Junqueira gives up ride at Indy 500

Published May. 25, 2011 3:12 a.m. ET

Bruno Junqueira handled giving up his spot in the Indianapolis 500 better than one might expect. Perhaps that's because the previous two years have prepared the Brazilian driver for the worst.

In 2009, he qualified a car for Conquest Racing, but gave up his spot to this year's polesitter, Alex Tagliani, because Tagliani had more sponsorship.

Last year, Junqueira had to wait for Tagliani to qualify on Saturday because the FAZZT Race Team didn't want to risk not having a backup car for Tagliani in case he crashed before qualifying. Tagliani got through unscathed, and Junqueira posted a Sunday time that would have easily qualified on the first day. Despite that, Junqueira crashed in the race and completed just seven laps.

This year, Junqueira qualified 19th for the race in A.J. Foyt Racing's No. 41 car, but Foyt and Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti made a deal Monday that put Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay into the car for Sunday's race.

Junqueira was fine as he hung around the Foyt garage on Tuesday.

''My mind is OK,'' he said. ''I think I did my job well. I put the car in the field in good position, solid in the first day, and I did what I could.''

Some fans didn't handle the change as well as Junqueira, prompting a response from Michael Andretti.


''I disagree with the idea that we are doing something to hurt the integrity of the Indy 500,'' he said in a statement. ''We would never do that - ever. The rule is the fastest 33 cars make the race - not the 33 fastest drivers. And, that is what will be on track Sunday.''

Hunter-Reay wasn't thrilled with the circumstances.

''Am I happy to have the chance to run in the Indy 500? Sure, but this isn't at all how I wanted it to happen,'' he said in a statement. ''I have the utmost respect for the Indianapolis 500, but this is not the way I wanted things to pan out. I'm in the race, but I'm not going to celebrate. This race has a legacy and tradition that is undeniable. The reality is our car didn't qualify and now I'm racing in the number 41.''

Hunter-Reay wished the situation didn't cost Junqueira.

''I feel awful for Bruno,'' he said. ''He did a great job getting the 41 car into the field, and I know how disappointed he must be to not be driving it on Sunday. I have a lot of respect for Bruno as a driver and as a person.''

This is the second time Hunter-Reay has played a role in Junqueira's bad luck.

Junqueira qualified a car in a one-day effort in 2009. After driving eight practice laps in Conquest Racing's second car, he posted a speed that was good enough for the inside spot on the final row.

Tagliani, Conquest's regular driver at the time, thought his qualifying time from Saturday would hold up. But track conditions the next day were better, and he tumbled. The team sent him out to try and preserve his spot, but he was caught waiting in line at the end of the final qualifying session. Hunter-Reay claimed the last position, a spot Tagliani could have taken if he had gotten another chance in qualifying. Hunter-Reay was driving for Foyt's team at the time.

This year, teammate Marco Andretti bumped Hunter-Reay from the field at the end of Sunday's session, leaving their boss searching for answers.

''When Sunday was over, we needed to find a way to take care of our sponsors - the same sponsors that get us to the racetrack every race, all season long, and keep the lights on at our shop,'' Michael Andretti said. ''Without them, we don't exist. So, it wasn't a tough decision from that perspective. We had to figure out a Plan B. Not getting them into the Indy 500 was not an option.''

It's been an odd run of bad luck for Junqueira, a driver who a decade ago was one of the best at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was the Indy 500 pole winner in 2002 and led 32 laps that year before a gearbox failure left him in 31st place. He placed fifth in 2001 and 2004.

Junqueira said he appreciated working with Foyt this month. He said Foyt paid him to drive for him, a change from the usual expectation that a driver brings sponsorship to get a ride.

''It was the first time I drove for them and they gave me a great opportunity,'' he said. ''They've been very nice to tell me everything that's happened. At least they gave me a chance.''

Junqueira said Hunter-Reay is a good driver who shouldn't be blamed for the transaction.

''It's not his fault,'' Junqueira said. ''People are criticizing him, but he has no power from the team. Maybe he has fault of not qualifying. That's his team as well because they didn't give him a good car. Still, he was the guy driving. He was not qualifying. But to get him my ride is not his fault.''

Junqueira is not racing full time in IndyCar, instead driving in American Le Mans. Given his past success, he feels he should be in IndyCar. He feels there are some who are in the IndyCar series simply because they have financial backing, and that bothers him more than missing the Indianapolis 500.

''It's a little frustrating (to miss the race), but it's more frustrating for me to see bad drivers getting good rides because they have money and I don't,'' he said. ''Some guys are on really good teams that don't have that much talent because they have more sponsorship.''


Cliff Brunt can be reached at http://twitter.com/cliffbruntap.


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