Ben Hanley drives across IMS yard of bricks

INDIANAPOLIS – Ben Hanley was able to relax a bit on Tuesday, even taking time to calmly pet a calf before the American Dairy Association’s annual Fastest Rookie Luncheon for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

Good thing for Hanley, since the NTT IndyCar Series rookie faced the highest levels of stress making it into the race during Crown Royal Armed Forces Qualifying. The No. 81 10 Star DragonSpeed Chevrolet driver landed in the 27th spot on Saturday’s first day of time trials, but not without being forced to make three nerve-wracking attempts to do so.

Ben Hanley pets calf at rookie luncheonAs uncertainty loomed, the team went out for a third and final run. Each lap more harrowing than the one that preceded it, Hanley pushed his car to a 227.482-mph, four-lap average.

“I was on the edge,” Hanley said. “I don't think anyone who has made the field (Saturday) is going to say it was easy. The first two laps are a lot more comfortable than the second two. It was sketchy that last lap and I just thought, 'I've got to keep in it.' My foot wanted to come off, but I managed to hold it in there.

“If you're not on the edge, then you're not going fast enough. This place is difficult to get to being on that edge, so you've got to have the confidence in the car, and the car gave me that confidence to be able to push a bit harder and take it more to the limit. It was a great effort by everyone.”

The remarkable performance showcased the grit and determination from both first-year driver and team, who have never previously competed on an oval and only made two previous NTT IndyCar Series starts this season.

Ultimately, the call to attempt another run came down to not wanting to be one of the six drivers battling for the final three spots to make the field of 33 in Sunday’s Last Row Shootout.

“We kept of saying internally that we didn't want to be out there (Sunday),” Hanley said. “You know, we didn't expect to be certainly in the Fast Nine (Shootout), but we've been just doing small changes all week.

“Eventually, that's paid off for us because we've slowly crept up to the speed that gets us straight into the 500.”

The outing provided an exclamation point to the announcement earlier Saturday from team principal Elton Julian, who confirmed a larger commitment to the NTT IndyCar Series beginning in 2020 and beyond.

“Commercially there's no other championship that seems as viable as this one,” Julian said.

“So the decision that you read about was to pull back a little bit on some of the (FIA) World Endurance Championship stuff that we're involved in, still keeping our prototype racing program in the European championship, which I think is a fantastic championship, and individual outings in IMSA and stuff like that, the big events. So we're not leaving sports car racing by any means. That is our bread and butter and that's what we do really, really well.

“But dropping the WEC stuff will really allow me to spend more energy and time in doing as many or more races next year in this (NTT IndyCar Series) championship because, now that I've got my foot in the door, I don't want to leave.”

And now that they’ve gotten a taste of the drama and ecstasy of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, they seek more.

“That for me personally was the most satisfying qualifying performance I've done,” Hanley said. “This place is like no other, and there's a much more real risk-reward scenario when you're driving out there.”

His boss agreed.

“It's a massive victory for us,” Julian said of the qualifying effort. “It's not an overall victory, but we met the first target, so there's a lot of pride in that. I've won races as a driver, and I've won championships as a team owner now, but this is other-level stuff.”

Hanley, Julian and DragonSpeed will take on the other 32 qualifiers in the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. Live coverage starts at 11 a.m. ET on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.