Indy 500: How Bump Day unfolded

A rain-interrupted Bump Day turned into an uncomfortable family affair, as Andretti Autosport team mates were pitched against each other for Indy 500 survival.

Bump Day is known for providing tension and drama, but rarely has it delivered either to quite the degree it did this year. At one point it looked as though the series’ biggest name – Danica Patrick – wasn’t going to make it into the field; and then later, Andretti Autosport team mates were pitched against each other, with drivers making qualifying runs knowing that if they succeeded then it would cost their team mate their Indy 500 place.

It started on schedule at noon, with the field already thinned by two drivers after the announcement that Dragon Racing had withdrawn, after their second car had been wrecked in morning practice leaving them with no viable hardware to run. There was also confirmation that Sarah Fisher had no intention of putting anyone in the #57 car that they had entered, which was another potential rival for an Indy 500 grid slot removed.

That was good news to the 14 drivers still left hunting one of the remaining nine grid positions not filled on Saturday, Pole Day. But it still meant that five drivers were going to be packing up and leaving Indianapolis early when qualifying finished at the sound of a gunshot at 6pm local time.

First to go out was Dreyer & Reinbold’s Ana Beatriz followed by Ganassi junior team driver Graham Rahal, who duly completed their qualifying attempts and claimed the first two remaining nine positions on the grid.

But before the next car in the line – AFS’ Raphael Matos – could head out, a violent thunderstorm swept in and unloaded a huge quantity of water onto the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as the crowds, teams and drivers all dived for cover and the power momentarily failed in the media centre. The storm was brief, but it left the track flooded and it took a long time for the IMS staff to get things cleaned up and ready for more qualifying runs; all the while, anxious eyes turned skywards as more showers kept bubbling up and passing close by the Speedway, anyone of which could set back the clear-up efforts.

Two hours later, the track was dry enough for qualifying efforts to resume, and for 45 minutes the cars were able to run qualification attempts: Matos first then Ryan Briscoe (still struggling in the backup car he’d been forced into after wrecking his main car on Saturday morning), Alex Lloyd, Pippa Mann, Charlie Kimball, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway. Once those nine had set times, the grid was effectively filled with 33 cars – everything that followed was to be a bumping attempt.

More significantly, all the times set on Sunday were slower than the times set the previous day, thanks to the changing conditions and the thorough wash that the track had received wiping it clean of the rubber that he been laid down that had been aiding grip up until then. It meant that no one from 24th place up was in any danger of being bumped – Simona de Silvestro, who had qualified in 24th, could breath easy. The battle would be a purely Bump Day affair.

First up was the Dale Coyne Racing rookie James Jakes, who has been consistently one of the slowest people throughout the week of practice and qualifying. He didn’t disappoint, and his time failed to dislodge the driver on the bubble who was Raphael Matos. Next up was Conquest’s Sebastian Saavedra, another driver who had been set back by the loss of so much practice time because of the weather in the past week, and consequently never threatened to make it onto the grid.

Marco Andretti was next up, and he was the first driver fast enough to ‘bump’ his way onto the grid this year: his average speed of 223.688mph was enough to displace Matos – who would now have to run again – and put Andretti’s team mate Mike Conway on the bubble. Sure enough, Conway was bumped by the next runner who was Dreyer & Reinbold’s Paul Tracy who managed a 224.939mph – the fastest lap of the afternoon.

That was the end of the run through the original qualification order draw – but there had been a notable omission among the runners in the shape of Danica Patrick, who had been pulled from her original slot because of problems with the car passing technical inspection, which meant the team had needed to take it back to work on it and re-insert it at the end of the line.

It shouldn’t have been a drama, but it turned out to be one when the rain started to fall literally seconds before Danica was due to head out on track. At first it was quite light and Danica waited patiently in her car, but the rain continued and got heavier and finally the cars were taken back into Gasoline Alley. For an hour and a half, everyone waited and held their breath: what now?

If the rain persisted, then because the grid had been filled with 33 cars and everyone in the original running order had had their chance to run (it was hardly the organisers fault if the team had pulled Danica out for technical reasons, after all) then if the rain continued through to 6pm, that would be it: the grid would be locked. There would be no rollover to the Monday, no second chances for Danica. IndyCar’s biggest star and most bankable name would be out of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Surely this couldn’t be allowed to happen? Everyone filled in the idle time during the rain break with fevered speculation about what could be done, with the favoured solution being that someone who had qualified (and everyone looked pointedly in John Andretti’s direction at this point) would have to fall on their sword, step out of their car and hand it over to Danica. Ladies first?

Fortunately the rain did stop, and the track staff worked like mad to get the Speedway ready for more qualification attempts. At 4.45pm local time, Danica’s #7 finally rolled out and started its first qualification run of Bump Day.

