Return of Bump Day could give Indy 500 qualifying real boost

Marco Andretti looks at his car during a practice session for the IndyCar Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Wednesday, May 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Roger Penske still bemoans the memories from the 1995 Indianapolis 500.

One year after dominating the month of May, and a year before the open-wheel split officially began, the team owner and his two drivers – Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi – left pit lane empty-handed. They didn’t have the pole and they didn’t even have a starting spot on the 33-car grid.

The lessons from that shocking Bump Day result remain as fresh with Penske today as they did nearly a quarter-century ago: This historic 2.5-mile track can hit anyone, even the most successful team in IndyCar history.

”In ’94, we won the race, we led almost every lap and the next year at the end of qualifying, I’m walking away with two of the best drivers in the world,” Penske told The Associated Press. ”It’s a day I’ll never forget in my life.”

Longtime fans won’t forget it anytime soon, either.

Anyone who has actually been on the front lines of Indy’s unique four-lap qualifying format understands the stakes during Saturday’s qualifying round.

Tension will be high. Jubilation can instantly turn into disappointment or vice versa. And the financial future of some teams could be on the line, too. It’s been one of the most dramatic traditions in racing and it’s been a part of Indy lore since 1914.

But since the split in 1996, it’s essentially been a missing component.

The series has, at times, struggled just to fill the field much less have enough cars for bumping. Race organizers adapted to the changing environment by shrinking the two-weekend qualifying schedule to one and giving cars as many attempts per day as they need to make the field.

Now, bumping is back. Thirty-five driver-car combinations will attempt to make the May 27 race and two will be heading home.

”It’s great to have (bumping) back,” four-time 500 winner A.J. Foyt said. ”I’d like to see another 30 or 40 cars here to make it really interesting. But the way they have qualifying now, you can have 20 attempts on one car. I wish they’d go back to the other way where you get three attempts per car.”

That’s how Penske’s team got shutout in ’95.

But the good and bad of the format largely depends on perspective.

While hardcore fans eagerly awaited this day in 2013 or 2015, when 34 cars were entered and only 33 made official qualifying attempts each year, they can’t wait to see this weekend play out.

Of course they’re not scrambling to find speed or rebuild cars as will be the case for some teams heading into Saturday.

James Davison’s crew is scrambling to repair Foyt’s No. 33 in hopes he can find enough speed Saturday to make the field. The Australian driver crashed in practice Friday after struggling all week.

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing also will be busy. JR Hildebrand returned to the track after crashing Thursday but finished 30th on the speed chart with a fast lap of 227.242 mph in Friday’s practice. Teammate Sage Karam was 26th with a best lap of 227.593.

Jack Harvey had the slowest car Friday at 226.611.

And only Davison, at 226.705, and Graham Rahal, at 226.811, failed to top 227 mph.

”We’ll be on track, just not sure how fast we’re going to be with backup parts and so on,” Davison said.

They’ll join a long line of anxious drivers who have been on both ends of the spectrum.

Arie Luyendyk Jr. simply dropped his head in disgust when his car was knocked out in 2005 with 24 minutes to go. He got one more chance but failed to requalify.

In 2011, Michael Andretti’s team flirted with disaster. Danica Patrick sat stoically in qualifying line as the rain fell. Somehow, track workers dried the surface quickly enough for her to qualify 26th.

Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay faced another dilemma. Andretti bumped his teammate out of the race on the final run of the weekend to claim the No. 28 starting spot.

The next day, Hunter-Reay was hired by Foyt to replace 2002 Indy pole-winner Bruno Junqueira.

”I had to qualify on Bump Day three times and three times I was the fastest on Bump Day,” Junqueira said, noting he was never nervous about making the field. ”I think it (losing the ride) was because I didn’t have the sponsorship on my car. It was a money decision to be honest.”

Money factors into the results another way, too.

The expense and availability of cars has forced some teams to cut back and smaller teams need Indy’s big prize to make ends meet.

Three times since 1934, the race has expanded to more than 33, including 1997 when 35 cars started. Mark Miles, the CEO of IndyCar’s parent company, has already ruled out that possibility this time.

”It’s about winners and losers and drama and that’s what it’s all about,” he said.

Penske couldn’t agree more even if it does rekindle some tough memories.

”I think it’s great,” Penske said. ”I think it will be exciting.”

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