Ryan Briscoe is in the pole position for today’s Indianapolis 500 and if history is our guide, he has the best chance of winning the race (14 of the past 50 winners started in the pole position). Briscoe’s qualifying speed was less than two thousandths of one percent faster than James Hinchcliffe’s average speed. Along the first two rows of cars (starting positions one through six) the difference in average qualifying speed between adjacent cars/drivers is about one tenth of one percent. The following chart illustrates the relationship between the probability of winning the Indy 500 and starting race position. Both the actual raw probability and the fitted probability from a logit model are included in the chart.
Among cars/drivers in the first two rows, each one place reduction in starting position is associated with a 25% reduction in the relative likelihood of winning the race. For starters in rows three through five (positions 7 through 15), each one place reduction in starting position is associated with a 10% decline in the relative likelihood of winning the race. A driver’s starting position has a much bigger impact on the likelihood of winning the race than one would expect from the small differences in the speed of the cars in the time trials. Finally only 2 of 800 drivers in the bottom half of the field, ordered by qualifying times, won the Indianapolis 500 over the past 50 years (these cars/drivers are not included in the chart).
Starting positions for the Indy 500 have a disproportionate impact on the likelihood of success in the race. A car with a poor starting position in today’s 500 mile race can still come from behind and win, but the odds are against the driver. For an electorate that appears concerned that the economic playing field is not level, it is interesting to note that relatively small differences in initial conditions have a disproportionate impact on who wins and who loses the most iconic American race .