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.


12 Join the Discussion

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  1. I knew that it had something to do with racecars!! But yesterday, I did not know that today is the Indy 500! Today I watched it with my dad!! It was soo flabbergasting when the car in first place slid and hit the wall!!! Amazing! :D

    Hmmmm… OH!!! Tomorrow’s wonder is about an award. Maybe the caldecott or newberry honor? I think that those books are some of the best books you will come across: the ones with a silver/gold medal shining brightly in the bottom right hand corner.

    • Hi there, Meredith! What a great memory you made today with your dad by watching the Indy 500 together! We think those race drivers must be VERY brave to drive that fast…it takes a lot of skill and concentration! :-)

    • We are learning from the awesome comments you are leaving for us on all the vehicle-related Wonders today that you must really like cars, Paul! That’s AWESOME! The Indy 500 is a really cool race to watch! Those cars can go FAST! :-)

  2. Seems to me, that if you can prove you have the fastest car, maybe you shouldn’t start in the pole position. Wouldn’t that be more of fair race? Even though averages of pole position winners are only 22% that Is still an advantage to the fastest car…..

  3. It was scary when one of the cars was going fast, and it hit the side. It looked liked it had exploded.

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What is pole position?
  • Does the pole sitter usually win the race?
  • How does drafting work?

Wonder Gallery

Indy car_shutterstock_10646479Vimeo Video

Try It Out

On your mark… get set… go! Go where? Go straight to the backyard or a park. It’s time to race!

Pure, natural speed won’t necessarily lead you to victory in these fun family races. But, of course, it’s not all about winning. Making memories together will make all of you feel like winners.

Try one or all three of these races guaranteed to bring smiles to all!

Potato on a Spoon Race
If you haven’t guessed already, you’ll need some spoons and some potatoes for this race. Stainless steel spoons will work best, but sturdy plastic ones will work, too. Small potatoes will make things easier.

Racers will need to balance a potato on a spoon while making their way from the starting line to the finish line. If you drop your potato, pick it up, rebalance it and get going again.

The first one to cross the finish line is the winner. Of course, if you then use all the potatoes to make homemade french fries, everyone will be a winner!

Sack Race
For this race, you’ll need a sack. Old burlap sacks work well, but you can also use a strong trash bag or even an old pillowcase.

Climb into your “sack” and pull its edges up as far as you can toward your waist. On “go,” hop as fast as you can from the starting line to the finish line.

If you fall, get up and catch up as fast as you can. This is a race where young and old look equally funny!

3-Legged Race
This race is all about cooperation. Divide into groups of two. For fun, try adults against children or boys against girls.

You’ll need some twine or tape. Stand next to your partner facing the same direction, and tape or tie one of your legs to the other player’s leg. When you’ve turned two legs into one, you’ll understand why you’ll now be racing with three legs!

Before racing, take a little while to get used to moving together. It’s harder than it looks!

Set out a starting and finish line, and then race as pairs. Be forewarned: You’ll most likely fall several times. Be careful and have fun!


Still Wondering

Visit Illuminations’ Telling Racing Stories lesson to learn more about the mathematical concept of linear relationships by modeling races in which runners start from different positions.


Wonder What’s Next?

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