We look at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a cathedral of speed, and rightly so. Even in years where the speeds have been down a bit, there remains the goal of traversing one of the most challenging ovals in the world as quickly as possible with the car and engine at your disposal. However, that doesn’t mean only the record-breakers should have their moment in the sun.
Since last week, I have watched the last-minute program of Lotus Fan Force United and Jean Alesi attempt to find their place in this year’s Indy 500. With the Lotus package a challenge to say the least, the team has sought that extra kick to find 210 mph they needed to complete Phase 3 of Rookie Orientation to be cleared for qualifications this weekend. It has not been an easy road.
Let’s be honest; as the team has struggled, comments online have not always been kind. While the Lotus FFU team is doing an excellent job at social media outreach, we’ve heard it all. Lotus can’t hit the required speed. Alesi is too old and out of practice for this type of quixotic quest. This program has no business running Indy. Social media isn’t always a sympathetic place, especially when there’s any sort of weakness perceived.
Yesterday, towards the end of the day, after a frustrating weekend and having found no speed earlier in the day, the Lotus FFU team once more sent Alesi and their #64 machine out for another attempt. Towing behind Penske cars, the laps of 210 and 211 began to be recorded. By the end of their practice stint, they were running 210, solidly, consistently, without a tow.
Phase 3 complete.
I commented yesterday I can’t remember ever being that invested in a team going 210 mph. Although it isn’t the finish line, it still felt like a well-earned accomplishment for that team. Underpowered engine, small team, a driver many have scoffed at (evidently without justification) as being unready or too old—yet they did it.
Of course, that’s not the ultimate goal of this Indy Lights-turned-IndyCar team, one that incorporates an incredibly expensive watch company and Jonathan Byrd’s Cafeteria as sponsors at the same time it brings together Tyce Carlson and Jean Alesi. Part of the fun of Indy has often been some of the odd bedfellows one-off 500 entries create, and along with Alesi and Carlson, you've got Greg Beck, Tim Wardrop, Buddy Lazier, and many others coming together to try to make this happen. They’ll work to get more comfortable with their speed and performance, hope to give a good account of themselves in qualifying, and prepare for a race few could have projected they’d be a part of just a couple of weeks ago. Make no mistake, as dedicated and focused as this team might be, they have a herculean task in front of them. But they’ll be taking the journey with more than a few new fans, I’m betting.
While Josef Newgarden and Marco Andretti rocked the top of the speed charts during Happy Hour, near the bottom of the times on the day was a very good intimation that Indianapolis isn’t just about speed. It’s about perseverance and faith, as well. Many times the latter two end up equating into the former, surprisingly enough.
The Speedway gives competitors precious few things freely, as the Lotus FFU crew and Alesi would likely tell you. It does, however, offer the rest of us a free reminder that the best stories are not always found at the front of the field, and that there's not just one victory to be found in the Month of May. Every day at IMS is filled with a thousand victories and defeats in miniature, and in them, we can find all manner of champions.