It’s A Fumble On Bump Day

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The closing hour of Bump Day offered the usual drama, but there was an added twist. Simple arithmetic told us that three drivers would not make this year’s Indianapolis 500. It’s just as well that I am not a betting man, because I would have lost money on two of the three that didn’t make it. I got one right — Stanton Barrett. That one was easy. Anyone could see that one coming a week ago. The other two that I thought would be left without a chair, were Milka Duno and Nelson Philippe.

John Andretti may have been a safe bet, given his troubles all month, but he and Larry Curry managed to pull a rabbit out on the car’s last attempt. Andretti swallowed hard and threw his Richard Petty – DRR entry into turn one, kept his foot on the floor and hoped for the best. The result was a four-lap average of 221.316 mph and a starting spot inside row ten, while bumping Ryan Hunter-Reay.

But that was not the last of the drama. With two minutes to go, Ryan Hunter-Reay shut his visor, covering the permanent scowl he has worn all month, rolled his car onto the track and BARELY bumped his way back into the field for the thirty-third spot. The biggest surprise of the day was who he bumped out of the race – Alex Tagliani. No one was more disappointed than Tagliani, but no one seemed more surprised than his car owner, Eric Bachelart of Conquest Racing. There would be an even bigger surprise later.

Tagliani began the day seemingly safe, sitting solidly in the twenty-sixth starting position. Throughout the day, several cars with slower times withdrew their cars and requalified. In fact, it looked as if the day should be renamed Withdraw Day, since only one car had actually been bumped all day — that being John Andretti, ironically by Tagliani’s teammate Bruno Junqueira, who deserved praise for getting his car up to speed with minimal practice. However, for his efforts, Bruno would eventually be given the shaft.

This was the first time the “new” qualifying format had seen itself through as designed, since no qualifying days were completely lost to weather this year. With ideal conditions on Sunday, the speeds were fast. The strategy that was unfolding was that no one was going to sit on their times and wait to be bumped. Rather, the teams were proactive (excuse the corporate buzzword), withdrew their cars from the field and requalified with significantly faster times in order to stay off of the bubble.

Apparently, Eric Bachelart didn’t get the memo. He had Tagliani in the tech line twice, yet pulled him out both times – once for Stanton Barret. When asked about his reasoning, his eyes widened with a lost glaze and he rambled on that he thought he was safe in the twenty-sixth position. It reminded me of another Bump Day in 1993 when driver Eric Bachelart’s Marmon Wasp II– an ill-fated attempt to recreate the look of the 1911 winner, was woefully slow and failed to make the field. He had the same bewildered look that day also. In an odd twist of fate — Bachelart’s sponsor for 1993, The Marmon Group, then shifted their sponsorship to the car of…John Andretti.

To add further embarrassment, word came late Sunday night that Conquest would replace Bruno Junqueira with Alex Tagliani. Based on Bachelart’s repeated claims that he thought they were safe, I’m not sure that Bachelart fully understood the rules. If not, it’s a shame for Junqueira. Bruno deserved to be in this race moreso than the likes of Duno or Philippe. But the thrity-three best don’t always make it in. Such is the allure of Indy. But it would sure be interesting to see what was being said behind closed doors at the Conquest shop on Sunday night. In my opinion, Bachelart clearly dropped the ball and fumbled away Tagliani’s chance at his first 500, then ultimately, Bruno’s spot.

On a completely different note…someone should make Ryan Hunter-Reay listen to the theme of the song in his Izod commercial. As many times as we have had to endure it the last two weekends, I feel that I now know the song by heart. The repeated theme is “…everything’s gonna be alright”. RHR should listen and take note.

Instead of looking as if he were trying to qualify for the biggest race in the world, Ryan Hunter-Reay’s expression all month has looked more like that of somebody that was headed to the proctologist. In every interview, he carefully hinted that his team wasn’t giving him the support his teammate had gotten. He made sure that everyone knew that the reason his car was so slow was due to his crew and not him. Such a team attitude is usally reserved for an NBA player or certain wide-receivers in the NFL. There comes a time when a driver just needs to shut up and drive. RHR reached that point about a week ago.

And on a final note…congratulations to John Andretti and the pouting Ryan Hunter-Reay. They both came up with clutch performances when they had to. Buddy Lazier was a major disappointment. He never even came close to being a factor this year. But Bruno Junqueira had to be feeliing more disappointment than anyone Sunday night. The high’s and low’s that we saw in the final hour on Sunday, is what we like about Bump Day and what we love about Indy. It should be a great race.

George Phillips

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