INDIANAPOLIS – The 47th annual Last Row Party for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge welcomed an eclectic group of characters Thursday night in drivers Sage Karam, James Hinchcliffe and Kyle Kaiser.
The trio was “honored” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Pagoda by the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation for qualifying on the 11th and final row of three for Sunday’s race.
Regarded as the newest members of the “11th Row Society,” the drivers happily accepted a few jabs for being the last to make the field of 33 in Sunday’s Last Row Shootout qualifying. They were “rewarded” with checks for the accomplishment of 31, 32 and 33 cents, respectively, signifying the spot in which each qualified.
Following his dramatic four-lap qualifying run as the final car that inevitably bumped two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso from the field, Kaiser admitted that, while “it felt damn good,” this was his grand plan all along.
“That's honestly what my goal was going into this whole month of May, was to collect the 33 cents,” said Kaiser, driver of the No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet. “That was it. I'm good now.”
By qualifying 32nd, Hinchcliffe felt relief more than anything after being bumped from the field last year and enduring a stressful qualifying weekend that included a crash in his primary No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda this time around.
“It's funny, this party is a big part of Indy 500 lore and I've never gone to one,” Hinchcliffe said. “I'm glad that at the end of the day when all this is said and done, I've at least had a chance to experience the Last Row Party.
“A year ago we wouldn't have been happy with (qualifying) 32nd, but we understand now what that pain is like (of failing to qualify). So being in it made me that much more appreciative.”
A year ago, Alexander Rossi qualified in the exact same position as Hinchcliffe and turned it into fourth-place finish, which provides some optimism for the 2016 Indy 500 pole sitter.
Sage Karam was best of the worst with his 31st-place qualifying effort, but the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing driver was immediately confused by the payout.
“Yeah, I got screwed out of this,” quipped Karam, driver of the No. 24 DRR WIX Filters Chevrolet. “I qualify the best (of the last row) and they gave me the least!”
Karam’s starting position could be a good omen to what has been a trying couple weeks. In his first Indy 500 start in 2014, Karam started 31st and drove through the field to finish an impressive ninth.
“The car felt really good in race trim,” Karam said. “This race is so long and so much happens. It doesn't really matter where you start, but no one has won from the last row. Hopefully, we can do it and get some real money and make some history in the process.”
In the midst of stopping to sign autographs and pause for photos with fans, Hinchcliffe glanced at his monster-sized check and let out a long sigh.
“It's a cruel way of the world,” confessed Hinchcliffe. “You know, the world's not fair. Racing's not fair, but the end of the day, I'm still walking out of here with 32 big ones.
“And by big ones, I mean pennies.”