INDIANAPOLIS — For the first time in the history of the Indianapolis 500, the defending Indy car series champion has been bumped from the race.
Bobby Rahal, the three-time series champion and 1992 driver of the year, was bumped from the 500 field Sunday by Eddie Cheever and later, when he attempted to bump his way back into the 500, Rahal came up short.
In the final half-hour of qualifying, after a day of rain and high winds, Cheever and Didier Theys drove their way into the field of 33 drivers who will start the 77th annual race next Sunday.
Rahal had been the slowest qualifier before the final day, with a speed of 217.140 m.p.h. After he was ousted by Cheever, Rahal had to wait until Buddy Lazier and Theys made their attempts before he could try again in his backup car. At 5:59 p.m., one minute before the closing gun went off, Rahal fired the Chevrolet engine in his Rahal-Hogan chassis for his final try.
He needed to better Kevin Cogan's 217.230 to make the field.
His first trip around the 2 1/2-mile rectangular oval was fast enough, 217.360 m.p.h., but then his speed dropped radically and his final average of 216.342 left a stunning climax to the final day of qualifying.
"It's not like golf, where if you've won (before), you get an exemption," the 1986 winner said. "There are no exemptions here. When I heard my time was 216 on the second time around, I was just glad they let me finish my four laps. It was disappointing, but what can you do?"
Before the Indy car season started, Rahal and co-owner Carl Hogan had elected to scrap the Lola that had won the championship to develop their own Rahal-Hogan model--an adaptation of the old Truesports chassis.
"We have no one to blame but ourselves," Rahal said. "We just missed it with the car. It'll be a hard Memorial Day for me. I've never not qualified for an Indy car race. It's very embarrassing because I ran to win, not just qualify.
"There are never any givens in racing. It can be pretty humbling, but this team won a championship last year and now we'll regroup and be ready for Milwaukee (June 5)."
An indication that all was not well with the Rahal-Hogan chassis came last week when Rahal announced that the team had bought a 1993 Lola chassis to run during the remainder of the season, starting with Milwaukee.
"We have not given up on our project, but we felt an obligation to ourselves and our sponsors to run for the championship this year," Rahal said. "In the past, teams such as Penske and Patrick have purchased customer cars to run for the title while still developing their chassis, so I will drive the Lola and Mike Groff will work to develop the Rahal-Hogan chassis."
Rahal is fourth in 1993 PPG Cup points.
Both of the final day's qualifiers drove Buick-powered cars. Cheever, after having failed to make the field in Norm Turley's Penske-Chevy, borrowed one of John Menard's spare Lola-Buicks for a second attempt.
For a few minutes, after Menard waved off a qualifying run that would have put Cheever in the field, it appeared that the gaffe of the season had been committed. Cheever ran four laps at 217.313 m.p.h., fast enough to have bumped Rahal, but before he reached the finish line, Menard waved the yellow flag to abort the run.
"I was keeping a mental average of how fast he was going the first two laps and knew it was low enough that he could possibly be bumped," Menard explained. "I knew we had plenty of time to try again."
Cheever was noncommittal about the surprising development.
"Drivers are hired to drive cars," he said. "I didn't ask for an explanation. He had his reasons. Looking back, it could have been a decision that bit us in the heels, but we're in."
When Theys, in Ron Hemelgarn's Buick, bumped Mark Smith, it continued the tradition of never having a driver named Smith run in the 500.
The late-day turn of events made Cogan--the Palos Verdes driver making a comeback after a two-year absence because of injuries--richer by $10,000. He picked up the Slo Poke Award as the slowest qualifier and put himself in position to earn an additional $1 million if he wins the 500.
"I was as helpless as I've ever felt," Cogan said about having to wait and watch as Rahal made the attempt that might have knocked him out of the race.
Rahal took advantage of a lapse by Cogan after a late-race yellow flag in 1986 to win the Indianapolis 500 with a pass three laps from the finish.
The 33-car average of 219.692 m.p.h. was 3.787 m.p.h. slower than last year, primarily because of changes in the track that eliminated the wide aprons in the turns that enabled drivers to shorten their way around.
Indianapolis 500 Lineup
The lineup for the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, listing the car number, driver, hometown or country, chassis-engine, and four-lap qualification average speed in m.p.h.
No.Driver Home Car-Engine Speed 10. Arie Luyendyk Netherlands Lola-Ford Cosworth 223.967 6. Mario Andretti Nazareth, Pa. Lola-Ford Cosworth 223.414 9. Raul Boesel Brazil Lola-Ford Cosworth 222.379