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Castroneves wins Indy 500 pole

May 11, 2003 at 10:43 PM   |   Comments

INDIANAPOLIS, May 11 (UPI) -- It appears success in the Indianapolis 500 has come easily for Helio Castroneves, but his pole-winning performance in Sunday's qualifying came in the most difficult of conditions.

With cold temperatures and high wind gusts buffeting the cars around the 2.5-mile oval, Castroneves was able to run his fastest laps of the month to put his Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota on the pole with a four-lap average of 231.725 miles per hour.

"When Helio got up this morning, it was so windy he didn't think he could pass a rookie test -- that's how bad the wind was," said team owner Roger Penske, who scored his record 12th career Indy 500 pole to go along with a record 12 victories.

"But we checked with the airport weather office and saw that it was going to be dry all day, so rather than go out in conditions we didn't like, we decided to wait."

Penske Racing played the waiting game and Castroneves was able to set the car up to the adverse conditions. Castroneves put together consecutive laps of 231.673 miles per hour followed by 232.215, 231.486 and 231.529 for a four-lap average at 231.725.

"It just seems that this place, all the time, seems to be good for me," Castroneves said. "This is the place to take a chance. The result shows how hard I worked to get here. This is an incredible place and I couldn't be happier today.

"It's one of the happiest days in my life. That's why I'm crying. These moments are what I'll never forget. This moment is very special for me."

Castroneves knocked his boyhood pal, Tony Kanaan, off the pole. Kanaan, driving for Andretti/Green Racing, ran a four-lap average of 231.006 mph in a Dallara/Honda. He also got revenge one day after Kanaan put a birthday cake in Castroneves' face during a television interview on the driver's 28th birthday.

"Don't get me angry," Castroneves said of Kanaan with a laugh. "We were watching those other guys try to deal with the windy conditions and Gil de Ferran and I both agreed, let's not watch this, let's watch cartoons."

While the windy conditions were enough to frighten the more fearless of drivers, Castroneves was able to have the machismo when it mattered the most. Robby Gordon, another driver for Andretti/Green Racing, was third with a four-lap average of 230.205 mph to round out the first row.

Scott Dixon (230.099), rookie Dan Wheldon (229.958) and Kenny Brack (229.509) fill out the second row.

Twenty-four drivers qualified on Sunday for the 33-car starting lineup, leaving nine spots open for next Sunday's final round of qualifications.

Sarah Fisher is currently the slowest driver in the field with a four-lap average of 224.170 mph.

It was Castroneves's ninth career Indy car pole and his first at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Penske Racing has won from the pole five times at the Indianapolis 500, but it was the team's first Indy 500 pole since 1994 when Al Unser Jr. won both the pole and the race. That has put him in position to become the first driver in racing history to win the Indianapolis 500 three straight years from the most coveted starting spot on the grid.

"I remember my first year, we just wanted to put this baby in the grid," Castroneves said of his first race here in 2001. "The following year, we were able to try to attempt for the pole, we didn't get it. This year, we were just trying to work patiently ourselves to get a good speed, and all of a sudden we end up on pole."

Even after he had put his car on the pole earlier in the qualifications, Kanaan knew that with the two Penske cars yet to qualify, that it wasn't time to celebrate the biggest pole of his career.

"Penske's still out there," Kanaan said. "They're going to be tough to beat. And especially, I know those two guys really well, and they're not going to hold anything back."

Kanaan's suspicions were right as Marlboro Team Penske used their understanding of the weather conditions and how it affects the ever-changing condition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval to put Castroneves on top of the huge scoring pylon that is a Speedway landmark.

"I think the key what we did today is to have a team and a driver that are patient," said Penske Racing president Tim Cindric. "It takes a lot of patience to sit there and watch the weather go by, watch these guys put their numbers on the board and wonder when it's going to be your turn. Really, that was the biggest thing for us, just tweaking the car a little bit at a time, then deciding when it was the right time to go."

The right time was at 5:36 p.m. EDT, when Castroneves wheeled his Dallara/Toyota onto the track with 58 degree temperatures and winds blowing at 26 miles an hour.

"You have to have a guy you have confidence in, especially on a day like today," Cindric said. "The more you run the more risk you take. To have the confidence that he'll keep the thing off the fence when you get ready for this, and know your team has the other car ready to go, really gives you the confidence to go hang it out there and see what happens."

Cindric admitted with such diabolical weather conditions, the team actually thought "let's get this thing in the show and go home."

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