James Hinchcliffe takes Indy 500 pole in dramatic fashion

INDIANAPOLIS -- Sam Schmidt had quite a day Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Schmidt, a former Indy car driver who was rendered paraplegic in a racing accident 16 years ago, demonstrated new technology that allowed him to drive a Chevrolet Corvette around the Speedway at speeds topping 150 mph.

It was a tear-jerking moment, to be sure. But Schmidt's story was upstaged a few hours later when his Indy car driver James Hinchcliffe claimed pole position for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

One year ago, Hinchcliffe lay in an Indianapolis hospital, lucky to be alive. On a practice run in the run-up to the 2015 Indianapolis 500, a component failure sent his car veering into the wall; when a suspension arm pierced his thigh and pelvic region, he nearly bled to death. Only the quick reaction of the IndyCar Safety Car Team kept him alive, and the 28-year-old Canadian missed the rest of the season while recuperating, finally returning to the car in late September for a test at Road America.

Hinchcliffe's emotional return to Indianapolis started out in successful fashion last week when he qualified and finished third in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the IMS road course. He posted the fastest time in preliminary Indy 500 qualifying on Saturday before earning his first career Verizon IndyCar Series pole position in thrilling fashion for the biggest race in the series.

Hinchcliffe was the last driver in line to make a four-lap qualifying run, and he edged out Josef Newgarden by 0.06 mph with a 230.760 mph average. Ryan Hunter-Reay made it two Americans on the front row and two out of three for Honda in its battle with Chevrolet.

For Hinchcliffe, clinching the pole was an achievement worth far more than the $100,000 prize and custom van that goes to the fastest qualifier.

He'd love to forget about that fateful day, May 18, when he crashed at IMS. Unfortunately, people keep reminding him of it.

"I try not to think about that," he said. "But I get it. It was a big deal. It was a big deal to me, too.

"But when you're coming back to this place, you want to focus on the here and now and not remember or focus on hitting the wall at 125 Gs," he added. "Hopefully this [winning the pole] is the topic of conversation for the next week, and a week from now we've got an even better story to tell."

That's typical Hinchcliffe. He's a joker, always quick with a quip or a clever one-liner.

But over the past five years, he developed from a guy who was known as a decent driver but a better talker into one of the top drivers in the IndyCar Series. Fresh off a win in the rain at NOLA Motorsports Park in April 2015, the accident at Indianapolis last May ended the momentum that he was gaining in his first season with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Even Schmidt, who has made a believer out of anyone who knows anything about his story, worried that Hinchcliffe might not be at his best when he returned to the cockpit in September 2015, four months after the crash.

"James, he's kind of downplaying this thing," Schmidt said. "But I was there a year ago, and he was not nearly as pretty as he is right now, you know.

"He's come back," Schmidt continued after the laughter died down. "He committed to it, but you just never know, right? You can ask and you can do all the work and you absolutely never know until you've got to mash the gas, and he did that today. He did what nobody else could do today."

Hunter-Reay went out just before Hinchcliffe, lagged behind Newgarden after one lap, then pulled ahead on Laps 2 and 3 before a slightly slower fourth lap relegated him to third on the grid.

Although disappointed he didn't secure the pole, he paid tribute to Hinchcliffe and the work he put in to get back to this point.

"I'm super happy for Hinch, he's one of my really good friends," Hunter-Reay remarked. "He was sitting in his hospital bed a year ago, then I was there with him at his first Road America test. I couldn't believe how quickly right away he was back into it. That just shows the courage he has and how resilient you have to be.

"It's incredible," he added. "I don't think anybody can really describe almost losing your life out here on the same track and get back in and doing 240 [mph] into the corner and doing what he is doing. It is just incredible. Absolutely incredible. Very deserving pole winner."

Not surprisingly, Hinchcliffe deflected credit for what he achieved on Sunday. He praised the SPM team for preparing a fast car, Honda for upping its game with both engine and aerodynamics, and thanked the fans for willing him to come back so quickly.

He shone the spotlight on Schmidt, who was an IndyCar Series race winner before suffering the crash in testing at Walt Disney World Speedway in the pre-SAFER barrier days that changed his life.

Schmidt has served as an inspiration to many by dedicating himself to team ownership, winning multiple championships in the Indy Lights category before stepping up to the IndyCar Series on a full-time basis in 2012 with driver Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won four races for SPM, but he joined Team Penske in 2015, and since then, folks have been left to debate whether Pagenaud elevated a midfield team or a great team elevated a decent driver.

Hinchcliffe may well have picked up on Pagenaud's winning ways had he not been injured in the accident at Indianapolis in 2015. He's certainly making the most of the second chance and starting to prove that SPM is one of IndyCar's elite teams.

But it's clear that he gained a lot of his inspiration from his team owner.

"He was one of the greatest assets to have with everything that happened last year, especially to my family and to my parents, because he had been through something like that," Hinchcliffe said. "He kind of knew the story, he knew the score, and I know that helped them a tremendous amount. Being able to talk to him about it personally helped me a tremendous amount.

"Then I stand in pit lane today and watch Sam do 152 miles an hour around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway," he continued. "Frankly, what I did today pales in comparison. I was here two years ago when he went around there and did his first qualifying run in that car, and there wasn't a dry eye on pit lane, my own included. Having a guy like that in your stable and being able to bounce things off him is great.

"I can't wait for next year when he makes it 175."

First, there is the small matter of the Indianapolis 500 (ABC, Sunday, 11 a.m. ET). But as Hinchcliffe says, he's got the best seat in the house for the historic running of the legendary race.

"You know, 10 miles is one thing, 500 is another; we know that," he said. "We still have a lot of work to do. There's a lot of quick cars in the field.

"I came into this month hoping we'd have a new story to talk about after what happened last year, and I think we did it."