Monday, May 20, 2002
Updated: May 23, 7:15 PM ET
Bubble Day lived up to the hype
By Jack Arute
Special to ABC Sports Online
Drivers say that outside the Indianapolis 500, it is the most pressure-packed day on their racing calendar. Bubble Day at Indy is the last chance to make the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" -- the Indy 500.
This year's Bubble Day lived up to its hype. It just wasn't the script that many thought would play out. Instead of hoards of qualifying attempts trying to unseat the slowest man in the 33-car field, this year's final day of Indy qualifications was held captive by horrendous weather, last minute driver switches, withdrawn entries, career comebacks and delay.
For the second time in as many years, Billy Boat floated his Indy 500 hopes on the bubble with the field's slowest speed.
"I really thought we were going to get bumped," said Boat. "I didn't see the rain coming and knew that A.J. (Foyt) had a car in line. You've got to remember that I drove for A.J. and know what he can do when the pressure's on."
The rain did come and wiped out the final 69 minutes of qualifying, leaving Foyt's car with Donnie Beechler and Sam Schmidt's PDM entry for Jimmy Kite in the qualifying queue.
Kite had his chance. The 5-foot-2 sprint car veteran from Georgia was watching cartoons when he was called by PDM Thursday to replace rookie Anthony Lazzaro in the No. 99 car. He practiced well above Boat's speed and started a qualifying attempt only to lose the clutch in his car before getting out on the track. By the time the gear box was repaired, light sprinkles were hitting the Speedway. Kite shut off his engine when the rain persisted and spent the next hour waiting out Mother Nature.
The return of some of CART's big guns to the Brickyard was also part of the Bubble Day story. Team Green put FedEx Champ Car series leader Dario Franchitti and his teammate Paul Tracy into the show. Their other car, driven by Michael Andretti, was just behind Boat on the bump list. Rather than chance getting bumped with no time left to bump his way back into the field, Andretti withdrew his qualified car and took his backup out for a qualifying attempt.
"I said 'Let's go. Let's go,'" explained Andretti "I didn't want to just sit there. My nerves couldn't handle it."
Andretti was stuck in déjà vu. Last year he was forced into the same scenario, re-qualifying on the second day of time trials out of fear that his first speed would not hold up.
Meanwhile, Gerorge Mack became the second African-American to qualify for the race. Twenty-four hours before his run, Mack was fighting nausea and vertigo. His team enlisted the services of Roberto Moreno should the 30-year karting champ not be up to the task.
"I'd be lying if I said that I didn't have some doubt," he said. "It creeps in and creeps out."
But while his Laker friends Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal celebrated their Game 1 win over the Sacramento Kings in the NBA Western Conference finals, Mack rode out the four-lap, 10-mile qualifying journey. His speed earned him the 32nd starting spot and high-fives from his team.
Mark Dismore admitted to his team less than 24 hours before he qualified his Grill2Go special that he was rusty and not bringing 100 percent to his driving. His team understood. Dismore, who has not run an IRL race this season, nearly died in a horrible practice crash in 1991. Since then, Indy has been a bittersweet experience. The ultimate slap for the Greenfield, Ind., resident came in the week leading up to Pole Day when he crashed his primary car during practice, leaving him with a concussion, severely bruised legs and no medical clearance to get back behind the wheel. Once cleared to drive, Dismore played catch up with the rest of the unqualified cars. They had more miles, he had more bruises. While he mended, his owner Sam Schmidt called on Richie Hearn to put Diz's primary car in the race, which he did on qualifying's first day.
Meanwhile the crew rebuilt Dismore's crashed car and got ready for a bump day appearance.
"The credit really belongs to the crew and that guy," said Dismore after qualifying for the 33rd spot and pointed at his paralyzed owner Schmidt. "Sam didn't have to do this. But he did and I am grateful."
In 16 years of running at Indianapolis, Arie Luyendyk had never been forced to qualify on Bubble Day. After admitting that their wave off of a 228-mph lap on Pole Day was "being greedy", Luyendyk said, "We thought we had more in the car. Enough to make a run for the front row." Luyendyk suffered a mechanical failure on his second attempt and was forced to wait until the last day when rain cancelled second-day qualifying.
"I just kept telling myself that it was second day, not Bubble Day," Luyendyk chuckled. "I'm glad we were able to get the speed out of my primary car (he qualified fastest of the day at 228.848 mph) because we were having problems getting our backup up to speed."
Finally there is the story of Billy Roe, a former schoolteacher turned Indy Car driver. Roe is a track rat -- a driver ready with his seat and willing to drive anything that might give him the slightest shot at being part of the Indy 500. His practice times in Zali Racing's American Dream Mortgage G-Force never went above 219 mph. Yet he and his owner Eric Zimmerman decided to take a flyer and put up a 213.283 mph qualification run that put him, albeit momentarily, into the field.
"Just pray for rain," joked Roe while getting his photo shot following his run. The rain did not come in time. Roe did stay on the bubble for some time until Mack's run dropped him from the field. "I wish we had a car like last year to bump our way back into the field," he lamented. "Maybe some car owner will give me a chance."
None did, but Roe momentarily got back into the field when Michael Andretti withdrew his car to re-qualify. It only took 2 minutes, 37.4026 seconds (Andretti's new qualification time) for Roe to be out again.
When it was all said and done, only one car bumped his way into the field. Fewer than predicted. But the drama was there to behold. The thrill of making it and the disappointment of not making it.
Now we wait 365 days until the next Bubble Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 2003 Indy 500.
Jack Arute writes a column every Monday for ABC Sports Online.