With all the talk of guaranteed starting positions and expanded fields for the Indianapolis 500, it’s hard to remember just how good Bump (or Bubble) Day used to be for the Indianapolis 500. The new qualifying formats, regardless of what tweaks have been implemented for the past seven or eight years, have somewhat done away with the drama that used to accompany those last minute runs that resulted in elation or anguish.
I don’t necessarily believe I’m alone in thinking Bump Day was more intriguing than Pole Day. Sure, most record-breaking speeds were set on Pole Day (although some occasionally were posted on later days of qualifying), but the drama really set in on the last day of qualifications. Nobody was really that disappointed if they weren’t the fastest car on Pole Day (unless your name was John Menard) because you were still starting the race. For those who were too slow on Bump Day, it was another whole year before they could try again.
There are many classic Bump Days that people look back on fondly. Without a doubt, 1993, 1995, and 2001 are some of the more commonly remembered Bump Days, but I think Bump Day 2010 might have been the craziest, hardest to follow, unpredictable, and most amazing Bump Days in Indianapolis 500 history.
2010 was the first year for a shootout-style qualifying format at Indianapolis. On Saturday, May 22, the top 24 cars were locked into the field for the race, led by pole sitter Helio Castroneves. Bump Day, Sunday, would see a flurry of early activity when the track opened for qualifying at noon.
In a growing drama, the Andretti Autosport car of Tony Kanaan was still not in the field, and his chances to do so were looking bleaker by the hour. On Pole Day, TK had crashed during his qualification run and been forced into a backup car. In Sunday morning practice, Kanaan found the wall again, in a nearly-identical crash. Though Tony was uninjured, the car was badly damaged and his team had less than eight hours to repair the car and get Kanaan qualified.
Within the first hour of qualifying on Sunday, the field was full and bumping was underway. The first to be bumped was Takuma Sato. Shortly thereafter, the line broke and the track was opened for practice. Unfortunately for those not in the field, temperatures were skyrocketing and the track was slowing down. As such, few competitors took advantage of the open track until later in the afternoon.
During this time, Sebastian Saavedra was on the bubble with a perilous speed of 223.634 mph. Unfortunately for Saavedra, his posted speed was either going to miraculously hold up and he would be in the field or he was going to be bumped without a chance to defend himself. While practicing at 4:50 PM, Saavedra spun and crashed hard exiting Turn 1. His car suffered major damage to the rear and would not be repaired in time to requalify over the next 70 minutes if necessary. As for Saavedra himself, he too suffered damage and was sent to Methodist Hospital for further evaluation. He would spend the end of Bump Day watching Versus TV coverage from a hospital bed.
Qualifying finally resumed when the rebuilt car of Tony Kanaan took to the track at 5:20. After nothing but drama and angst for the past 36 hours, Kanaan put his car in the show at over 224 mph but was only good enough for 30th position and the fourth car on the bubble. His spot was not safe yet, but Kanaan had bumped Saavedra from the field. It appeared Bryan Herta Autosport would have to wait for another day to make their IndyCar debut.
With Saavedra now out of the field, Mario Romancini found himself on the bubble at 223.805 mph, followed by Jay Howard at 223.824 mph and Paul Tracy at 223.892 mph. Romancini withdrew his posted time and put his Conquest Racing machine safely back into the field at over 224.6 mph, dropping Jay Howard onto the bubble.
Takuma Sato bumped his way back into the field and bumped Jay Howard out of the field. It is important to note that both Howard and Saavedra, while being bumped, had both posted official times and were thus now alternates one and two (though technically the alternate was no longer a term being used).
Paul Tracy was now on the bubble, and Jay Howard took to the track to try to bump his way back in. Because Howard’s car had been bumped from the field, he was able to try to re-qualify without having to withdraw his already posted – but too slow – speed. Howard’s attempt came up just short and he was still on the outside looking in as the first alternate.
In a stunning move, Paul Tracy’s KV Racing Technology team withdrew his bubble speed at 5:50 under the assumption they could improve his time and safely put PT further up in the field. When his time was withdrawn, Jay Howard was immediately reinstated into the field because he had not withdrawn his speed before his previous unsuccessful attempt.
To recap, at 5:50 PM, Howard was in the field but on the bubble. Sebastian Saavedra was lying in a hospital bed in downtown Indianapolis and currently #34 on the qualifying chart, the first car out of the field. Because Tracy’s time was withdrawn, it was as if he had never completed a qualification run and had no official time. He was out of the field.
With the temperatures throwing curveballs at the teams, Paul Tracy was unable to match the time he withdrew, and after only two laps, his run was aborted. Tracy’s car had been plenty fast enough throughout the week to qualify safely, but his car simply wouldn’t adjust to the heat on Sunday. His crew wheeled his car back into the qualifying line as quickly as they could, making adjustments they felt necessary as the car was in line.
In a move perhaps even more shocking than Tracy’s time being withdrawn, Jay Howard’s time was withdrawn by Sarah Fisher Racing with only two minutes left until the 6:00 gun sounded. They believed that PT would be able to make the necessary adjustments to find the speed to bump Howard. In a move to prevent Tracy from having that chance, the SFR team withdrew Howard’s posted time from the board. Now neither Howard nor PT had official times posted, neither were in the race, and Sebastian Saavedra, who was still lying on a hospital bed and was #35 in a field of 33 cars just 10 minutes prior, was now back in the field on the bubble.
To the shock of everyone in the Sarah Fisher Racing #66 stable, Howard’s car could not duplicate the speed of earlier in the day either. While his first lap was fast enough to bump Saavedra, each successive lap was slower than the last. In the end, Howard posted a speed of 223.120 mph, well short of Saavedra’s 223.634 mph, and in a nearly inconceivable turn of events, Sebastian Saavedrea and Byran Herta Autosport were in the field for the 94th Indianapolis 500.
It was a devastating blow for Howard, Fisher, and their sponsors. But unlike what some owner might claim, Service Central stayed with the team and ran Howard for a handful more races through the rest of the year.
Bump Day 2010 went to show that drama need not be manufactured or produced arbitrarily. Additionally, if promoted correctly, the drama of making the field or going home could very well be even more exciting than a Fast 9 shoot out for the pole position. And it doesn’t require 40 cars to make Bump Day exciting.
In today’s economic realities, we will never get back to four days of qualifying, but in 2010, there were only two days. INDYCAR needs to take a long, hard look at these dramatic Bump Days and realize that so long as more than 33 cars are entered for the Indianapolis 500, these ever changing, gimmicky rules need to stop. Go back to two full days of qualifying and make other adjustments as prudent and necessary in light of today’s economic times. The stipulation that a bumped car cannot be requalified had already been removed for 2010, so that is a major change from the majority of history. I personally think the three attempts per car is also a valuable tradition that should be honored, but if compromise is necessary, I could yield on that rule.
But let’s stop locking people into the race after the first day and protecting them just so TV has easy excitement to sell. It cheapens the event and only removes real drama of qualifying or going home in lieu of cheap excitement over a Fast 9 shootout that, in reality, doesn’t make that much difference anyway.