At the this time last year, speed was a major concern for Bryan Clauson.
On the eve of qualifying, with a consistently slow car, there was no guarantee he would make the field for the Indianapolis 500.
But he did make it in. Barely.
Surviving a late bump attempt by Buddy Lazier in the final minutes of qualifying, Clauson hung on with the slowest time in the 33-car grid.
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“It’s exciting to be in, but I’m not really happy with it at all,” Clauson said at the time. “I felt I had a lot more speed than that.”
One year later, Clauson doesn’t feel the same way heading into qualification weekend.
This time, he’s certain he has the speed to comfortably make the field for the 100th running of the Indy 500.
He will make his bid today in the No. 88 Dale Coyne/Jonathan Byrd’s Racing Cancer Treatment Centers of America Honda.
“I feel like our cars are pretty strong and pretty comfortable,” said Clauson, who’s in his second season driving for Greenwood-based Jonathan Byrd’s Racing. “We’ll keep working on them and see where we go, but I certainly feel a lot more confident than I did going into qualifying last year.”
David Byrd, co-owner of the family owned team, feels the same way.
For all kinds of reasons.
Clauson posted the 10th-fastest time during Monday’s first day of practice and has consistently run well ahead of the slowest cars in the lead-up to today’s first day of qualifying.
Moreover, Clauson — a star on the midget and sprint car circuits — is a prolific driver who has already competed in two Indy 500s (2012 and 2015).
“There’s no substitute for experience, just being able to get out and laps year after year,” Byrd said. “It accelerates his learning curve quite a bit.
“I don’t think (speed) is going to be an issue.”
Clauson, who is attempting to compete in 200 races this season, arrived in Indianapolis late Sunday and the very next day began turning hot laps at the Speedway.
Although he is not expecting to contend for a spot up front, Clauson does expect to avoid last year’s drama. He is comfortable in the car, pleased with the set-up and determined to qualify higher in the field.
He started on the outside of Row 10 last year in a car he never felt comfortable in.
“We want to do as well as we can. I feel like our car is showing good speed,” Clauson said. “I feel like we can certainly be quite a bit higher on the grid than we were last year, but to put a number on it would be a little too early.
“It’s a tough game.”
The Byrd team is cautiously optimistic Clauson will be in the field somewhere higher than last year’s starting spot. But the primary objective is to make the race and be competitive throughout.
“We’re always realistic. We just want to be able to improve every day. We’re getting more comfortable every day,” Byrd said. “We’re not trying to qualify for the pole. It’s just about getting comfortable, and I think that’s what the whole focus is going to be.
“We’re not going to throw a lot of time and energy and resources and engineering at trying to be the fastest guy every day. We want to be very comfortable on race day, be able to run in traffic and be able to (run) all day.”
Apart from a better qualifying position, Clauson’s goal is to dramatically improve on his first two Indy 500 starts.
Driving for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in 2012, he finished 30th with a mechanical failure.
Last year, he finished 31st after crashing on Lap 61.
“I’ve learned a lot about what not to do,” Clauson said as he attempts to qualify for his third Indy 500. “Every year you come back, the learning curve becomes a little bit shorter and a little bit shorter. It’s very difficult to hop into a (Indy) car one time a year and do all the little things you need to do to be successful around this place.
“We’re trying to be fine-tuned and be as prepared as we can on (race day).”
Name: Bryan Clauson
Hometown: Carmichael, California
High school: Noblesville
Racing teams: For short tracks, Jonathan Byrd’s Racing. For the 2016 Indianapolis 500, Dale Coyne/Jonathan Byrd’s Racing.
Indianapolis 500 starts: Started on the outside of Row 10 last year and finished 31st following a crash; started on inside of Row 11 in 2012 and finished 30th after mechanical failures
Career short-track highlights: Two-time USAC National Midget Series Champion (2010, 2011); three-time USAC National Drivers Champion (2010, 2011, 2012); two-time Turkey Night Grand Prix winner (2009, 2010); two-time USAC National Sprint Car Series Champion (2012, 2013); Non-winged Driver of the Year (2013); Chili Bowl winner (2014)
What: Indianapolis 500 qualifications
Gates open: 7 a.m.
Ticket office: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Practice: Group 1, 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.; Group 2, 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.; full field, 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Qualifying: 11 a.m. to 5:50 p.m.
Ticket office: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Gates open: 10 a.m.
Enlistment ceremony: 10:30 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.
Practice: Positions 22-23, noon to 12:30 p.m.; positions 10-21, 12:45 p.m. to 1:15 p.m.;
1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m., Fast 9.
Qualifying: 2:45 p.m. to 4:45 p.m., positions 10-33; 5 p.m.m to 5:45 p.m., Fast 9
02:45pm – 04:45pm – Indy 500 Qualifying – Positions 10-33