top of page

Indy 500 Qualifying Stories: VeeKay’s heroics, Chevy plenums and a winner on the brink

Written by Archie O'Reilly

The opening day of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) - one of the best days on the motorsport calendar across a near-seven-hour period - produced a whole litany of stories. It was paced by Will Power, while Marcus Ericsson, Graham Rahal, Katherine Legge and Nolan Siegel will have to fight to make the field.

From Team Penske dominance and Rinus VeeKay’s heroic recovery from a major crash, to Chip Ganassi Racing’s struggles, woes for both engine manufacturers and some big names on the brink, here are an astonishing day’s biggest tales…

VeeKay’s heroic recovery

When VeeKay, fourth in the qualifying running order, emerged unharmed after losing the rear of his No.21 Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) Chevy and destroying the left side of his machine, the immediate thought was the possibility of a Sunday return for Bump Day. It was an unusual but heavy accident with an impact at over 230 miles per hour at Turn 3.

And the ECR crew had every intention to return on Sunday. But not for Bump Day. 

With over two hours remaining on Saturday, the Dutchman returned to the track to shake down his repaired car. He then set an impressive lap which put him 29th-best in the four-lap average charts and safely into the field - an impressive story in itself. But VeeKay and company wanted more and withdrew that time with mere minutes remaining.

Surely they are not going to make the Fast 12 and offer VeeKay a chance to preserve his record of starting inside the top four in all four visits to the IMS oval, are they? But they did. And a 232.419 mph four-lap average slotted VeeKay into 11th for a trademark ‘This is Indy’ story. Elation ensued in pit lane.

“I said earlier, it would be a really cool story,” VeeKay said. “But I like boring stories more… What a day. Just such a rollercoaster. Such a heartbreak to start the day, the crew got the car back together in under three hours, which is incredible to start with. I never lost hope but I never expected us to do that. 

“It’s such a great story, such a great job by the guys. I think they are the real winners here today. I just had to stay flat for four laps today and hang on to the thing.”

VeeKay was initially limping after emerging from his stricken car. He admitted his right knee was in some pain “but 20 minutes later it was gone” and the ailment seemed “more the shock” after one of the heaviest crashes of the 23-year-old’s career. He was more concerned about the car and whether he would be able to run again on Saturday.

“I know what did not have to be replaced and it was basically the tub and the engine,” he said, outlining the extent of the damage. Everything else had to get swapped out. It was all spare parts, which it’s not ideal. But we made it happen and it’s pretty awesome.”

It spoke to the calibre of the ECR team at IMS that they were able to repair VeeKay’s car with spare parts and still allow qualification for the Fast 12 on the second lap in anger. As soon as VeeKay had gone to eat lunch and returned, “the car was already pieced back together” by the fast-working mechanics.

VeeKay’s entrance into the Fast 12 was at the expense of Andretti Global’s Colton Herta, who admitted “it sucks” to not be able to come back and compete on Sunday.

“It’s annoying to miss it by that much,” he said. “But it was a pretty amazing comeback for their group and I know that’s not easy to get back in the car after hitting the wall here Props to him for getting back in the car and trimming and not lifting. It was impressive for him.”

Will Power also described VeeKay’s run as “very impressive” and noted how “very tough” it is to get back in the car and then deliver so quickly.

“Everybody still said: ‘You’re a badass driver, let’s get it out,’” VeeKay said. “That’s exactly what I did. I just drove like I always do. The team did what they always do around this place, and they gave me a really fast car. I was a bit surprised by the first lap speed. Surprised in a good way.”

The 2022 winner on the brink

On the other end of the spectrum of emotions to VeeKay, Ericsson has now endured yet another one of the emotions Indy can elicit. The 2022 winner at the Speedway suffered the anguish of losing a historic second successive victory on the final lap last year. And now he has to experience the toil of Last Chance Qualifying.

“It’s been very tough,” he said. “I can only blame myself. I crashed our primary car on Thursday and put us in a difficult spot. I think the team has done a really good job at building up the backup car and really putting in a lot of work yesterday to try and dial it in. Today they were out there pushing all day to try and find speed and get me out there for new runs.”

