Alex Tagliani celebrates after winning the pole position for the 2011 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. (Photo: LAT/IndyCar.com)
Alex Tagliani was a member of the Last Row Party at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway two short years ago. Today, he is the fastest man at the storied Brickyard.
Tagliani topped Pole Day qualifying for the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 after posting the quickest time during the initial Top 24 time trials, then stealing the top spot away from Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon in the Fast Nine Shootout late in the day with a four-lap average of 227.472mph.
The pole was Tagliani's first and the first pole win for team owner Sam Schmidt. Schmidt, a former driver who suffered injuries in a 2000 testing crash that rendered him a quadriplegic, purchased the assets of Tagliani's FAZZT Race Team at the beginning of this season. Schmidt fields four cars including Tagliani's and fourth-place qualifier Townsend Bell's, as well as supporting the Bryan Herta Autosport team of Dan Wheldon.
Drama was intense in the Fast Nine as rain cut short post Top 24 practices, leaving the top nine positions - which are locked into the 2011 Indy 500 starting field - up for grabs in a one-shot-per-car last-gasp format. The pressure to win the pole became evident when both Ganassi cars ran out of fuel - Dixon's immediately following his qualifying run, and teammate Dario Franchitti's at the beginning of his fourth lap (Franchitti will start 9th with no registered qualifying time, as his original time was negated at the start of the Fast Nine segment).
Top 24 qualifying had its own share of drama as some of the stronger teams surprisingly struggled. Penske Racing's lone bright spot was Will Power's 5th place qualifying effort, as teammate Helio Castroneves qualified deep in the order and Ryan Briscoe, after a morning practice crash, failed to make the Top 24 in his backup car. Meanwhile, all four of Andretti Autosport's full-time teams qualified outside of the Top 24, with John Andretti's one-off effort barely squeaking into the lineup near the end of time trials.
Tomorrow's Bump Day time trials will continue the high drama as teams scramble to battle the elements and each other to make it into the Indy 500 starting field.
- Dragon Racing's Ho-Pin Tung is out of the Indy 500 after crashing during his qualifying attempt early on Pole Day and sustaining a concussion. Tung was attempting to become the first Chinese driver to qualify for the Indy 500 in its 100-year history.
- Scott Speed turned in an abbreviated practice session this morning and was at the bottom of the time sheets again. With Tung's car out of commission and an unknown quantity in Dragon's sole backup car, Indy sources indicate that Dragon Racing may attempt to purchase another team's entry - such as Sarah Fisher Racing's #57 car - to improve Speed's chances of qualifying on Bump Day.
- Among the notables who missed the Top 24 include Danica Patrick, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Long Beach Grand Prix winner Mike Conway, Paul Tracy, Marco Andretti, Ryan Briscoe, Graham Rahal, Charlie Kimball, and Pippa Mann.
- Simona de Silvestro was cleared to drive after a fiery practice crash that left her with 2nd- and 3rd-degree burns on her hands. She qualified 24th.
- 2004 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice, who has been out of the IZOD IndyCar Series for several years, will start on the second row.
- It has been seven years since a Team Penske car has not been on the front row of the Indy 500.