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Sunday, May 18, 2003
Updated: May 19, 9:25 AM ET
A sorry Sunday

By Robin Miller
Special to ESPN.com

Robin Miller INDIANAPOLIS -- At 5:12 p.m. ET on Sunday afternoon, the 33rd car qualified for the 87th Indianapolis 500. At 6:20 p.m. ET, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was empty. Not a car on the track.

There was no scrambling, no last-minute deals, no emotional roller-coasters, no ride swapping, no white-knuckle runs and none of the drama that always grips the final hour of time trials.

Another Indy tradition went down in flames as Bump Day turned into a shell game and, for the first time in 53 years, nobody was sent home. Nine spots were open, nine cars were summoned and nine spots were filled.

It didn't take any certain speed to make the May 25 classic -- it simply took four laps.

"It's pretty disheartening to go through what I did to make this race and now all you have to do is show up and you're in the field," said Steve Chassey, a former Indy-car regular from the '80s who drove under-funded sleds in three Indy 500s and served as his own chief mechanic in his final start.

"The mental stress some of us went through on Bump Day was incredible and I'm not sure these drivers understand what a struggle it was to make this race. Or how special it is."

The only struggle this month has been to find enough car owners. There's a surplus of drivers and plenty of cars in Gasoline Alley, just nobody to pay for them. It took a pair of the Indy Racing League's smaller operations, A.J. Foyt and Panther Racing, to field extra cars and a last-minute deal by Sam Schmidt to ensure the traditional 11 rows of three would be intact for the 56th straight year.

"I'm amazed this thing came together. I was sitting at home on Thursday and now I'm in the Indy 500 again," said Robby McGehee, a three-time Indy starter who missed the 2002 race but survived a massive accident in practice last year.

"Obviously, it was a last-minute deal."

Which is usually the essence of Bump Day. Drivers jumping into strange cars and hanging it out during the closing minutes to make the richest race in the world. But, because of the lack of funded drivers and teams, plus the reluctance of any top teams to throw in another bullet, there was no go-for-the-throat mentality.

A day that is usually unparalleled in emotions and excitement featured neither. It was a snoozer in Naptown.

Jimmy Vasser
Bobby Rahal put CART regular Jimmy Vasser into the field on Sunday.

"It's a bummer because I was always in the field and I loved to come out and watch the last couple hours," said Jeff Ward, runner-up in the '99 race and a six-time Indy starter. "It was always crazy and I was always glad I wasn't in the middle of it."

Ward, who won an IRL thriller last season at Texas, was leaning up against the wall of the Target/Ganassi garage with 90 minutes remaining on a perfect day for going fast. He was the "designated hitter" in case one of the nine chosen cars crashed or blew up. Had that happened, he was to get dressed and put a third car in the show for Chip Ganassi. It didn't, so he'll be a spectator.

"Qualifying isn't difficult, it's the race that's difficult," replied Ganassi when asked why he wouldn't send Ward into battle regardless of the situation. "I'm not in the position to run three cars this month, it's that simple."

Nobody was exactly sure of the protocol, but going into the final round of qualifying there were two obvious goals here Sunday. Fill the field and don't bump Sarah Fisher. She had been the slowest of last weekend's 24 qualifiers at 224.170 mph but got a reprieve when Airton Dare qualified at 223.609 mph.

Of course, Dare drives for Foyt so there didn't seem to be much chance of anybody trying to knock out The King's third shooter.

After boasting last winter about being worried there wouldn't be enough pit boxes at IRL races this year to accommodate all the cars, the crown jewel of Tony George's all-oval series barely had the standard 33.

And there is no denying this lineup is among the strongest and deepest since the open-wheel split between IRL and CART in 1996. The race itself should be damn good, with as many as 10 drivers having a good shot at victory lane.

But Bump Day was a drag and a sham. Dare even tried to act relieved when the ceremonial six o'clock gun went off -- like he was worried about being knocked out even though the qualifying line was as empty as the grandstands.

The only bigger farce than Bump Day was the inaugural Infiniti Pro Series race, in which George's stepson Ed Carpenter -- who is a good driver -- made a mockery of the competition and rules by running away to a 14-second victory.

"He was going five mph faster than anybody else down the straightaway," groused one Infiniti car owner. "What a joke."

Following Carpenter's win, the Speedway issued an insulting news release that said he joined the likes of Ray Harroun (first Indy winner, 1911), Jeff Gordon (first Brickyard 400 winner, 1994) and Michael Schumacher (first U.S. Grand Prix winner here, 2000). Most of the media room burst into laughter.

Nobody felt much like laughing by the end of the day but there was one moment of levity provided by veteran motorsports writer Bob Zeller. After Vitor Meira finished off qualifying shortly after 4 p.m. CT, Zeller said: "A nice performance by Dr. Fill."