James Hinchcliffe’s dramatic pole run for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 is arguably one of the most improbable events to occur in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 106-year history.
It’s also one of the best.
I’m not just talking about the best moments during the IndyCar years, either.
On first impression, this moment stands tall with Dan Wheldon’s underdog victory in 2011. It holds even with Ralph DePalma and his riding mechanic bravely pushing their stalled Mercedes down the frontstretch to finish the 1912 edition of the race, and Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser, Jr.’s epic duel in the 1989 Indy 500.
Putting this moment into perspective is a challenge, but I’ll give it the best effort I can.
Just one year ago, Hinchcliffe was gearing up for qualifying for the 99th Indy 500, when he was involved in one of many dangerous practice crashes on the month. After losing control of his No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda-Dallara, Hinchcliffe crashed hard into the outside wall between Turns 3 and 4.
Upon impact, Hinchcliffe’s left thigh was pierced by the car’s right front rocker, causing massive bleeding that required multiple blood transfusions from INDYCAR’s Holmatro Safety Team en-route to the IU Health Methodist Hospital.
Hinchcliffe underwent immediate surgery upon his arrival at the hospital, and afterward was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit.
Courtesy of the Herculean efforts of the safety crew, Hinchcliffe’s life was saved, but he was in a bad state.
The Canadian’s livelihood was no longer in danger, but he would require a lengthy recovery period. Hinchcliffe was forced to stay in the hospital for more than a week, watching the Indianapolis 500 from his bed.
Hinchcliffe would miss the entire second half to the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season after his crash, waiting 131 days before returning for a Sept. 26 test at Road America.
In his first drive in over three months, Hinchcliffe found speed at the test, bringing fans along for the ride courtesy of an IndyCar YouTube video.
Hinchcliffe returned to the IndyCar paddock full-time in the 2016 season-opener, finishing 19th in St. Petersburg. He quickly resumed his position as a regular face in the garage area, and improved his finishing position in each event coming into Indianapolis.
Things were going well, but everyone knew Hinchcliffe had to have Indianapolis circled on the calendar – the oval, that is.
Anticipation for the Mayor’s return to the 2.5-mile IMS oval built like a crescendo over the Month of May, reaching its climax after Hinchcliffe finished third in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the facility’s road course.
Then, finally, on May 16, Hinchcliffe exercised whatever demons remained, participating in the opening practice session for the Indianapolis 500.
The session didn’t go well – ‘Hinch’ ended the day 29th on the speed charts – but it still served as a critical moment in the 29-year-old’s progression.
“Every day you walk out of this place, it’s a good day,” Hinchcliffe said afterward.
As the week progressed, Hinchcliffe’s confidence began to improve. With the help of his SPM crew, so did his times.
Going into the week, all eyes were on Chevrolet, and particularly Team Penske. The manufacturer’s won every race in the season thus far, and entering the day they hadn’t conceded a pole award to Honda since the first of two Houston races in 2014.
Yet, over the course of the week, Honda appeared to show more speed.
Townsend Bell was fast, as was the rest of Andretti Autosport. Ryan Hunter-Reay topped one of the many practice sessions on the week, as did Gabby Chavez. SPM lurked quietly inside the top 10 for much of the week, offering a glimpse of what was to come.
Still, there were doubts among the fans and media.
Chevrolet had to be sandbagging, right? Assuredly, there was no way that the organization would struggle for the first time all season in their biggest race. … Or would they?
In qualifications, the answer was yes.
Chevrolet showed promise in the opening day of qualifications, but not as much as everyone expected. Honda beat out the bow ties with five cars in the Fast 9, as favorites, including Juan Pablo Montoya and the entirety of Chip Ganassi Racing, who failed to advance to Sunday’s pole qualifying.
Hinchcliffe topped the opening day of time trials with a 230.946 mph average speed across four laps, inciting cheers from the crowd on-hand and fueling speculation that Honda could actually take the Indy 500 pole.
Still, in the waning stages of Fast 9 pole qualifying, it appeared that Chevrolet would steal the top spot.
Josef Newgarden led the way for much of the session after throwing down a 230.700mph average over his four laps on-track. Andretti’s Hunter-Reay came close to seizing the top spot for Honda with a valiant effort, but fell just short with an average speed of 230.648mph.
In the end, only one Honda driver stood in the way of Newgarden highlighting an all-American front row for the 100th Indy 500: Hinchcliffe.
Every stat seemed to indicate that the Mayor of Hinchtown would fail to seize the pole. Though he had eight runner-up performances, Hinchcliffe had never claimed an IndyCar pole in 78 attempts. In fact, the 29-year-old’s last pole came all the way back in 2010 at an Indy Lights event in Edmonton.
For some reason, though, there was a special feeling in the air as Hinchcliffe went through the gears and began his warmup laps, a hint that those in attendance might be watching a special moment.
When Hinchcliffe crossed the yard of bricks to complete his opening lap at 230.885mph, good for first, the tension in the air was palpable. A group of collective “oh”s filled the routinely quiet media center.
At the end of lap two, Hinchcliffe again held the top spot. Lap 3? P1.
368 days removed from a life-threatening crash, Hinchcliffe was four corners from his first IndyCar pole, and arguably the biggest in series history.
Even as Hinchcliffe roared to 238 mph down the backstretch, the last lap must’ve stretched on for was seemed like an eternity. The crowd on-hand watched in awe as Hinchcliffe maneuvered gracefully through Turn 3, up against the outside wall in the short-chute, and through Turn 4.
That same crowd roared to their feet as Hinchcliffe rifled down the front straightaway for the final time, some cheering nervously as he crossed the yard of bricks to complete his attempt.
Immediately, everyone began looking to see if Hinchcliffe had accomplished the pole. Writers in the media center glanced up to the monitors above them. Fans in the stands looked nervously atop the scoring pylon.
After a moment, Hinchcliffe’s speed appeared: 230.760mph. He had done it.
James Hinchcliffe was the 100th Indy 500 pole sitter.
“It’s incredible what a difference a year makes,” said Hinchcliffe.
“(SPM owners Sam Schmidt and Rick Peterson) were so, so behind me after that happened last year. They could not have been any more supportive. They built this incredible team ofguyvs that went out and built three race cars good enough to start in the top 10 of the 100th Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Along with being Hinchcliffe’s first pole, the result is just the fifth pole award for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, coming five years after their first Indy 500 pole (Alex Tagliani in 2011).
“It was an incredible day,” said Schmidt. “I didn’t think anything would get better than five years ago.”
“James, he’s kind of downplaying this thing,” Schmidt But I was there a year ago, and he was not nearly as pretty as he is right now.”
Whether or not Hinchcliffe’s pole will translate into a solid race day remains to be seen. Honda has shown speed all week, but it’s unknown what teams will be fastest in race trim. If Hinchcliffe can manage to win the 100th Running too, it could well be the greatest story in Indy’s storied history.
Still, as things stand, Hinchcliffe’s improbable resurgence at IMS is arguably the greatest qualifying story at the 2.5-mile oval, if not one of the great moments overall. It may not match up toe-to-toe with Sam Hornish, Jr.’s photo finish victory over Marco Andretti in 2006 or Ray Harroun’s triumph in the first Indy 500 in 1909 in the history books, but the moment had all of the drama and excitement of any story in the track’s history.
When the IndyCar Series field roars to life next Sunday, passing by the famed Pagoda draped in the 100th Indy 500’s golden logo, it’ll be Hinchcliffe’s golden car leading the group of 33. With the right photographer and little luck, that should be one of the lasting images of IMS’ 107 years.
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