INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis crowned a new king on Saturday when Ryan Briscoe took the pole for the 96th Indianapolis 500. Driving for Team Penske, Briscoe claimed the pole with a four-lap average of 226.484 miles per hour. With the win, of course, comes the privilege of starting at the front of the field during Sunday's Indy 500. But Briscoe, for better or worse, will also find himself firmly in the spotlight in the week leading up to the "World's Greatest Race."
"It's a great feeling and I love being the pole sitter and having the top spot moving into the race," Briscoe told SI.com Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "I get a lot of attention for that [winning the pole], which I have to manage for the week. It's part of the sport and part of the game. Every now and again it's nice to be in the spotlight but it doesn't take away from the main focus and goal here."
That goal, of course, is winning the Indianapolis 500. The race is bigger than the series itself. Winners carry that title with them for life. Briscoe's teammate at Team Penske is introduced as three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves; Briscoe's mentor is known as four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears; and the team owner is 16-time Indy 500-winning team owner Roger Penske. Even rival driver Dario Franchitti is more often referred to as a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner than a four-time IndyCar Series champion.
Briscoe won the pole in dramatic fashion on Saturday, doing it in the final 90-minute "Fast Nine" qualification session on Pole Day. But he had to fend off a dramatic challenge from Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe, who ran a four-lap average of 226.481. It was the closest margin of victory in Indianapolis 500 history as Briscoe won by just .0023 seconds. The previous record was .01 seconds between pole sitter Al Unser and Johnny Rutherford in 1970.
To better illustrate how close it was, if you measured it in actual distance, Briscoe's car would have made it to the finish line ahead of Hinchcliffe's car by a mere 9.168 inches.
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Briscoe became the first Australian-born driver to win the pole for the Indianapolis 500, but he has started on the front row at Indy before. He was second in 2009 and was on the pole before Castroneves knocked him off that year. He started on the outside of the front row in 2008.
Briscoe's first taste of fame and glory came early Sunday morning when he was in his driver's uniform with the car for the annual Front Row Photo taken at the "Yard of Bricks" at the start/finish line. The photo also included Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay, but after photos of all three cars were completed, Briscoe stayed on for a solo shoot.
"I had to stay a little bit longer; take a few more photos and do the solo act," Briscoe said. "I had been jealous in the past when they said `OK, all right, No. 2 and No. 3 get out of here. Pole-sitter stay. [This time it was] Hinch and Hunter-Reay get out of here. Ryan, you stay.'
"That's because I'm No. 1 today."
But Briscoe didn't have time to rest on his laurels. After the final nine cars qualified for the field Sunday afternoon, he returned to the track to practice setups for Race Day.
"It's such a great environment here in IndyCar by all the teams and I've been congratulated by mechanics and people on all the different teams," Briscoe said. "It's really nice to feel that camaraderie even though there is all this intense competition. I just feel like there has been a lot of support not just from my own team but the other teams in the series, too."
In the past, the entire field of 33 drivers was sent to Manhattan the following day for photo opportunities. But since 2011, the field of 33 drivers has been divided up and sent all over North America for media availabilities.
Briscoe was sent to Charlotte, N.C., where he participated in a Media Go-Kart Race along with his Penske Racing NASCAR teammate Brad Keselowski. Briscoe and his wife, Nicole, live about 40 miles north of Charlotte in Troutman, N.C., but there was no time to spend at home. It's the first of many stops for Briscoe before the cars return to the track on Friday for Carburetion Day -- the last one-hour practice session before the race.
"It's working out pretty well, actually," Briscoe said of his Monday trip to Charlotte. "It wasn't planned, but it's good that I'm the pole winner. There is a lot going on in Charlotte with the Coca-Cola 600 and they are coming off the All-Star Race, so if we can spark a bit more interest down there for the Indianapolis 500, it's all good.
"I was really busy Saturday night and didn't get out of the track until 9:15 p.m. Nicole and her mom and dad are in town, so we grabbed dinner at Morton's Steakhouse. I treated myself to a glass of red wine for winning the pole and they are going to put my photo on the wall, so that was fun."
Media opportunities asides, there is also obviously a strategic advantage to starting on the pole for the Indianapolis 500. While a driver can win this race from anywhere on the 33-car grid, the advantage goes up exponentially the closer to the front you sit. That's because those cars will be in cleaner air and away from the turbulence at the start of the race. The leader won't experience "dirty air" that upsets the balance of the race car until he begins to lap slower cars.
After that, traffic will play a role.
"Sometimes the most daunting part of the Indy 500 is the first two laps," Briscoe said. "People are just trying to get settled in and cars are going everywhere. It's been a while since you have been on track, so people's setups may not be 100 percent. To start the race on the front row is always good so hopefully we'll see if we can carry the lead through the first corner ..."
Castroneves, who won the pole four times, understands what Briscoe will face now that he is an Indy 500 pole winner.
"Certainly for him, he's going to have a long week ahead of him," Castroneves said. "Not only that, I don't think he's going to be sleeping very well. He's going to be very anxious to go to the race, at least that's what happens. You kind of know that you have a good car and good speed and you have to go for it, but you have to pace yourself.
"Anything you do here in Indianapolis, it's bigger than any other race. ... So when you succeed here, it's going to be bigger than any other race."
Roger Penske's drivers have won the Indy 500 pole a record 17 times. Tom Sneva, Bobby Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser, Jr. and Sam Hornish, Jr. have all won the pole in one of Penske's IndyCars. And now Briscoe adds his name to that list of legends, giving himself a week's worth of fame.
"It's hard not to just be thinking about a starting position for the race, but I guess it's an award where my name will go down forever as something I've won here at the Indy 500," Briscoe said. "This race is just so important; it's so big, and I think even just a pole win here is remembered. So it's a great feeling. It's just a great feeling -- 17 poles for Roger here at the Indy 500 and to have my name on the list of drivers that have done that for him, it's a great feeling."
If he can win Sunday at Indianapolis, it'll be an even greater feeling.