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Alone Together On Indy Bump Day

Stefan Wilson, waiting to qualify for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. © [Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media]

Stefan Wilson, waiting to qualify for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. © [Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media]

 

by Allan Brewer

It can be so very exhilarating. It can be so deeply painful. A car is in the Indianapolis 500 and gets bumped out at the last moment by a car that goes only marginally faster. Never mind the thrill of “It’s a new track record.” For most of the competitors here in Speedway, Indiana it is more a matter of survival than brave new frontier. That is the challenge ahead of every driver who yearns to compete in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing: the fastest 33 start the race. The rest go home.

Traditionalists love “Bumping.” It’s an arbitrary number that limits the field, but it produces drama the likes of which does not exist anywhere else. It creates happy astonishments and startling failures. Pragmatists, aware that racing is a business proposition, hate it. They shun the refinement in lieu of more sponsors, more fan interest, more money to chase. It frustrates certainty and reassurance that a sponsorship investment will lead to Memorial Day television time.

It can also be so very cruel. A car struggling to find enough speed to qualify sits in line late in the day  ahead of a faster car, perhaps even takes to the track at a sub-standard speed, just to waste the precious seconds before the clock expires on official qualifying. Sportsmanship gets thrown out the window in order to protect a wobbly prospect of starting the Indy 500 somewhere—even if it is the last row.

What happens at the end of the day if it’s your teammate you bump out of the race? Or perhaps your car is already qualified, but the owner pulls it out in order to try for a higher qualifying position; maybe even putting another driver behind the wheel. Take a minute and think about that: you risk your life and it goes unproclaimed as fate tempts another man or woman to risk all to spite you. Who among us would suffer public approbation like that?

What happens if it starts raining, magnifying the tension of already the most dramatic day of the year? Adding to this calculus is the knowledge that the fastest speeds come late in the day, in the last hour or even half an hour. Wait, and know the power will magically be boosted as the air cools? Or go now in order to avoid a drenching, disheartening disaster?

Then comes the last attempt to qualify the car. As long as the qualifying run starts before the gun goes off it counts. There is always drama; and there is always a well-known team or driver that has yet to make it in. Everyone in the grandstand is standing. The driver is alone in the car with his fears and his hopes. The doubt is amplified by the need not only to get in, but also to post a speed good enough to stay in.

The green flag waves. The laps accumulate. The times become greater, and speed diminishes as worn tires reduce grip and control slips away. The average is critical. It determines the position (inside, middle or outside) of the row. Off Turn 4 and across the yard of bricks, fingers crossed until the electronic timing system flashes the speed good or bad. For someone it’s an answered prayer; for another a hurt deep enough to end a career.

It’s the prize you need too much. Tempting you, pushing you. It knows you too well and pulls you up short and puts you through hell. When it is over the understanding of what has just happened becomes clear. It’s nerve-racking, it’s stressful, the cards either fall your way or they don’t, despite all the fretting over gear ratios and set-up and boost. No one ever wants it that way, it just happens that way. And it will happen again this weekend, ahead of the 2018 Indianapolis 500.

 

 

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Allan Brewer covers IndyCar and other racing series for RacingNation.com. Allan is a fixture at the race track, armed with keyboard and camera, eager to take you inside open-wheel sport where the news is being made. He comes to RacingNation.com with multiple professional awards from the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association (AWWRBA). He began his motorsports writing career at FastMachines.com; and solely published IndyProRacer.com and A1GP.com, two award-winning websites for open-wheel racing’s junior leagues, prior to becoming IndyCar correspondent at Motorsport.com. He has also covered Formula 1, NASCAR, Formula E, the Indy Lights Series and its predecessor Indy Pro Series, NHRA events and major auto shows. His major interest outside of competition is automotive technology and its application to the cars we drive every day on the public highways.