But despite the team’s best efforts, Ericsson has been left frustrated and disappointed after a crash at Turn 4 during race running in Thursday’s practice destroyed his primary speedway car. Since that heavy hit, which involved three separate bits of contact before the car came to rest at the end of pit lane, the No.28 Andretti Global crew has struggled to find speed.

“You’re obviously out there driving everything you’ve got and our car, for some reason, has not really got the speed or the grip at the moment,” Ericsson said. “You feel like you’re doing 234s but you’re doing 230s. We just kept trying things and I thought we made some progress in the end. But not enough.”

Ericsson’s teammates are fast, with Kyle Kirkwood comfortably making the Fast 12 along with Meyer Shank Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist, who is part of the Andretti camp given the teams’ technical alliance. Ericsson, who joined Andretti for this season with Indy 500 ability a big part of his allure, also believes his primary car was “really fast” before the crash. 

“We’ll look at data, look at videos tonight, see if I can do something better and then work with the engineering staff and try and optimise the car,” he said. “That’s how it goes. This place is tough. We’ve been through ups and downs here. But we need to keep fighting. We still have some potential. We’ll dig deep and go out and fight tomorrow.”

Ericsson realises Last Chance Qualifying will be “high pressure” given one error can put you out of the show. But he knows he has the experience to deal with the situation.

As Rahal noted in the end-of-day press conference, 2018 winner Will Power had to contend on Bump Day in order to make the field. But “it’s just the way this place goes sometimes” and even the very best can be bitten.

Chevy plenum events: “We feel terrible”

Chevy has dominated Honda in terms of peak performance this May. Every Chevy-powered entry has made the field automatically without much trouble, while nine of the cars inside the Fast 12 also represent the famous bowtie across five of the six Chevy teams. 

But it was not all rosy in the Chevy camp. Six cars suffered confirmed ‘plenum events’ - essentially a run-ruining engine cut - across Saturday. As put by Chevy’s IndyCar programme manager Rob Buckner, this is “a set of circumstances, a set of inputs and events that lead to rapid combustion of fuel” that leads to a brief but significant loss of power.

“To the driver it’s a perceived engine kill,” Buckner said of the issue, which was occurring when drivers were shifting gears. “They vary in duration, they vary in severity. Unfortunately here today, the ones we had were very noticeable to the drivers.”

While they still made the Fast 12, Kyle Larson and Pato O’Ward had early runs scuppered by this issue for Arrow McLaren. A furious Conor Daly could easily have been mid-pack for Dreyer & Reinbold without suffering the same fate, while Ed Carpenter and rookie teammate Christian Rasmussen both had runs tracking to be good enough for the Fast 12 ruined.

The momentary engine issue most harshly prevented one of IndyCar’s minnows, Juncos Hollinger Racing, from an unlikely Fast 12 appearance. Usually a calm and reserved customer, sophomore Agustin Canapino was irate on the radio after a 233 mph average from two laps was undone by the powercut. 

“The good news is no harm to the engines,” vice president of General Motors performance and motorsports Jim Campbell said. “We obviously have put those drivers at a deficit when they’ve been trying to make their fast four laps. Our team is going to work overnight, running around the world, on ways to mitigate the issue and aero proof it for tomorrow.”

Chevy has been “pushing as hard as we can” to offer as much horsepower to its drivers. But aside from Fast Friday, there had been no testing on the boosted ‘Indy 500-spec 1.5 bar’ used in qualifying. Campbell admitted the issues were “on us” and said those at Chevy “feel terrible” about the situation.

It appears the limits may have been pushed too hard in the continuous engine battle at the heart of IndyCar. Buckner admitted that Chevy “lacked some robustness in different conditions” and have been searching for ways to mitigate the issue ever since Larson was the first victim on his opening run. 

“We’re going to look at everything… ECU data, shift points, shift lights,” Buckner said. “We’re going to work with the teams, drivers. At this point there’s really no mitigation strategy we would eliminate.”

There is still not “a full understanding of why” these issues were happening but Chevy has vowed to learn from the issues and “come back with a better package” in the future. All cars will be switching to new engines after Monday practice.

