Bump Day: When Bubbles Burst

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When you hear die-hard fans of the Indianapolis 500 reminiscing about bump days of year’s past, you might think they are harkening back to last minute, banzai runs in the 60’s and 70’s by drivers like Bill Cheesbourg or Greg Weld. They might be, but then again…maybe not. Contrary to what some may think, you don’t have to go very far back to find some of the most memorable bump days in the race’s history. In fact, one of the more dramatic performances came just a year ago.

For the final two hours, there was one spot up for grabs in the 2008 field to be fought over by four drivers – Roger Yasukawa, Max Papis, rookie Mario Dominguez and Buddy Lazier. They all jockeyed back and forth, knocking each other in and out of the line-up. With thirty minutes to go, the favorite was Yasukawa because he was already in the field, albeit on the bubble. Papis had crashed earlier in the weekend. His car had been quickly thrown back together and he was having gearbox trouble. Lazier wasn’t considered much of a threat because he was having handling problems and had been slow all month.

With less than thirty minutes to go, Lazier went out and made a futile attempt, but was way too slow. Dominguez then went out and actually bumped Yasukawa with twenty minutes remaining. Most thought the final spot would be between these two. With fifteen minutes before the gun, Yasukawa went back out but surprisingly failed to bump himself back in. Lazier then went out again with twelve minutes remaining. No one thought that he had anything for Dominguez. Since he had not been over 217 mph for the entire month, the 1996 winner was considered an afterthought. But the champion did what champions do. He reached down and found the speed he needed. He pushed his car beyond the limits, almost brushing the wall on his fourth lap, and ran a four-lap average of 219.017 mph—quick enough to bump out Dominguez.

Seven minutes remained when Yasukawa made another failed attempt – he was done. At 5:58 –two minutes before the gun—Mario Dominguez rolled out to make the final qualifying run for the race. It looked as if Lazier’s heroic run was all for naught. Dominguez ran his first lap at a speed of 219.780 mph — quick enough to send Lazier home. As he exited the first turn on his second lap, the inexperience of the rookie surfaced. He had pushed it too hard. The rear end of the car slowly drifted toward the wall and the rest of the car followed. Dominguez smacked the wall hard and almost went airborne. At the expense of Mario Dominguez, Buddy Lazier’s gutsy effort had paid off.

Lazier didn’t fare well on race day. His Hemelgarn entry was a backmarker for most of the day, and was never a factor. He soldiered on in a very poor handling car to finish seventeenth, five laps behind the winner. But his emotional, last minute run on Bump Day was one of the more memorable moments for the month in 2008. Unfortunately, one year later and Buddy Lazier has found himself in the exact same predicament. If he can’t reach down and find another mile per hour this afternoon, he’ll have to wait another year to make his seventeenth start in the 500.

Reduced car count for the Indianapolis 500 has been the major reason that Bump Day hasn’t held as much drama in recent years. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any drama at all. Felipe Giaffone impressed everyone in 2005, when AJ Foyt called mid-afternoon on Bump Day. Giaffone’s cell phone rang while he and his wife were shopping in an Indianapolis mall. AJ was calling to summon him to the Speedway. It appeared that Arie Luyendyk, Jr. was going to make the field for the first time. Foyt didn’t seem to think the younger Luyendyk should be in the field, just yet. Giaffone hopped into a third Foyt car late that afternoon, with little practice and put it in the field, bumping out Luyendyk. Giaffone started in last place, but finished fifteenth – ahead of his two teammates. The last minute drama also added fuel to a long running Foyt-Luyendyk feud.

Going back into the 90’s; the two most drama-filled Bump Days were in 1993 and 1995. Bobby Rahal was the defending CART champion in 1993. He was co-owner of the team with Carl Hogan and they had decided to purchase the Truesports chassis program from the estate of Jim Trueman – Rahal’s car owner when he won the 500 in 1986. It was the only American-made chassis in the series. The Truesports chassis was a huge gamble that didn’t pay off. Rahal found himself on the bubble and then eventually bumped out of the field by Eddie Cheever. Rahal went out just before the gun in a backup car, but to no avail. The defending CART champion was a spectator on Race day.

Probably the most dramatic and puzzling Bump Day in my memory was in 1995, when the two Marlboro Team Penske cars failed to make the race. Al Unser, Jr was the defending CART champion and the defending Indy 500 champion. Both he and teammate Emerson Fittipaldi were two-time winners of the Indianapolis 500—yet they failed to make the ’95 race. By the second weekend of qualifying, the team had given up on chasing the Penske chassis and borrowed Lola’s and Reynard’s from other teams, yet nothing worked. Fittipaldi had finally put a run together that would have made the field in a Rahal backup Lola, but Roger Penske inexplicably waved off the run. The two champions watched the race from the Philip-Morris suites.

Bump Day may or may not hold the drama and excitement of yesteryear, simply based on the number of cars entered. In the sixties, there were generally around forty-five drivers each year, trying to squeeze into the field of thirty-three. In the earlier years of this decade there was NO bumping. They were lucky to fill the field. The last few years have seen a few cars bumped out of the field. Last year’s Buddy Lazier run, was the most excitement we have seen on Bump Day in quite a while. The numbers may not come back to the levels of the sixties, but try telling the three drivers that fail to make the field by the end of today that there was no drama.

George Phiilips

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