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No Bump, No Grind at Indy

Field is filled at 33 starters, but for first time in 500 qualifying no driver tries to take another's place.

May 19, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Sunday was advertised as Bump Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was a misnomer. It should have been Fill the Field Day.

After Vitor Meira became the 33rd qualifier for next Sunday's 87th Indianapolis 500 at 4:04 p.m., not another non-qualified driver appeared on the track in the final two hours, often the most dramatic time of the month. There were plenty of drivers around, Jeff Ward, Donnie Beechler, Memo Gidley, P.J. Jones and Max Papis among others, but no one would offer them a car.

Never before in modern 500 history has there not been at least one bumping attempt.

Meira, a rookie and the sixth Brazilian in the 500, surprised the small crowd with the fastest Chevrolet-powered speed of the month. His four laps of 227.158 bettered the opening-day speed of 226.225 by Indy Racing League champion Sam Hornish Jr.

"It was pretty gratifying to have Vitor put our second car in the race," said team owner John Menard. "We've been a little short of horsepower and still are with the Chevrolets, but the guys in the shop worked pretty hard all week and Vitor put four really good laps together."

Jaques Lazier, Menard's No. 1 driver, qualified last week.

There were nine openings when Bump Day began and only nine drivers presented themselves at the starting line for qualifications.

One of the most relieved was Sarah Fisher, voted the Indy Racing League's most popular driver yet still unable to find sponsorship for her car. She had been the slowest qualifier at 224.170.

"I'm so relieved this day is over," said Fisher. "It's been one of the longest in my life, kind of like the last day of school before summer vacation."

Airton Dare, another Brazilian and one of three drivers A.J. Foyt put into the race, became slowest when he got in at 223.609. The others are A.J. Foyt IV, his grandson who will be 19 on race day, and Shigeaki Hattori, who made it on the final day.

Dare collected $20,000 for being on the bubble when 6 p.m. arrived, even though he never had to survive the possibility of being bumped.

Knowing they were going to be safely in the field was a new experience for Billy Boat and Jimmy Kite.

Boat, the pole-sitter in 1998, had been the slowest qualifier the last two years. Two years ago, he made it through 12 qualifying attempts by eight drivers over the last 48 minutes of Bump Day.

"After the last couple of years, we definitely didn't want to be in that position again," Boat said after qualifying Panther Racing's Dallara-Chevrolet at 225.598 mph.

Kite's past experiences were more heartbreaking. The 5-foot-4, 123-pounder who looks as if he just walked in off a Little League field, had his car stall during his first qualifying attempt, then had his next chance canceled by rain last year. The year before his qualifying speed was approximately 0.5 mph too slow.

It wasn't easy Sunday, either. After running two good laps in his first attempt, Kite's engine began sputtering and he pulled into the pits. After the glitch was fixed, he went back out put PDM Racing's unsponsored car in at 224.195 mph.

It was no surprise that the fastest car was driven by Alex Barron, filling in for the injured Arie Luyendyk in a Toyota-powered G Force. Barron's 227.274 is the 15th fastest, but he will start 25th because he did not qualify the first day.

"I walked around the garages so much before I got this ride that I need a shoe sponsor," said Barron, who arrived here without hopes of driving even though he finished fourth in last year's 500. "I wore out a lot of shoes. It was frustrating.

"I can't say enough about Penske letting me race" for the injured Gil de Ferran in April at Motegi, Japan, added Barron. "That gave me some confidence to come here and test for them prior to the month of May. I think all those things helped me get the seat with Mo Nunn's team.

"To walk in here on opening day and not have a ride, it's very frustrating and I'm sure a lot of drivers can describe it as an up-and-down emotional roller coaster."

After Luyendyk suffered head and shoulder injuries in a crash last week, Nunn selected Barron as his replacement.

Toyota, providing engines for its first Indianapolis 500, placed 14 entries in the race. Ten Chevrolets and nine Hondas round out the field.

The 33 cars include nine rookies and four former winners, two-time defending champion Helio Castroneves, Kenny Brack, Al Unser Jr. and Buddy Lazier.

The difference between Castroneves, the fastest, and Dare, the slowest, is only 5.638 seconds.

There will be no cars on the track until Thursday when Carburetion Day will give drivers and crews a last opportunity to check their equipment.

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