A day of disparity at RLL

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLL) are certainly in a better position than last year. Legge only just made the race automatically in their one-off entry, while their three full-time cars had to return for Bump Day. This year, there is a little bit of confusion.

Rahal, who was bumped on qualifying Sunday last year, will have to contend Last Chance Qualifying again. It was “a double-edged sword” for him with Pietro Fittipaldi on the bubble in 30th if Rahal had put a lap together. Christian Lundgaard was marginally safer in 28th but, along with Takuma Sato, marks three RLL entries guaranteed to be in the field.

And that is not as far as it goes. While Rahal is going to have to fight to make the show, two-time winner Sato, who won in 2020 for RLL, finished ninth and will contend for pole on Sunday.

“Takuma is an anomaly,” Rahal said. “He’s got a hell of an engine. You see where the other three cars are the same? There’s one that’s different. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”

Rahal admitted being in the bottom four is “not at all what we expected” after a year of well-documented efforts to improve at Indy after the woes of 2023. He believes it is “a culmination of a lot of things” that have resulted in them still being in this position after a loss of speed across the week.

“What we fell into the trap of was that nothing that we did actually found speed,” Rahal added. “We seemed to degrade as the day went on. We had to shorten our gears, which you shouldn’t have to do, but we couldn’t get it to accelerate otherwise. We couldn’t get the top speed out of the car.”

No matter how good the balance was, Rahal - an Indy 500 podium-sitter as recently as 2020 - could not find speed. He credited swift decision-making from Honda to prompt an engine change after an issue was spotted on his first run. But “even with a new bullet” there was no marked speed increase.

“It just doesn’t line up,” he said. “This has to be something mechanically holding us back.”

“You watch some of these onboards… I think even Rinus, in the mid-corner speed, 229, but then at the end of the back straight, 238,” Rahal added. “You look at us… mid corner speed, 229, end of back straight, 233, 234. I can’t push harder”

Rahal, sporting a new chassis this year, still maintains that progress has been made. But no team sits still and, despite the fact the RLL team “busted our butts” and there has been development on the race running side, Rahal acknowledges there is still even more to find.

“If we had stayed static to where we were last year, we’d be in the 228s, based on where Ganassi is,” he said. “We were five to six miles an hour off. We’re not there anymore. But unfortunately a few things have happened and the Chevys have stepped up their game. There’s a lot of little bits to this that make a difference and it’s very, very, very close.”

There remains faith from Rahal that, heading into Last Chance Qualifying, his No.15 team can get him over the line this year.

“There’s no quit in these guys - I said that to them on the radio during my in-lap,” he said. “I can see the pain in their eyes, particularly the mechanics. It’s a terrible, terrible feeling to see that after all the work that they’ve put in.”

“I never overlook anybody”

Heading into Bump Day, the expectation is that Ericsson should be safe and the Dale Coyne Racing cars will be most in trouble. Siegel is still recovering from an airborne crash on Fast Friday, which necessitated a change of tub, while Legge has shown impressive consistency lap-to-lap but is lacking inherent speed in her car to notch averages higher than 230 mph.

“I hope that a smooth four [laps] is what it’s going to take tomorrow,” Rahal said. “But Kat, Marcus, me… we’re all about the exact same. Nolan, I’m sure they’re going to work hard overnight to find some speed there.”

Ultimately, you cannot be complacent and head into Bump Day with expectations that one of your competitors will be the one to miss out. Anything can happen - as shown last year as Jack Harvey pipped teammate Rahal to make the field at the death last year despite not giving any time to cool his car.

Realistically, it will be an uphill task for 19-year-old Siegel in Coyne’s speedway-adapted No.18 road course car as he looks to even break above the 228 mph range. But you cannot rule anything out.

A dominant day for Penske

There is not much to say on Penske, simply because they rolled out inside the first 10 runs after early qualifying draws, put their laps in, locked out the top three for the day and put the cars away for the remainder of the running. It was seamless, with exceptional consistency - and even increased - from lap to lap.

