In ages past, when Pole Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway meant the dogged pursuit of a new track record, the highest drama of all surrounded whether or not a driver could get his name logged in the record books as the fastest closed-course racer in the world.
Those days are over - at least, until they can figure out how to keep a driver lucid and protected from G-forces at speeds topping 250mph. But the drama still lingers for Indianapolis 500 qualifying... it has just moved to a new day.
That day is Bump Day, which in the newest version of INDYCAR's Month of May scheduling falls on the day after Pole Day. And while the eventual polesitter for the 100th anniversary of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will not come close to usurping Arie Luyendyk's four-lap average speed record, there are a handful of drivers - good drivers - who are simply hoping that they can muster a speed close enough to it to stick around for the next week's big event.
Bump Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is unlike any other qualifying session in motorsports. Or, rather, it has been historically. In the years leading up to the 1996 split between the Indy Racing League and CART, Bump Day lent an air of drama, daring, and dreaming to the sometimes dull process of time trials. Only qualifying for the Daytona 500 approached its level of thrilling uncertainty (and, thanks to recent NASCAR rules changes protecting 35 drivers based on points, it no longer even comes close).
What made Bump Day so compelling? It was because the Indianapolis 500-mile Race was the biggest race in America, and one of the biggest in the world next to Monaco and Le Mans. Just making the race guaranteed a staggering payday that could finance an entire season of racing. But more than that, it was the prestige of being part of a racing field that instantly became logged in the history books.
Bump Day is so called because qualifiers on that day can only make it into the field at the expense of another driver who is already qualified. There are no "provisional" qualifying spots, no reserved slots for big-name star drivers or powerful team owners or influential sponsors upon whom the sport relies for income and exposure. If you get bumped from the Indy 500 field, the only possible way to get back into the starting lineup is to bump someone else out.
As you can imagine, this reality has led to a myriad of thrilling scenarios that have played out over the many decades of the Indy 500's existence. In some cases, drivers who spent the Month of May patrolling Gasoline Alley looking for a ride somehow scrounged up enough money and help to lease a qualified team's T-car (or backup car, in modern parlance) for a no-practice, no-testing, no-holds-barred banzai run. Other drivers who thought themselves safe suddenly found themselves on the outside looking in with only minutes to spare, causing them to make a mad dash for the qualifying line to try to salvage their spot. Gamesmanship between team owners has resulted in qualified cars being put into line in front of other, non-qualified cars to eat up time and reduce their chances of getting in.
Perhaps the greatest shocker in Bump Day history occurred in 1995, when the powerful Penske Racing team of Al Unser, Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi - having decimated the competition the year prior in machinery that skirted on the ragged edge of the race's rules - failed to qualify for the event altogether. Unser never found enough speed, while Fittipaldi actually waved off a qualifying run that would have gotten him in the race in hindsight. The sight of INDYCAR's top team and one of the most dominant teams ever at Indianapolis leaving the grounds early was one not to be forgotten.
After the Split in 1996, Bump Day became progressively less compelling as the number and quality of Indianapolis 500 entries declined. In fact, in one instance, Bump Day lost its meaning altogether; in 1997, the Indy Racing League actually expanded the field to 35 starters because the fastest 33 cars would not have been in the race otherwise, thanks to a much-reviled and quickly-abandoned rule that guaranteed 25 of the 33 starting spots to IRL regulars.
In the Split years, Bump Day's drama took on new and strange forms. It would be hard to top 2005, when Speedway president Tony George prevailed upon A.J. Foyt to field an additional race car at the last minute specifically to bump Arie Luyendyk, Jr. from the field because the young rookie was too erratic and too slow (over 7mph off of the next-slowest qualifier) and could have posed a threat to the other drivers' safety as well as his own. Foyt called Felipe Giaffone, who was actually out shopping at the time at Babies ‘R' Us with his family. Giaffone arrived at the Speedway two hours later, successfully bumped Luyendyk from the field, and ended up finishing 15th in the race.
With unification and the gradual improvement of INDYCAR's future outlook, Bump Day has started to regain its place as a drama-filled prelude to the historic Indy 500. This year, however, could be one of the most unpredictable and thrilling Bump Days in decades. At least seven drivers will end Bump Day without a starting spot for the 500, and pre-race practices have shown that there are no clear candidates for the dubious honor as there have been in recent years.
It will boil down to one exhilarating day, where drivers and teams will play the clock, the weather, and the track conditions for what could be their final roll of the dice, their last shot at being named as starters for the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500. There will be intrigue, gamesmanship, courage, second-guessing, euphoria, crushing disappointment... and it will take place in real time, with real people, with no script to predict the outcome.
Bump Day 2011 will be the embodiment of why people watch racing in the first place - a place where human drama merges with tremendous speeds to create a Spectacle unlike any other.