IndyLights – Best. Finish. EVER!

One of the highlights of my traditional week and a half at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is Carburetion Day. …and no, not for the “Has-Been Band-of-the-Year” concert. Besides, I trashed my animal-print spandex pants long ago, so no Poison concert for me. For one, Carb Day is a day I share at the track with my Dad as we watch the Firestone Indy Lights race from the stands above the suites just to the south of the Pagoda, after which we adjourn to our favourite Irish pub, the Claddagh, and toss pints and enjoy fish-n-chips. Time spent with Dad is always grand. For another, the Firestone Indy Lights drivers often put on the absolute best race of the weekend, even better than the 500 most years. This year’s Indianapolis 500 was an incredible race, but even as outstanding of a race we saw this past Sunday, it still didn’t compare to the race we saw on Friday!

Practice and Qualifying

The excitement began on Thursday as the Firestone Indy Lights drivers, all eleven of them (that’s a topic for another post), hit the famous 2.5-mile squared oval for practice and qualifying. Sage Karam, after setting a the fastest practice time in a rain-shortened morning session, won the pole with a speed of 189.243 mph. Fine job in his first ever visit to IMS as a driver.

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“That was a really good run for us. We’ve been really focusing on race setup, and to go a qualifying lap like that was really kind of unexpected. We’ll take it. We’re happy with that. There was a little less grip (on the track after the rain), but we trimmed the car out more. The rain did throw a little curve ball at us, but the team responded real well and gave me a good car. I was pretty stable out there, and I felt real good about the car.” — Sage Karam, #8 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

Starting beside him was Carlos Muñoz, hot shoe for Andretti Autosport, who was only 0.07 seconds adrift of Karam’s time qualifying second with a speed of 189.103 mph. Carlos would also start in P2 for the Indianapolis 500. All in all, it was a good week for Carlos when it came to qualifying at IMS.

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“It’s been great. This morning I was not really happy, I just did four laps and then it started to rain. It was completely new, the car was so strange inside because of all the going back and forth from the IndyCar to the Firestone Indy Lights car, it was a little bit different for me. I have the same feeling, of course, I have had in the past. But the car was great and it was nice to be in the front row for sure, but in Firestone Indy Lights the qualifying is less important than in the IndyCar.” — Carlos Muñoz, #26 Andretti Autosport

The rest of the field sorted itself out in a relatively unsurprising manner. The exceptions were Kyle O’Gara, driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsport, who had a strong qualifying effort in his first time in an Indy Lights machine qualifying in P6 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Zach Veach. Belardi Auto Racing’s Jorge Goncalvez had a very rough day on Thursday and was well off the pace for qualifying slotting up in P10 well behind his teammate Peter Dempsey who started right behind Karam in P3 on the inside of Row 2.

Qualifying Results

Pos Car Driver Time (Speed)
1. (8) Sage Karam 1:35.1160 (189.243)
2. (26) Carlos Munoz 1:35.1863 (189.103)
3. (5) Peter Dempsey 1:35.3426 (188.793)
4. (7) Gabby Chaves 1:35.8619 (187.770)
5. (77) Jack Hawksworth 1:36.0459 (187.410)
6. (67) Kyle O’Gara 1:36.1147 (187.276)
7. (12) Zach Veach 1:36.2499 (187.013)
8. (2) Juan Pablo Garcia 1:36.5103 (186.509)
9. (28) Chase Austin 1:36.6384 (186.261)
10. (4) Jorge Goncalvez 1:36.6789 (186.183)
11. (22) Jimmy Simpson 1:36.7912 (185.967)

The Firestone Freedom 100

Although Thursday was overcast and rain-filled, Friday was beautiful, cool, and sunny. It was chamber-of-commerce weather for Firestone Freedom 100 on Carburetion Day. As I mentioned in my preview last week, I was concerned about whether the drivers would keep their heads, especially after the kerfuffle at Long Beach. Thankfully, everyone kept their aggressive edge, but also kept it under control. All through the field, we saw some great, close, and most importantly clean racing. There was only one yellow during the 40-lap event on Lap 5 for Kyle O’Gara who ran down onto the rumble strip in Turn 4 and spun out, nosing into the outside SAFER Barrier. The rest of the race ran completely under green, something that we’ve not seen on Carb Day in the past few years.

Up front, things were fairly calm for the majority race. Karam pulled out an early lead as he and Muñoz ran nose-to-gearbox trying to pull out ahead of the rest of the field and have their own private fight in the closing laps. Gabby Chaves and Peter Dempsey would have none of that as they closed on the two leaders as the race was winding down.

Things got very exciting on the final lap of the race as Karam, Muñoz, and Chaves ran in close formation across line with Dempsey lagging about a dozen car lengths behind. Coming out of Turn 2, Karam pulled out on Muñoz and looked to have a good run to take over the lead heading into Turn 3. Chaves, however, took the opportunity to pull to the outside of Karam making Turn 3 a three-wide nail-biting adventure! The three racers gave no quarter, but they also ran very clean as they went through both Turns 3 and 4 wheel-to-wheel-to-wheel. Dempsey benefited from the front three doing battle, and punching a HUGE hole in the air for him. Coming out of Turn 4, Dempsey had a great exit and carried significantly more speed than the three leaders. Moving to the outside of Chaves, Dempsey made it a four-wide drag race down the front stretch to the Yard of Bricks. The four cars took the checkers spread by no more than a car length. Dempsey would pull off an amazing move going from P4 in Turn 4 to winning by a distance of eight inches over Chaves. Karam would finish in third ahead of Muñoz in fourth.

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“Stefan Wilson was actually spotting for me in Turns 1 and 2, and he said that they’re all going to spread out coming to the line. I wasn’t too sure in our gears, and I was really just sitting behind soaking the rev limiter the whole race.

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The car was so loose. I should have been down at the dirt track driving the sprint cars down there. But it was the car I had to drive and tried to hang in there as long as I could. Once we went three-wide, my bloody car just soaked up like a dream and Gabby Chaves left me enough room along the wall and — happy days — I crossed the line first by two-thousandths. Hats off to my team, my crew, Belardi Auto Racing, and my two mechanics and my engineer worked incredibly hard all month of May. This is the one race we wanted to try to win, and we pulled it off.” — Peter Dempsey, #5 Belardi Auto Racing

This was the closest finish in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and certainly one of the most exciting last few laps I’ve ever seen at any race track. I’ve been telling people for years that the Firestone Freedom 100 is one of the best races they’ll ever see at IMS or anywhere. If they don’t believe me now, they never will!

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