All three Penske cars notched four-lap averages in the 233 mph range, led by Power with a 233.758 mph quickest lap. Scott McLaughlin was second and Josef Newgarden third as the Penske order from Fast Friday was flipped overnight. With all three cars emphatically into the Fast 12, it is a marked improvement on Power being the only Penske to make it in 2023.

“It was a good, smooth run,” Power said. “Would like to have run in the heat but Roger [Penske] didn’t want us to go out. I think [Alexander] Rossi is the one that could break up an all-Penske front row, but I think one of us will get the pole… I hope. We put a lot of work in. All the cars are about the same speed.”

Power has been waxing lyrical about Penske’s chances since April’s open test after an off-season of improvement. He has never achieved pole position for the Indy 500 despite being the all-time pole position leader and has admitted it “would be a nice box to tick” as Penske looks to sweep the front row as a repeat of 1988.

“I would be extremely happy for the engineers and the guys who have done all this work because it’s been pretty painful the last five years,” Power said, with a Penske not having achieved a front row start since Simon Pagenaud’s pole in 2019. “We’re the lucky ones that get to drive the cars. I really hope that happens.”

A “wild day” for Arrow McLaren

Arrow McLaren has been the second-fastest team ever since the boost was turned up. But their Saturday got off to a rocky start, with Larson and O’Ward suffering plenum events on their opening runs and Callum Ilott seeing his opening four-lap average disqualified for a non-compliant left-rear wheel upright.

Ilott narrowly missed out on the Fast 12 in 15th but O’Ward did eventually finish 10th and Larson an impressive sixth in his first-ever Indy 500 qualifying session. 

“I expected exactly this, quite honestly,” Alexander Rossi said of teammate Larson. “With his pedigree and everything he’s done across various disciplines, it’s not a surprise at all. In terms of working with him, it's pretty straightforward because everything for him is just good. It’s like: ‘Is anything ever bad?’ He’s like: ‘Not yet.’ It’s like: ‘Okay, sweet.’”

Rossi was the one constant through the chaos that left a little bit of concern early on at Arrow McLaren. He was drawn last in qualifying, hence he was pulled out of line by the team so they could pick when he ran. Without much fuss, he slotted right in behind the Penske trio, later improving his fourth-place four-lap average to 233.069 mph.

“It was a pretty wild day,” Rossi said. “It was pretty tough. Obviously it was a little chaotic for the whole organisation in the beginning. But we knew we had fast cars and it was a lot of teamwork to stay calm with the unpredictable stuff that started to happen. I think Arrow McLaren did a great job so far this month. We’ve had good cars in really all conditions.”

No Fast 12 for Chip Ganassi

The Indy 500 pole-sitter has come from the Chip Ganassi Racing camp in each of the last three years, with Scott Dixon leading the field to green in 2021 and 2022 and Alex Palou at the front in 2023. But in 2024, they are having to settle for no Sunday action after all five drivers missed the Fast 12 session.

Palou was the team’s best-placed driver in 14th, with oval debutant Marcus Armstrong and IndyCar rookie Kyffin Simpson next in the Ganassi order in 16th and 18th and beating six-time series champion Dixon. A career-low 21st-place start will have to be settled for for Dixon, who was fourth-best Ganassi ahead of rookie Linus Lundqvist in 27th. 

On the bright side, fears of a possible Last Chance Qualifying appearance were erased, particularly owing to a strong performance from 19-year-old Simpson after a tough Friday. But IndyCar’s most well-oiled operation in recent years are on the back foot for now, viably hoping their race car can allow a recovery and turnaround in fortunes come next weekend.

Indy-only entry shows its value

There has been a lot of talk about charter systems and locking entries into the field for the Indy 500. But while four full-time cars are contending to stay in the field, including from the powerhouse Andretti team, an Indy-only car made it into the Fast 12.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, winner of the 2014 Indy 500, delivered a 232.385 mph four-lap average to knock last year’s pole-sitter Palou out of the Fast 12 and advance to Sunday’s fight for the pole for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. This sort of team, putting year-long effort into the Indy 500 and Indy 500 only, is an integral part of the spectacle’s furniture.

It was a story that embodied a vintage, feel-good day of entertaining qualifying action.


bottom of page