The Brickyard is a fickle mistress. And with a centennial birthday celebration in front of her, she took the full nine hours Sunday to remind the 95th Indy 500 qualifying hopefuls that there was still much drama to be written.
It was all there in technicolor, and belying her age, HD television as well.
The joy, the pain, the wheel marks on the walls, and the transporter being loaded up all too early.
There were some who thought they knew her well (Tony Kanaan, Barry Green, Paul Tracy, Milka Duno) and others who had barely made her acquaintance (Sebastian Saavedra, Mario Romancini, Jay Howard) yet somehow their lives intertwined in a drama of Shakespearian proportions that played out until after the final gun sounded at 6:00 PM to end qualifying session and set the 33-car field.
Tony Kanaan got the doctoral thesis lesson in the Brickyard ethos of tragedy. Pain, frustration, hope and redemption all touched the veteran driver who has given so much to the track, but had yet to taste her sweet, 2% fat-free white nectar in victory lane. Kanaan began the day as an improbable second-day qualifier, then in his second practice lap of the day kissed the wall of the short chute between turns one and two for the second time in 24 hours. It was a violent kiss and ended up dangling with the remaining half of his car on the back of the tow truck hook, leaving all to wonder how and if the veteran Andretti Autosport driver could pull it back together and squeeze enough speed out to make the field. He did so barely and without much celebration, having narrowly escaped the track's wrath. In the Brickyard, it seems, the sin of pride and overconfidence exact a special punishment.
"Obviously it was a very emotional day. I'm not the type of guy ‑‑ I don't cry very easy. The other Brazilian does all the time (laughing). But it was a tough day for me. Every time I came out it was very emotional.
"I mean, you have an idea how much the fans like you. And then I hear from you guys because you guys are out there and saying I'm the fans' favorite, this and that. And I never really paid a lot of attention. I always treat my fans really nice. But every time I came out here, it was amazing, driving to Pit Lane to make an attempt or to try my car again, how big the crowd cheered," Kanaan said.
"And that made me very emotional, and, again, it was a long day. Probably lost five days of my life today. Not a lot of hair anyway to lose. But here we are. I'm happy to be here."
Nineteen year-old Columbian rookie Sebastian Saavedra saw his own hopes explode into a festival of carbon fiber (TM), yet somehow was improbably rewarded with a starting berth while being examined in the Methodist Hospital emergency room.
Bruno Junqueira proved the best way to invade the grid was in stealth mode, with a last minute entry that turned into the fastest second-day qualifier. Bruno came late, stayed quiet, and will start from the back of the field in a certified rocket ship from FAZZT Racing.
Takuma Sato, the Formula One veteran who previously only driven on the track backwards through the infield, cobbled together both his Lotus Special and an improbably speedy late qualifying run to bump back into the grid. The gods of the Brickyard apparently still have a fondness for British racing green.
The agony was written on the face of Sarah Fisher Racing driver Jay Howard after his first qualifying session. A post first-qualifying attempt interview had Howard expressing his doubt about the time posted, and when the Brit's team braintrust discarded his qualifying time with Paul Tracy behind him in the chute, the final act of drama proved the most unpredictable of all. With the wings flattened down and the deus ex machina cranked up, Howard rode the ragged edge of his previous qualifying time before falling short after the final gun sounded. Destiny was within his grasp, but instead was handed on a silver platter to to the now car-less Saavedra.
But it was Paul Tracy who merited perhaps the cruelest and most unusual punishment for his hubris. In many pre-race discussions Tracy brought up the possibility of avenging his "lost win" of 2002 (*when an executive ruling upheld Helio Castroneves' victory and sent Tracy to the asterisk zone of Borg-Warner Trophy history). Second quickest until the closing minutes of Friday's practice session, the fall from grace was swift and punishing for Tracy, who caressed the wall twice in a let-it-all-hang-out late qualifying attempt, but ran out of time with Howard on track parrying a counter attack that killed both drivers' hopes. A strangely serene Tracy emerged from the press conference older, wiser, and perhaps even a bit contrite. In missing the field, he had attained some strange form of redemption and perhaps even enlightenment.
"We've had a tough week, KV. The cars have ‑‑ like I said, in certain conditions it had become very difficult to drive. We had three cars hard into the wall. So I was happy that we didn't end up going on the trailer in a box with a bunch of pieces," Tracy said afterwards.
"It's how Indianapolis is, you know? Some of the greatest drivers have not made it."
And for others, important lessons were learned. AJ Foyt learned it's not a good idea to fire your driver on the morning of qualifying, especially when he is also an heir to your throne.
Dale Coyne learned the value of Milka Duno to his team is essentially zero + sponsorship dollars - Indy 500 starting spot dollars. Robbie Buhl learned that it's a great deal easier to enjoy qualifying when Milka is not on your team.
Nine grid spots.
One epic drama.