So you think being a big-time race car driver would be pretty sweet. All that money. All that adulation. All those umbrella girls.
Well, imagine yourself strapped into a three-year-old backup car because the car you'd intended to qualify spent most of the month trying to kill you. And we're not talking figuratively here, either, because this is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway circa 1975, when aluminum tubs collapsed like wet tissue when they hit the wall. You're waiting in line to start your last run during the last hour of the last day of qualifying - Bump Day, in Speedway parlance - and if you can't coax some more speed out of your old nag, you're not going to make the thirty-three-car field. And what's at stake here is more than pride or ego, because you don't get a fat retainer from your car owner. No, your deal is the standard 40 percent cut of the prize money, and if you don't make the show, you're going to have to go back to driving a semi during the off-season to make ends meet.
"Those are some tense moments," longtime Bump Day warrior Tom Bigelow says with rural Midwestern understatement. "You know that if the guy in front of you blows a motor and oils down the track, there go your hopes, so every minute feels like an hour. When it gets down to the nitty-gritty on Bump Day, you know you can't hold anything back. It's do or die. So you brake a little bit later, and you drive her into the corner a little bit deeper, and you pick up the gas a little bit sooner, and you just hold your breath.
Bigelow held his breath just long enough to make the race in 1975, bumping Rick Muther with a banzai four-lap run ten minutes before the gun went off, signifying the end of qualifying. It would be the first of four times that Bigelow started the 500 from the last row and the first of five times that he bumped his way into the field. (He was also bumped three times himself.) In fact, it's likely that nobody accumulated more stomach-churning Bump Day experience than Bigelow in his eighteen trips to the Speedway, and now nobody ever will.
Although the Indy 500 remains the biggest single-day spectator sporting event in the world, the rise of NASCAR and the acrimonious rift in open-wheel racing have robbed it of much of its cachet. Two years ago, interest in the race had dwindled to the point that there was no bumping whatsoever: thirty-three cars made qualifying runs, and every one of them made the field. Meanwhile, the admittedly arcane rules governing qualification have been overhauled to drain the ritual of what little drama remained. The new rules make more sense, but they also render Indy less special - just another race on another schedule.
For most of the past century, Indianapolis was the Promised Land for virtually every race car driver in the country. Come May, they flocked to the Speedway for the unrivaled money and prestige that it offered, and those who didn't have rides arranged ahead of time prowled up and down Gasoline Alley with helmets in hand and hopeful looks on their faces. Back then, the track was open for an entire month, with four days of qualifying spread over the two weekends before the race. It wasn't uncommon to have fifty or sixty drivers fighting for thirty-three slots, and as Bump Day approached - and even on Bump Day itself - guys who hadn't qualified played an increasingly desperate game of musical chairs as they hunted for cars that could qualify for the race.
The race was unlike anything in the world - the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, as it was justifiably billed. But qualifying was, if anything, even more riveting, and Bump Day was one of those perversely mesmerizing and cruelly emotional scenes that you couldn't turn away from even if you wanted to. "If I were told that I could go to the track only two times a year, I would attend the first and last days of qualifying," says IMS historian Donald Davidson, who's been a fixture at the Speedway since 1964. "And if I could go only one time, it would be from about 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. during Bump Day."
The heroes of Bump Day were the brave journeymen who grabbed marginal cars by the scruff of the neck and put them in the show or hung them on the wall. Not household names like Foyt and Andretti, but the guys who were featured on the inside pages of National Speed Sport News: George Snider, who once qualified without a single lap of practice. Bill Cheesbourg, who started dead last two years running. Al Loquasto, who qualified only twice despite thirteen trips to the Speedway. Sammy Sessions, whose starting positions were 23rd, 24th, 25th (twice), 31st, and 32nd (twice). Jerry Karl. Bob Harkey. John Mahler. Eldon Rasmussen. But nobody did the Bump Day grind better than Tom Bigelow.
"I wasn't always in the best equipment, so I had to hang it out sometimes," he recalls. "But a driver could manhandle a car a little more back then, and if you were braver than the other guys, you could maybe slide it through the corners and hang on and not hit the wall."
At 68, Bigelow still has a full head of hair - now white - and the same affability that made him a perennial fan favorite on the USAC trail. Today, he lives about ninety miles east of Indianapolis, a stone's throw from Winchester Speedway, site of some of his epic triumphs. Equally adept on dirt and pavement, in big cars and small, he's a member of both the midget and sprint car halls of fame. In Indy cars, he scored five podiums and earned two poles in 110 starts, and he finished as high as sixth at the Speedway, despite never getting a top-tier ride.