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.
In his heyday, Bigelow ran fifty to seventy races a year and was among the best-paid drivers in USAC. But his career was hamstrung by unfortunate timing: he arrived just as Indy cars were going to rear-engine layouts and road courses that placed sprint car studs at a disadvantage. “I wish that I’d come along a few years sooner and been able to run a roadster at Indy,” he says. “I think that would have fit my driving style a lot better. In a front-engine car, you’re sitting right over the rear axle, and you’ve got the feel of the whole car. In a rear-engine car, by the time you feel it getting sideways, it’s too late to do anything about it.”
Bigelow grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota. When he was twelve, while listening to a radio broadcast of the Indy 500, he told his mother that he intended to race there himself someday. He started at eighteen years of age in a stock car that he flipped sixteen times – that’s sixteen different times – at a local track. The next year, he graduated to a midget that he flipped “only” six times. After ten years of success in the minor leagues, he decided to take his shot at USAC. “I told my wife, ‘I don’t want to get to forty and wonder if I could have made it racing,’ ” he recalls.
At 29, Bigelow was an overnight success in USAC midgets and sprints. In 1970, he got his first taste of Indianapolis, and he returned again in 1972, although in neither case with a car good enough even to make a qualifying attempt. But in 1973, he was hired – for the standard $1 contract plus 40 percent of the prize money – by Rolla Vollstedt, a talented owner/builder who was fabricating McLaren M16 knockoffs in his basement in Portland, Oregon.Bigelow suffered through a snakebit month that featured six engine failures, one spin, and numerous other gremlins. On Bump Day, with eighteen minutes left in qualifying, he put his car in the show. While the Vollstedt crew celebrated, Jim McElreath – who’d qualified 33rd in 1970 and then failed to make the race the next two years – trundled out onto the track. His first lap was slower than Bigelow’s four-lap average, but his next three were quicker, and Bigelow was bumped out of the field after a mere nine minutes of glory.”Getting bumped is excruciating, absolutely devastating,” says three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, who started on the pole three times but who also failed to qualify on three occasions. “Everybody ought to experience that at least once.”
Bigelow went through more than his fair share of bump-or-be-bumped melodramas. After easily qualifying for his first Indy in 1974, he suffered through more agonies of the damned in 1975. Vollstedt’s primary car didn’t handle worth a damn, and Bigelow ended up wrecking it. On Bump Day, shortly after 5 p.m., Bigelow aborted his first qualifying run in his backup car. After a few tweaks, he went out again, sucked it up, and squeezed into the 33rd slot at 5:50 p.m.
The next year, he qualified early, got bumped, then bumped his way back in with a four-year-old backup car. In 1979, one of the most fractious years in Indy history, he again qualified early, got bumped, and bumped his way back in. But his run was nullified for a technical infraction, so he had to perform more Bump Day heroics to make the race. Then, in 1982, in what would be his last 500, his primary car was so evil that he jumped ship to a new team and pulled another Bump Day special, bouncing Bill Alsup out of the field.
Bigelow continued to make an annual pilgrimage to the Speedway during the ’80s, but never again with competitive equipment. “When I first went to Indy, cars were good for several years,” he recalls. “But starting around ’83, you had to have a new car with updated aerodynamics every year, and that took the little guys – the small-dollar guys – out of Indianapolis. The worst part about it is that you were only a couple of miles per hour off. But those last two miles per hour come hard.”
Bigelow still ran the USAC circuit and later did a few years with ARCA stock cars. Even now, he refuses to call himself retired. He raced at the Chili Bowl – the Indy 500 of midget racing – in 2005, and he’s thinking about returning next year. But there’s no longer any room for guys like Bigelow or Johnny Parsons or Pancho Carter or Gary Bettenhausen or their contemporary equivalents at Indianapolis. Almost without exception, today’s Indy car drivers come from formula car backgrounds, and the only time they’ve ever raced on dirt is when they’ve missed a corner at Laguna Seca or at Elkhart Lake.
What made the Indianapolis 500 a uniquely important and singularly American institution wasn’t merely the magnitude of the race. It was also the place it occupied in the minds of the men who competed there. Imports such as Kenny Bräck, Juan Pablo Montoya, Gil de Ferran, Helio Castroneves, Dan Wheldon, and Dario Franchitti didn’t grow up fantasizing about racing at the Speedway. Sure, they said all the right things after they won, and their 500 victories figure prominently on their rsums. But for them, Indy was just a race. For guys like Tom Bigelow, it was the race. Just making the field meant they’d earned enough to cover their nut for the year. And the dream of seeing their likeness embossed on the Borg-Warner Trophy was the carrot that kept them crisscrossing the back roads of the country during the long summer nights, racing sprint cars and midgets for hundreds of bucks on dusty bullrings and wicked, high-banked ovals.
“You never want to admit that you started in the last row four times, but I’m glad I made the race nine times,” Bigelow says. “I would have loved to have driven for [Roger] Penske. I think I could have won Indy with a team like that. But how many drivers have raced there over the years? Six hundred? Seven hundred? So I’m in pretty select company.”