INDIANAPOLIS, May 23, 2005 - If qualifications for the 89th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race are any portent of things to come, this weekend's Memorial Day classic should be, essentially a classic race.
The stories that have emerged over the past two weeks are more exciting than anything Hollywood could script and the fact that they're true tales might provoke visits by some producers to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, in search of new and intriguing scripts.
The Indy Racing League's new qualifying system that introduced bumping on all four days of time trials - well, actually there were only three when rain washed out the Saturday MBNA Pole Day on the 14th, moving it to Sunday, May 15th - produced the kind of adrenaline, action and excitement not seen at the Brickyard oval in a long, long time.
On postponed pole day, three cars were bumped from the field as the top 22 spots in the gang of 33 were set and three cars were withdrawn and requalified. Dario Franchitti used up all three of his allowed attempts trying to take pole away from teammate Tony Kanaan; both Penske cars were withdrawn, taking second attempts that worked for Sam Hornish Jr. (P2) and didn't for Helio Castroneves (P5).
The pathos continued this past weekend, as 1999 Indy winner (and 1998 IndyCar Series champion) Kenny Brack returned from a near-death experience at Texas Motor Speedway in the 2003 series finale to substitute for the man who was his own stand-in last year, 2004 Indy 500 champ Buddy Rice.
Rice, who sustained a neck injury (to go with a minor concussion and back contusion) in a Turn 2 shunt on May 11th wasn't cleared to drive by astute IRL/IMS director of medical services Dr. Henry Bock, leaving Rahal Letterman Racing with a pole-prepared Panoz/Honda/Firestone racer and nobody to drive it.
Brack got the call from Bobby Rahal Monday night, was introduced as the replacement driver Wednesday morning, immediately began to rip off laps in the mid-225mph range that afternoon and set the fastest four-lap average of the entire meeting on Saturday the 21st, eclipsing Kanaan's pole-winning speed at 227.598mph, 0.032 seconds quicker.
Is this not the stuff of movies? How about Rice being the first guy to congratulate Brack when he emerged from the car, greeting the Swede with a grin that matched Brack's, tooth for tooth? Because Kenny qualified on the 21st, though, he'll start 23rd in the field.
Look for KB to wisely, smoothly, patiently make his way to the front when racing begins at the crack of noon EST Sunday afternoon.
Brack's experience at Indy almost eclipsed the frenetic media attention given to another member of the Rahal Letterman Racing team, one 23-year-old pixie named Danica Patrick. As little schoolgirls flitted behind the RLR pits screaming, "girls rock!" and "Danica, Danica," Patrick went about the business of preparing for her first 500-mile race.
The media glare hasn't left the Beloit, WI native but at least it was shared a bit this past weekend. Patrick even learned how to work with a crashed and revived racer, practicing in Rice's stricken Panoz, which sustained zero chassis damage in his shunt and learning about the nuances of a racer set up for someone else.
It took the Rahal Letterman team a full three hours to change the car to fit the [stated] 5'2" Patrick, changing weight distribution (a major task), pedals, belts and cockpit surround to fit her petite frame. And three hours back again to fit Brack for Sunday practice.
By the time it came to Bump Day this past Sunday, 32 cars were in the field and Arie Luyendyk Jr. was the only guy left standing who might have a chance to make his first 500. The son of a two-time winner, Junior Luyendyk has toiled in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series since its inception with moderate success, yet no victories.
He completed his Rookie test Saturday afternoon and began to practice with the other drivers, albeit at a much, much slower speed. There was some concern as to whether Luyendyk had the proper preparation to race in an event of this stature. Would he be a hindrance, even a danger to other drivers?
Luyendyk qualified in mid-afternoon with a moribund 215mph-plus average and thought he was in the show. He thought too soon because his father's archenemy, one A.J. Foyt Jr. was not about to have that happen.
Back in 1997 at Texas, Foyt believed his driver Billy Boat had won the IRL night race in June but Luyendyk insisted he was the victor, not Boat. The Dutchman invaded Victory Circle and got round-housed by Foyt in an altercation reminiscent of early NASCAR days. Luyendyk was named the race winner a day later; Foyt never forgot.
Bumping Luyendyk Jr. from the field wasn't an option for Foyt, it was a calling. So Super Tex selected veteran Felipe Giaffone, who was actually at the Babies 'R Us store in northwest Indianapolis when he got the call to fulfill Foyt's need for revenge.
With less than 50 laps practice, wearing his 2004 fire suit culled from the Dreyer & Reinbold truck, Giaffone performed the bump-and-grind, putting together four solid laps at 217.465mph and eliminating Luyendyk from the field. It was the first final day bump since 2002 and one that had everyone but the Luyendyk clan wearing grins.
As the 6PM gunshot signaled the end of qualifying for this year's Indy 500 Luyendyk Jr. was back on the track attempting to regain his place in the field of 33 but he didn't have the car, the racing chops or experience at the track to make it happen.
There have been complaints over the past few years that Indy 500 fields don't have the depth they once had, but statements of that ilk don't cut it in 2005. Three drivers who already have their mugs on the Borg Warner Trophy - Helio Castroneves, Kenny Brack and Buddy Lazier - are speedily in the field.
There are six IndyCar Series champions (Tony Kanaan, Sam Hornish Jr., Scott Sharp, Buddy Lazier, Scott Dixon and Brack). Reigning Champ Car World Series titleholder Sebastien Bourdais and teammate Bruno Junqueira help give the Indy grid depth of field.
This year's qualifying average is 223.897mph a full 6.076mph higher than in 2004. The grid is strong, fast and well qualified to the task at hand. All that remains is Carburetion Day on Friday and the long wait to Sunday morning and race day. For all 33 drivers, it can't come too soon.