By: Spencer Neff
April 16, 2019 | 9:58 AM
Last year, fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway got to experience something for the first time since 2011: Bump Day qualifications, with multiple cars going home.
With 35 entrants vying for the coveted 33 starting spots in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, two drivers would go home early. In the end, two fan favorites missed the show.
Indy-only entrant Pippa Mann was unable to get up to speed in her Dale Coyne Racing entry and missed the field. Meanwhile, the second driver to record a DNQ sent major shockwaves through the garage as James Hinchcliffe, one of the most popular drivers in the paddock, was eliminated.
After his first qualifying attempt was pushed outside the top 33, Hinchcliffe and his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team rolled his car out for another shot at getting in the field later in the afternoon.
After a tire sensor came loose and caused a vibration, Hinchcliffe brought his Dallara-Honda entry back into the pits. As Mann tried in vain to bump her way in, the clock ran out on Hinchcliffe and the 2016 polesitter missed the race.
Since that momentous day last May, influential owners like Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi have voiced their opinion that full-time entrants should be guaranteed a spot in the race. I certainly respect what Penske and Ganassi do for IndyCar, but I disagree with their stance on qualifications.
To be fair, they should not be blamed for wanting to protect their investment. Racing, like most other ventures, is a business – always has been, always will be.
However, I do think that implementing a “25/8” Rule a la 1996 could do more harm than good.
Although big-name teams and drivers missing the race is the exception more often than the norm, it does create an excitement around qualifying that otherwise may not be there.
Take for instance, James Davison. Last year, Davison crashed on Fast Friday and his team worked feverishly through the night to prepare his car for Bump Day. Although he qualified 33rd on Day 1, Davison was in the show.
If a rule guaranteeing starting spots to full-time entries were in place, Davison would not have made the field. Had this occured, the Byrd-Hollinger-Belardi effort may have opted not to return in 2019.
Yes, Davison’s team was a one-off entry running in conjunction with Foyt. However, that’s where the concern lies.
Many teams start off as small-scale efforts. They often view the “500” as their big break. If their opportunities are limited, the sport could be missing chances to grow with new entrants.
I’ll be clear, I am not trying to diminish the full-time entries either.
What is important, in my view, is that each team gets a fair shake at making the “500.” Aside from just the opportunity to compete, seeing the underdogs be able to contend and even sometimes beat the favorites is often a major appeal of any sport.
Look at college basketball and March Madness, for example. In March of 2018, 16-seed UMBC knock off top-ranked Virginia, the first such occurrence in history. Later on, 11-seed Loyola made the Final Four.
Take the NHL for example, too. The Tampa Bay Lightning were eliminated by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs last night. This despite a record-tying 62 wins.
Like these tournaments, Bump Day has provided several thrills for fans and competitors alike.
In 1991, Willy T. Ribbs overcame numerous struggles and bumped 1983 winner Tom Sneva from the field. Two years later, 1986 winner Bobby Rahal was left out when Eddie Cheever Jr. bumped his way.
Most historic of all Bump Days was perhaps 1995. That year it was Roger’s own Team Penske duo of Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi that failed to get up to speed and missed the event despite being the darlings of the 1994 race with the Mercedes Benz engine and race win.
Despite their efforts, the most successful Indianapolis 500 car owner and two of the most decorated drivers in recent memory were left on the sidelines.
Yes, it is unfortunate that anyone has to miss the race. Even more so when it is drivers like Rahal, Unser Jr., Fittipaldi and Hinchcliffe. However, there is a strange beauty to be found in this as well.
In all its triumph and heartbreak, the beauty of Bump Day is one idea: What a driver or team accomplished before is of no consequence. All that matters is the four laps around the 2.5-mile speedway. You are only guaranteed what you earn on your own merit in that specific time.
That’s why it needs to be held intact.
Header Image By Brian Simpson/INDYCAR.