INDIANAPOLIS - It's the week before Indy and all through the town, people talked about field-fillers, all sporting frowns.
Yes, the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race will be run this coming Sunday, May 30th with a full field of 33 cars, eleven rows of three-abreast colorful racers that will take the green flags a wee bit after noon EDT the Sunday before Memorial Day.
There has been was drama, pathos and even comedy at Tony George's palace of speed located on the corners of 16th and Georgetown Road in the city of Speedway, IN.
All this spring pundits have stated there would never be enough engines and/or chassis to complete the grid; with rules changes mandated by the Indy Racing League last December to aid safety by lowering speeds a full field would never show up.
They were all wrong again. While it might not have been the prettiest lead-up to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, two weeks of practice and three days of qualifying brought forth an evenly matched bunch of racers.
Drama and pathos in the paddock were provided by quite a few good actors. Greg Ray played the part of the neglected hero, trying so hard to secure funding to make it to the world's most famous race.
The Texan competed in the first three events of the year and even sat on the front row for the Twin Ring Motegi round in Japan, but did not have the bucks to make it onto the 2.5-mile oval for the first week of practice, MBNA Pole Day, a second qualifying day or the second partial week of practice.
Ray didn't even have a name over the three garages assigned his Access Motorsports team in Gasoline Alley. He claimed to be working on securing sponsorship for "the long term", but seemed to forget that Indy is THE race where a sponsor's name needs to be seen. This is the one that pays those engine lease fees.
While Honda Performance Development claimed Ray's argument concerning engine supplies had more to do with Ilmor Engineering in Detroit than them, when Bump Day rolled around, there was HPD's VP and general manager Robert Clarke waiting in the Access Motorsports pit to see if Ray would show up for morning practice.
The car made it to pit road for that session; the driver did not. Greg Ray did make 20 laps later in the afternoon before putting his car in the field with the day's fastest 10 miles: an average of 216.641mph. Later Ray claimed he could have been a contender for pole position had only someone given him the backing he merited.
Best performance by a second-generation driver on Bump Day went to PJ Jones, son of 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli. The 35-year-old Jones made his first Indy field with backing from the Agajanian family that helped secure Parnelli's Brickyard legend, from Mike Curb of CURB Records (another family patron), from Greg Beck and his wizened crew.
PJ Jones drove a Dallara/Chevy that Beck put together in less than a week and the blue & white artwork resembled his father's 1963 winner Ol' Calhoun. It even sported the #98 that Parnelli used back in the day. PJ's four laps weren't anything scathing at 213.355mph, but they sure brought his father to the brink of tears.
PJ Jones still hasn't done 250 miles around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. But he's a racer, not a driver. He'll be fine on Sunday if he doesn't get caught up in somebody else's mistakes and, let it be said that he is driving on the wings of his little brother Page, who should have been here. Getting misty-eyed? Join the club. Parnelli was nearly in tears.
Then there was Jeff Simmons, who finished second in the second Menards Infiniti Pro Series Futaba Freedom 100 held on the Brickyard oval this past Saturday with an entry from A.J. Foyt Racing.
Once out of that car, Simmons discovered his driving duties at IMS weren't done. Morris Nunn, one of the most astute judges of driving character signed the New Yorker to partner the troubled Tora Takagi at Indy - and possibly beyond.
Simmons completed three phases of his four-phase Rookie Orientation Program in an A.J. Foyt Racing Dallara/Toyota the end of April. He got into Nunn's #12T Dallara/Toyota late Saturday, ran some more Sunday morning and whipped the car to a four-lap average of 214.783mph, a few tenths better than Takagi's average speed.
Simmons, brother of former Indy Lights driver and current engineer for Team Target Chris Simmons is the only pilot to win dual Barber Doge Pro Series titles in 1998-99. Like so many without funding, he's knocked around hoping for rides.
Finally, there was the dramatic situation with Tony Stewart, 1997 IndyCar Series champion and 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup titleholder. Stewart, who has a Turn 2 suite at IMS decided, after the NEXTEL Cup All-Star race Saturday night in Charlotte to come out and hang with his pals here at Indy. Have a few beers, watch Bump Day, be dudes, right?
What "Smoke" didn't take into consideration was his own passion for open wheel racing, for the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race and the parallel feelings of one A.J. Foyt Jr. Foyt kept calling Smoke and asking him to drive a third Foyt entry at this year's Indy classic.
Stewart's done this before, most recently with Chip Ganassi's all-star team. Would he do it again? In a heartbeat. Tony Stewart finally answered Foyt's call, went to get his physical with Dr. Henry Bock, started figuring out how he could do this year's "double".
And then reality set in. Foyt runs a Dallara/Toyota for grandson A.J. Foyt IV (and "son" Larry qualified in a Panoz G Force/Toyota). Tony Stewart races for Joe Gibbs in the Cup series with Chevrolet power. See where the story is going?
Yup, it went nowhere. Even though the Indy Racing League got the track cleared of rain with an hour left to practice and qualify, Smoke couldn't do it. "Contractual obligations" were the cause. Stewart's attorney/manager Cary Agajanian was on-site to shepherd Jones through the maelstrom of qualifying and quickly took Stewart by the brain cells, likely asking, "What the heck were you thinking?"
"It's like jungle fever. I've got it bad. I don't think this can be cured in a couple of weeks," Stewart said after declining Foyt's offer of the ride. In those brief comments, he summed up everyone's feelings about the 88th Indianapolis 500 - and made sure that there was drama, pathos and, yes, comedy at 16th and Georgetown Roads.
(c) 2004 Anne Proffit