Alex Lloyd's qualifying attempt for the Indianapolis 500 with five minutes remaining Saturday was daring, its result remarkable. Lloyd's four-lap average of 222.622 mph made him the only driver without a full-season IndyCar Series team to secure one of the 11 positions available on Pole Day, the toughest qualifying session of the season.
It's the day every team would like to get into the 33-car field. You're safer starting at the front and it puts you at least one day ahead of the other 22 teams in preparing for the race, which takes completely different chassis settings than qualifying. You run by yourself in qualifying and need to take as much downforce off the car as possible to find the speed; in the race, you need downforce to deal with the turbulence and to be able to pass in the draft. That one extra day could pay big dividends on May 24.
Lloyd drives for an operation that combines the resources of Chip Ganassi Racing and Sam Schmidt Motorsports. He signed a development contract with Ganassi after the 2007 season, and this is the second year he's been farmed out to a satellite operation for Indianapolis. Lloyd started 19th and finished 25th with Rahal Letterman Racing in 2008, falling out after completing 151 laps and brushing the wall in Turn 4. It's his only IndyCar race.
Sam Schmidt owns one of the premier teams in Firestone Indy Lights, IndyCar's official development series, and has been either a partner or a full entrant in the Indy 500 since 2001. The personnel on Lloyd's car are primarily from Schmidt's team, with the notable exception of head engineer Andy Brown. Brown works full time for Ganassi, and is one of the best in the business. He was the top engineer at Panther Racing when Sam Hornish Jr. won IndyCar Series championships in 2001 and 2002, and was Scott Dixon's race engineer at Ganassi until deciding he wanted to spend more time at home prior to the 2008 season. Brown was responsible for the preparation of Dixon's car prior to his win at Indy last year.
There's certainly a relationship between the Ganassi/Schmidt satellite and the main Ganassi organization, which qualified Dario Franchitti on the outside of the front row and Dixon in the middle of the second, but it's clearly not run as a third car. Schmidt calls the shots on how the program is run daily.
"We exchange a little information each day," Lloyd explained. "Andy Brown does a debrief with their engineers at the end of the day, what we've learned, what they've learned, here's what we're finding. We are getting some help and it's definitely helpful.
"It's so hard to do the 500 as a one-off. You're not able to figure out all those things guys figure out over five years they've been running the same chassis in one month, and we're fortunate to be linking into such a team as successful as Ganassi."
With the exception of a couple of hours of testing late last year, Lloyd hadn't driven an IndyCar since last year's 500.
"My actual experience level in an IndyCar is pretty low," Lloyd said. "Last year, they wouldn't let me run at Indy when it was windy, and for an inexperienced driver, the wind makes it more daunting and challenging."
Schmidt missed qualifying for the 500 for the first time last year with Max Papis and was determined to bounce back as a contender. The best way to do that was for Lloyd to qualify on Pole Day.
Lloyd had a lap in practice at 224.219 mph on Friday, but the conditions were vicious, cooler and windy, on Pole Day.
"We lost the setup from the day before," Lloyd said. "The wind was definitely an issue."
They were blowing regularly in the teens, with gusts up in the middle 20s, from the west-northwest. At Indy, that's into and across the front nose of a car approaching 230 mph going into Turn 1. To have a fast lap, you have to hold your foot down to the floor, even as the wind blows the front end out toward the outside wall. It's hold-your-breath time.
Rookie Robert Doornbos of Newman/Haas/Lanigan crashed in Turn 1 in the morning practice. OK, so he's an Indy rookie and new to ovals this year. But in mid-afternoon, Dan Wheldon was snapped around in Turn 2, and his Dallara-Honda's rear hit the wall. It was an indication of how difficult the conditions were.
Eight minutes after Wheldon's crash, Lloyd did a four-lap qualifying simulation and his fastest lap was 221.959.
Schmidt wasn't going to give up. The team kept making changes, running and making changes. They weren't fast enough. Finally, with the clock ticking down, they made more chassis adjustments and sent Lloyd out without any laps on it. There wasn't much time. Five minutes remained when he rolled out onto the famous 2.5-mile track.
"For us to get into the top 11, we couldn't play it safe," Lloyd said.
Lloyd was just fast enough, taking the 11th and final starting spot on Pole Day.
Among the drivers who didn't make it were Panther Racing's Wheldon, Andretti Green's Hideki Mutoh, Vision's Ed Carpenter and Ryan Hunter-Reay, A.J. Foyt's Vitor Meira and Dale Coyne's Justin Wilson.
"I want to proudly recognize our team for this feat," Schmidt said. "We're in there with three Penskes, two Ganassis, three Andretti Greens. There are no one-offs in there, no independent teams, and we are quite excited to be there. We have every expectation to be competitive in the race.
"We need to thank Alex because at 5:55 p.m. we asked him if he wanted to go or wanted to wait, and he absolutely, positively had his mind made up he was going to go, and he got the job done. For somebody that doesn't have a full-time ride and isn't doing this week-in, week-out, it was a pretty impressive effort."
Lloyd, who won the Indy Lights championship in 2007, has an inspiring leader in Schmidt, whose driving career ended on Jan. 6, 2000, in an IndyCar testing crash at Walt Disney World Speedway. He was paralyzed from the neck down.
"I was in the hospital in Orlando and doctors told my wife [Sheila] to find a nursing home for me, that I'd be on a ventilator for life," Schmidt recalled.
Over the next 12 months, Schmidt got off the ventilator, out of bed and into a wheelchair. Then, he started his race team and the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, which has raised over $5 million to find a cure.
"Sam still has that commitment and determination, focus and desire to win and run at the front," Lloyd said. "He has a positive way how he looks at life after everything he's been through. Nothing can hold him back. He's still convinced at some point he'll get up and walk again. A lot of people would give up, he's gone completely opposite and attacked everything."
Schmidt drove in three Indy 500s, from 1997 to 1999, and won the IndyCar race at Las Vegas in 1999. After a year away, he's back in the 500 as a car owner, probably with his best shot at winning it. There isn't an owner in the garage who wants or deserves it more.