollard was one of the CAMRA drivers (Canadian-American Modified Racing Association) who raced supermodifieds up and down the Canadian and U.S. west coasts, going as far north ads Edmonton and as far south as Tucson. It was amazing the number of CAMRA drivers who made it to Indianapolis – Tom and Jerry Sneva, Billy Foster, Ed Kostenuk, Eldon Rasmussen, Roy Smith, Jim Malloy and the list goes on.

For years, Bill York ran the Media Centre/Press Room at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Long retired, he still shows up every year to lend a hand. My favourite York story. For years, I did a contract job at the early Molson Indy CART races. I ran herd on all the photographers who shot that race. The shooters, in those days, had to have a hot pit pass to get into the pits, an arm band to get into Turn One, stickers on their credential to get into the hospitality areas, and so-on. One year, I counted 11 different pieces of ID needed to work the CART race. I went to the first IRL race at Walt Disney World in Florida. I went to see Bill York for my credential. “Here it is,” he said. Er, I said, don’t I need an arm band or a lock or a sticker or something? “That will do,” he said. “It is a credential and that will get you everywhere you want to go.” How refreshing, I thought.

About the author

Norris McDonald

Veteran reporter and news editor Norris McDonald is the former editor of Toronto Star Wheels, where his work continues to appear each week. He's also the former Toronto Star Sports online motorsports writer and columnist. His columns - which have also been published in the Globe and Mail - and feature stories about the automotive industry in general and motorsports in particular are considered industry-leading. He’s received awards and citations for his newspaper work and he also appears on radio and television. A former owner and driver of super modified racing cars who's well-known as a trackside announcer, he is a member of the Oswego (N.Y.) Speedway Hall of Fame. In 2014, he became the first journalist to be inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame.