Rollin' the bones

Paul Tracy's Month of May came down to a controversial call on the pit lane with only minutes to go in Bump Day qualifications (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
We go out in the world and take our chances
Fate is just the weight of circumstances
That's the way that lady luck dances
Roll the bones

Rush


It was a roll of the dice... a close-your-eyes-and-pray moment.

For four drivers, it meant one of two things - either make it into the Indianapolis 500, or watch it from the grandstands.

One driver rolled and hit. Two rolled snake eyes. And one wasn’t even around to watch as his fate was decided.

Edge-of-your-seat drama, incredulity, joy and frustrated tears. Just another Bump Day at Indy.

For Paul Tracy, it was his first chance to put his money where his mouth was. All season, the Thrill from West Hill had been on the sidelines trying to rustle up money for an IndyCar ride and loudly lambasting the corps of ride buyers who were racing instead of him. Now he was within sniffing distance of "the bubble," and he and his KV Racing Team had to choose between risking another attempt or praying that their time would stand.

You could call Jay Howard a "sentimental favorite" because of who he drives for - Sarah Fisher. But Howard’s 2010 season started badly at Kansas and wasn’t getting much better during Indy 500 practices and qualifying. He too was in the field, but he was closer to the bubble than Tracy and his team was in an agony of indecision. As he sat in the qualifying line, his crew flocked to and fro, waving papers, yelling back and forth... trying to make the right choice.

Tony Kanaan was lucky to even have a car. Historically a great qualifier at the Brickyard who never seemed to have enough luck to finish the race, Kanaan was at one point considered a threat for the pole. But two massive shunts in two days left Kanaan’s team scrambling to rebuild his backup car well enough for Kanaan to make one last-ditch effort just to make it into the field.

And then there was Sebastian Saavedra. A Colombian rookie who would be making his IndyCar debut at Indianapolis, his car was on the bubble... and it was also on the wrecker hook. During practice, Saavedra’s Dallara lost back-end grip and demolished itself in one of IMS’ short chutes. Saavedra, complaining of back pain, was on his way to Methodist Hospital in downtown Indianapolis for observation. His team owner, Bryan Herta, was only keeping his team from packing up and leaving for one reason. Even though their only car was a sad mess and their driver was headed for a doctor, he knew one thing - Bump Day at Indianapolis was not over until the gun sounded.

Kanaan took to the track in a car that had been in pieces that morning. Gone were any expectations other than just making it into the field - it had taken the team until about an hour to go on Bump Day just to have the car assembled. The laps weren’t pretty, but they were fast enough to get him in - but he was still perilously close to the bubble speed. When his car arrived on pit road, the team immediately sent Kanaan back to the qualifying line... just in case.

With Kanaan’s qualifying time recorded, Saavedra was officially out of the race. Kanaan, Howard and Tracy were all in the field. But what was not certain was whether any more cars would be able to bump them out. So all three sat in the qualifying line as other cars went out to take their shot.

Eric Bachelart, team owner for Conquest Racing, knew how all three of those teams felt. Last year, he stood pat on driver Alex Tagliani’s borderline speed and, at the very end of the Bump Day session, was knocked out of the race. In fact, he had just withdrawn current driver Mario Romancini’s qualifying time and sent him back out; Romancini, fortunately, paid off his risky bet with a more solid qualifying time that removed him from the bubble sweepstakes.

Maybe it was Romancini’s success that influenced what came next. Paul Tracy’s KV Racing team elected to roll the dice and send the popular Canadian back out. Tracy was in the field, but his qualifying time had come during the heat of the day and team owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser, along with race strategist Barry Green, opined that with the cooler afternoon temperatures Tracy would be able to improve his position.

It was immediately apparent that Tracy was in trouble. Tracy scrubbed the wall once during the warmup lap, and then again during his timed effort. The speed was slower... and Tracy suddenly found himself on the outside looking in. Tracy immediately made a beeline for the qualifying line to line up for one last desperate gasp, but ahead of him in the line were Kanaan, Milka Duno, Jaques Lazier and Jay Howard. With time winding down in the session, the odds of Tracy getting back on the track were nearly nonexistent unless a couple of the cars either pulled out of line or aborted their runs early.

Incredibly, that scenario began to play itself out. Kanaan was pulled out of line as it became clear that he was safe - however barely. Milka Duno cut short her qualifying run after a lap and a half when it was clear that her speed was far short of what it needed to be. But Jaques Lazier threw a monkey wrench into the plan when he went out and completed a full qualifying run - even though his speeds were obviously not good enough to bump bubble-sitter Howard out of the race.

When Lazier finished his laps, Howard and Tracy were the first two cars in line for another qualifying attempt. There was, however, only time for one more attempt. Howard’s Sarah Fisher Racing team was faced with a Solomon’s choice - pull out of line and hope that Tracy would once again fail to muster the speed to bump him out, or withdraw his time and take a run himself, thereby ensuring that Tracy would not have the chance. With IndyCar’s Brian Barnhart yelling for a decision, the SFR team finally, belatedly withdrew Howard’s time and sent him on his way. Tracy and the KV team pulled out of line, stunned and devastated - their roll of the dice had failed, and they had overthought their way completely out of the race.

Sarah Fisher watched from the top of her pit box as Howard pulled onto the track. Howard’s team was run by a management team separate from her own car’s effort - consequently, she had not been the one to make the call to send him back out. All she could do was watch - and hope. But her hope quickly dissolved into a sick realization that her team’s gamble had also failed, as Howard’s qualifying attempt fell short of the bubble speed.

And so it was that an astonished Bryan Herta called Sebastian Saavedra at Methodist Hospital while Saavedra was waiting to get an MRI on his back, telling the young Colombian that he was back in the race. Paul Tracy, the brash, outspoken Canadian racing hero, was sitting in the IMS media center answering questions with tears in his eyes and a shell-shocked look on his face. Sarah Fisher and Jay Howard could not summon the words to describe their devastation. And Tony Kanaan, who squeaked in by the skin of his teeth, sat on the pit wall... shaking and incredulous at the narrow margin by which he had made it into the field.

Yes, it was just another Bump Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway... and another affirmation that even after a century, some of the grandest drama in all of motorsports is played out in the month of May on the stage at the crossroads of 16th Street and Georgetown in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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