Pole position is exactly where every race car driver wants to be. The term comes from horse racing, where the number one horse starts on the inside of the first row next to the inside pole.
In car racing, a driver in pole position — called the “pole sitter” — starts the race in the first row in the inside lane. The pole sitter starts the race at the front of the pack and doesn’t have to fight his or her way through traffic to get to first place.
So how do you get pole position? Although it differs depending on the type of car race, pole position is usually earned by the driver who races the fastest lap in qualifying for the race.
Most races require drivers to qualify for (earn a spot in) the race by proving with practice laps that their cars are fast enough to compete. At the Indianapolis 500, pole position is determined on the first day (or first full round) of qualifying runs called “time trials.”
During time trials, cars run four laps (a total of 10 miles) as fast as they can. The faster they go, the farther up in the pack they will start.
The fastest car on the first day (“Pole Day”) wins the pole position. Even if other cars go faster on the remaining days of time trials, they will still start behind the pole sitter.
Recently, the Indianapolis 500 changed qualifying rules. Now, the fastest nine cars (the “Fast Nine”) on the first day compete in a “shootout” at the end of the first day to determine who will win the pole position.
Pole position for the Indianapolis 500 is a really big deal. Since the pole sitter is determined on the first day of qualifying, the pole sitter gets a lot of media attention. The pole sitter also gets a huge amount of prize money (currently around $175,000).
But does pole position guarantee that the pole sitter will win the race? Since pole position goes to the fastest car, it stands to reason that the pole sitter would usually win, right? Not necessarily!
In the history of the Indianapolis 500, 18 drivers have won the race from pole position in 21 out of 93 races — that’s about 22.58 percent of the time. While that may seem like a small percentage, most drivers will gladly take pole position and a 22 percent chance of winning the race!
Many factors go into who wins a race. The Indianapolis 500 is a 500-mile race, and a lot can happen — wrecks, mechanical problems, etc. — over the course of a long race.
Also, science has taught many drivers that being somewhere behind pole position might not be such a bad thing. Drafting — also called “slipstreaming” — is a technique some drivers use to take advantage of their position behind another driver.
Drivers who are drafting slip in closely behind another driver to reduce wind resistance and the drag effects it causes. In this way, drivers are able to maintain high speeds with less energy until they are able to make a move to charge ahead for the lead.