In a day full of wrecks, Helio Castroneves emerged from qualifying races at Phoenix International Raceway today as the number one pole sitter for tomorrow’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.
Castroneves was awarded a crown for being the speed king following a record-breaking qualifying IndyCar performance today. Before qualifying, Castroneves told me what it would take to win in the first IndyCar race in Phoenix since 2005.
“It is important to be in the front, for strategy, you can position yourself, you can dictate the race rhythm,” he said. “But if you have a good car, you can come from anywhere. The system is the word, remember we’re starting about six o’clock (tomorrow) it’s going to be fairly hot. The finish will be about 7:45 p.m. Our cars are very sensitive to the weather. We’re talking about 110 degrees on the track and about 75 degrees (air temperature) and that creates a down force that helps every car.”
When I asked what the trick to winning on PIR’s one mile oval, he chuckled, “Find a line and clean air.”
The track and the newness of the drivers – three rookies this year – has become a challenge. The number 5 car, with driver James Hinchcliffe of the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda was one of the three cars who hit the wall between turn one and two – two in early morning practice. Chip Beck, chief mechanic for the car, said they would miss qualifying but start at the back of the pack on Saturday.
Carlos Munoz, (26 car, Andretti Autosports), Takuma Sato (14 car of A.J. Foyt’s) and Graham Rahal (15 car of David Letterman’s) also hit the same wall today. Graham made it back to qualify and will start 19th in the field of 22 cars.
Turn One comes off the straightaway and finish line where some drivers got up to 198 mph during qualifying. It’s a tight turn, but this small track has other treacherous and banked turns. Ed Carpenter finished the off-the-wall collisions when he clipped the wall between turn 3 and 4 of the one mile oval.
“This track is like fighter jets, pulling each other,” Simon Pagenaud in the 22 car, of Team Penske told me. “You have to deal with turbulence. It’s very different from NASCAR (which raced two weeks ago on the same track). We have only found one groove on the tack which makes it so difficult. The acceleration from the corner to the straights is not really strong because we are at terminal velocity. That makes passing on the straights difficult,” Pagenaud added.
Four of the top ten qualifiers were from the Penske team including Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya who finished second in the 2 car, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud. Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball finished in the top four to represent the Chip Ganassi Racing Teams.
Castroneves, in the in the 3 car, set two track records with a two-lap average speed of 192.324 mph. His first lap of 19.0997 seconds (192.631 mph) established the new track record for the 1.022-mile oval that stood for 20 years prior to the qualifying session. It gives Castroneves 46 career pole positions, the fourth most in Indy car history according to IndyCar sources. The 2002 PIR race winner will lead the 22-car field to the green flag for the 250-lap race under the lights tomorrow night on NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network.
“It’s an honor to be breaking the record, which has been holding for 20 years, and now we’re able to show that Verizon IndyCar Series cars are fast,” Castroneves said after receiving the crown in pit lane from former track record-holder Arie Luyendyk, now an IndyCar race steward.
There is another race happening tomorrow. The Indy Lights Race is 90 laps, ninety miles, and is a sort of developmental league for drivers who steer slightly smaller and slower versions of the IndyCars. Kyle Kaiser earned pole for the Indy Lights Grand Prix of Phoenix, ahead of Ed Jones’ Carlin Racing entry. Kaiser, who lies second in the championship after the first two races of the championship in Florida, lapped Phoenix at an average of 167.872mph. Those junior circuit cars will race at 1:30 p.m. tomorrow with the Grand Prix beginning at 6:15 p.m. Arizona time.