And it was a good one – 224.861mph was the second-best speed of the day, beaten only by Paul Tracy’s run completed just before the rain had started to come down. Suddenly, from being on the brink of disaster, Danica Patrick was not only in but looking reasonably secure in the circumstances. And sure enough, she did not need to make another run for the remainder of the afternoon.

Danica’s success had bumped Dale Coyne Racing’s Alex Lloyd off the grid, and now he would have to run again; Marco Andretti was now on the bubble and at risk of being next out if anyone improved. The drivers outside the grid were Alex Lloyd, Mike Conway, Raphael Matos, James Jakes and Sebastian Saavedra. Realistically there was surely no way that Jakes or Saavedra were going to find a sudden boost in form, so it was down to Lloyd, Conway and Matos to see whether any of them could force their way onto the grid. They only had two more attempts each to try.

Matos tried, failed; Conway tried, was waved off. Saavedra tried, and amazingly the first lap (of four) was quick enough to bump Marco; but his third was well off the pace after he nearly brushed the wall in turn 2, and that was enough to lower his overall average lap speed so that this attempt too was waved off. Then Lloyd tried, but his attempt was also too slow and was waved off.

The track opened for a brief practice period while the teams still seeking to bump their way on readied their final attempts; when the qualification resumed it was Conway on track for his third and last attempt at getting onto the grid. It seemed like everyone in the Speedway was rooting or him to make it, an emotional favourite with the crowd who remembered the horrific last lap accident that ended his 2010 Indy 500 (and his entire season) so brutally. Surely the winner of last month’s Long Beach race couldn’t fail to get on the grid?

Turned out he could. And did. Mike Conway would be leaving Indianapolis early after all.

The track briefly re-opened for practice allowing Will Power, Bruno Junqueira and Dan Wheldon to turn a few extra laps, until with 20 minutes to go the remaining cars were ready to play their final hands.

James Jakes went first; he was well off. Then Saavedra, but this time he wasn’t even close – his bid for an Indy entry was done. And then Matos tried and failed, off by a full one mile per hour from bumping Marco Andretti. Down in Marco’s garage, pulses and heart rates were starting to get back under control.

And then Alex Lloyd went out, and his first lap was a 223.732 – faster than both Marco and Ryan Hunter-Reay who was next-slowest. Surely Lloyd wasn’t going to pull this off a mere five minutes before the final gun sounded? Yet his second lap was faster – 223.818; and the third faster still at 223.917. Now surely he couldn’t fail?

He didn’t. The final lap was enough to punch in an overall four-lap average of 223.957s, and Lloyd was on the grid and Marco had been bumped with only four minutes remaining before the close of qualification. He would have to charge out onto the track and try a rebuttal response, but the irony was that if he succeeded, it would be at the cost of bumping his own Andretti Autosport team mate Ryan Hunter-Reay from the Indianapolis 500.

He had to wait for James Jakes’ final effort, which was as successful as all his other runs. It meant that Marco took to the track with one minute to go, and the gun sounded while he was putting in his laps – put, as the famous Mastermind saying has it, he had started and so he could finish. It really was the last chance saloon.

Four minutes later and Marco Andretti could breath again: he’d done it, bumping his way back onto the grid with an average of 224.628mph. Ryan Hunter-Reay had no right of reply – he was out.

Michael Andretti was left looking at a team torn asunder by the day’s events: half his regular drivers (Danica and Marco) were in, while half (Ryan and Mike Conway) were out. John Andretti had made it in on Pole Day, but AFS’s Raphael Matos was out. “Probably my worst day as an owner,” said Michael at the press conference later. “Had a few worse as a driver.”

It had been a thrilling, nail-biting end to the week of rain-hampered practice, well worth the wait – and with some genuine surprises at the end.

Of the eight rookies who had come into the month of May, all but three of them had made it onto the grid completely on merit. Circumstances with Dragon Racing claimed the campaigns of Scott Speed and Ho-Pin Tung, leaving James Jakes the only rookie to fail to qualify given a genuine run.

Amazingly, all five drivers who fell on Bump Day are IndyCar series regulars, and not the ‘one-off’ drivers like Pippa Mann, Jay Howard, Bruno Junqueira, Ed Carpenter and Townsend Bell, all of whom acquitted themselves extremely well.

And among the fallers are two IndyCar race winners – Mike Conway who won in Long Beach last month, and Ryan Hunter-Reay who won the same race the previous year. Both of them will now not appear on Race Day, and will be missed – but they had their chance an simply weren’t up to the job on the day, a particular shame for Mike Conway.

But with Penske and Ganassi also not doing as well as expected toward the front of the grid, and Sam Schmidt Motorsports’ Alex Tagliani on pole, it’s all promising to be a cracking centennial Indianapolis 500 on May 29.

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