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RoadNotes: Shut Up And Drive The Car!

By Carey Lundin

"You drive the car and don't let the damn car drive you!" A.J. Foyt says he told his grandson, A.J. Foyt IV, after he failed to qualify for the Indy 500 on Pole Day. On Day 2, Foyt IV was bumped from the field by his own teammate, Vitor Meira.

The third try was the charm. Foyt IV had been "struggling for speed" according to a Foyt team press release.

And feeling the pressure.

"I was so nervous and so stressed out," Foyt IV said later.

But his team made "substantive changes to the car on the pit lane" and helped pull him through - though he doesn't know exactly how.

"When asked what they did to the car to gain the extra speed," Team Foyt says, "Foyt IV said candidly, 'I have no idea. We were running 221s and then we were running 223s so you'd have to ask A.J. what he did.

"Cracking a smile, he added, 'He already told me to shut up and drive the car so I don't really ask anymore'."

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The race to win the Indy 500 doesn't begin on Memorial Day. It actually starts three rollicking, loud weeks in advance with Pole Day. Pole Day, Qualifying Days and Bump Day position a driver's crucial starting position in the race. This weekend is the third day of qualifying and Bump Day, where the slowest car of the top 33 is "bumped" from the field by a faster qualifying car.

pole.jpgHere's how it works. You drive like a bat out of hell for four laps. They average your speeds around the historic 2.5 mile track. It's insane.You think about how going 80 in the car is scary. Germans however are comfortable with 90mph on the Autobahn. It's no wonder they call race car drivers "pilots."

Last Saturday, Pole Day, the winds were gusting, frighteningly. "The wind at your wing" - not a good thing when you're a projectile hurtling at 222 mph around a sharp curve. Many drivers just opted out of qualifying that day.

You crash into a wall at 222 miles per hour and you will bruise your lungs or get a concussion or even die. If you lose contact with the ground, you are gonna crash. It happened to Mike Conway.

Conway crashed into the SAFER barrier and even broke the wall. He sustained a concussion and bruised lung. The press releases say he'll be re-evaluated on May 16th, but really, racing with a concussion?

During qualifying, a driver gets to try three times in one day for their fastest speed. When they try again, it's a gamble. This year, Ryan Briscoe gambled that he could beat his teammate, Helio Castroneves for the Pole Position. Helio was absolutely ebullient when he took the pole. Briscoe remained in second place.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Speed
There is no other professional sport in America that pits the world's best against some who barely make it in. It kinda reminds me of the Indiana biking movie Breaking Away, where the scrappy Indiana boys competed against Europe's top bikers. Guess who won?

But this is the real world. Here we have three levels of drivers. Let's start at the top.

Pole Day and the Navy Seals of teams - Team Penske, Andretti Green Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing - who can afford the best drivers, the most cars, the most practice for the drivers and speed drills for their pit crew take most of the top 11 available positions. Through careful study and consistent practice, they can shave off a second or two, enough to win a race.

To understand how minute the differences in speed are, Helio took the Pole Position at 224.864 while Davey Hamilton drove turtle-like into 22nd position at 221.956. Less than a three second difference.

Qualifying Day, last Sunday, fills in cars 11-22. This year, we have dynastic families like Foyt Racing and Vision Racing, and up-and-coming teams like Sarah Fisher Racing, who placed 21st at 222.082.

Qualifying and practice are particularly hard for Sarah Fisher Racing. She has one car. She's got to make it last. For her the stakes are high. A true underdog, she has roared back since last year's troubles. The fans love her. Dollar General sought her out for sponsorship. She's poised this year to rebuild. Who knows for next year? Perhaps she can qualify for the championship. But that's another story. Right now we're rooting for her.

The Wild Cards
Coming up are Day 3 of Qualifying and "Bump Day." These days are populated by racers who may only drive this one race; this section of track is scrappy. The economy is taking its toll. The list may include seasoned drivers like Milka Duno, Oriol Servia and newcomers like Enrique Bernoldi.

Before qualifying, some may only practice for a couple of hours or a day. Not three days, like many of the top drivers. Their teams may have put together the car at the last minute or, because of the economy, finally put together the sponsorship to get the car on the track. They "fill out the track" of 33 drivers.

Rahal Letterman Racing, Indy 500 winners in 2004, just announced Servia will drive for them. "We all know it's not ideal to jump in the car for Thursday and Friday," said Servia, who recorded seven top-10 finishes with KV Racing Technology and finished 11th in the Indianapolis 500 after starting 25th. This could be a replay of that race and that's pretty exciting.

Why have so many cars at so many levels? I think it's because the weaker drivers mix it up. It's truly entertaining when a car navigates through a wildly variable group of drivers. It's nail-biting when a driver from the bottom tier works his or her way up to the top.

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You can watch 3rd day qualifications and Bump Day on Versus or follow along at indycar.com.

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Previously in RoadNotes:
* Slouching Toward Indy
* The Ragged Edge

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Carey Lundin is the Beachwood's auto racing correspondent. She welcomes your comments.


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