LONG POND, Pa. – Indianapolis 500 champion Takuma Sato was the last driver waiting to make his qualifying run when teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay’s car slammed into the wall.
Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indy 500 champ, needed assistance out of his car and was transported to a hospital . Sato was worried for his friend – and the wreck put a tinge of unease into his mind.
“It made me nervous,” Sato said. “What happened to him is what could happen to me, too.”
Not to worry.
With his teammate on his mind, Sato posted an average of 219.639 mph on Saturday to win the pole for the IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway. Sato won his second pole of the season. He became the first Japanese winner of the Indianapolis 500 in May.
Sato’s pole was the highlight of an uneasy qualifying session for team owner Michael Andretti.
Hunter-Reay, who had topped the speed chart in Saturday morning’s practice, lost control of the No. 28 Honda late in qualifying. The left side of the Honda slammed the protective soft wall . The car shot down the track and hit the inside wall. Hunter-Reay, whose last IndyCar win was at Pocono in 2015, had trouble putting weight on his legs, complained of pain in his hips, and was helped to an ambulance.
IndyCar said Saturday that Hunter-Reay was treated and released from Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest in Allentown, but hasn’t been cleared to drive, pending a re-evaluation Sunday morning. He sustained injuries to his left hip and knee.
“Out of nowhere, the car stepped out on me,” Hunter-Reay said in the IndyCar release. “It was a bit of a wiggle, which I caught. The second time it happened, it came with no warning – which is a bit confusing. I hit my hip pretty bad as well as my knee, so the doctors thought it would be best to go in for further evaluation. After a CT scan and MRI, I am able to go and get a good night’s sleep. I’m sure I’ll wake up sore, but will hopefully be able to get back in the DHL machine tomorrow.”
Helio Castroneves, a three-time Indy 500 winner, also was involved in a violent wreck as he chases his first career IndyCar championship. Castroneves is the series points leader with a seven-point advantage over Josef Newgarden with just four races left this season.
Ed Carpenter did not qualify because he also was involved in a big wreck in practice.
Newgarden, who starts 14th in the 500-mile race, has won the last two IndyCar races.
Simon Pagenaud, fourth in the points standings, joins Sato on the front row.
“We need to run around in the front all day and be there to strike at the end,” Pagenaud said. “There’s also the fact that we’re playing for a championship here, so we have to be smart at the end.”
Charlie Kimball and Tony Kanaan are on the second row.
The 40-year-old Sato called winning Indy a “life-changing” moment and he has been honored by his native country seemingly since he kissed the bricks. Sato returned to Japan last week to be awarded the Prime Minister’s Award by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Sato was just the 33rd recipient of the honor, given to people and organizations that have made significant achievements or contributions to Japan and its society.
“I think it’s a significant moment in my life, for sure,” Sato said. “Every single day (since the) Indy 500, I was somewhere, flying all over the place, promoting for the weekend, celebrating the victory. One nice thing, when I go to restaurant, even if I didn’t order, they get me the milk. The people know about it. That’s so fun.”
Kanaan, who has two poles this season, held the provisional top spot Saturday until the final few drivers took their laps. The 42-year-old Brazilian is in a winless drought that stretches to the last race of the 2014 season. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and hopes to start contract talks soon with team owner Chip Ganassi.
“I think it will start picking up for sure, this weekend on,” Kanaan said. “I would like to know. If they’re interested in something else, I would like to know. Then I can go explore my options as well.”
Kanaan said about Ganassi, “He’s the guy you want to race for.”
Ganassi said Kanaan’s future with the IndyCar team is “undetermined,” but reiterated his start of the season assessment that there could be room for the Brazilian in other areas of the organization. Kanaan ran the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Ganassi’s sports car program in June.
Like fellow Indy 500 champ Juan Pablo Montoya, Kanaan’s lone ride each season could come at the Brickyard.
“I can see that happening in the future, but it’s not my desire for next year,” Kanaan said.
Kanaan has moved from successful teams in the past – he won the 2004 series championship driving for Andretti Green Racing and the 2013 Indianapolis 500 with KV Racing Technology.
“Right now, I’m open for anything,” he said. “I don’t mind being a free agent. I have experience. You have guys like (James Hinchcliffe) that’s part of the young generation looking for a better opportunity. But if Hinch opens his place because he’s going someplace else, that’s a place I can go to. I don’t see this as a problem. It’s not something that really worries me. I have some loyal sponsors, which helps quite a bit nowadays.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.