Editor’s Note: While we wait for the start of the season, I will be republishing Bump Tales on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This one first appeared May 10, 2018
Nothing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a given. A car, a team, or a driver cannot be penciled into the starting lineup because they just happen to be at the track in May. This point was never driven home as hard as it was in 1995 when Team Penske, winners of the previous two 500s and three of the previous four, failed to make the field for the 79th running of the Indianapolis 500. Penske came to Indianapolis with a new chassis. The car was a handful from the first practice day. A switch to a Lola or Reynard chassis didn’t help.
The powerful Mercedes-Ilmor pushrod engine that dominated the field in 1994 was not available by rule. The engine wasn’t the issue, however. The car had handling issues. It couldn’t get through the turns well. By the first qualifying weekend, Al Unser, Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi, winners of the last two 500s, were running 10 mph slower than eventual pole sitter Scott Brayton. Penske hoped they could find a solution in the week following pole weekend and get the cars in the field on the second weekend. Pole weekend 1995 was the first time Team Penske did not qualify at least one car on opening weekend.
Bump Day arrived and still neither car had qualified. Bump Days during the era of two qualifying weekend followed an unwritten schedule. If the field hadn’t been filled by then, a handful of cars would go out early to grab the few remaining slots. If weather interfered later in the day, those cars were guaranteed a spot in the race. Then, several hours of open track for practice occurred. No one seriously thought about qualifying until after 4 pm, when a cooling shadow appeared on the front straight. 1995 stuck to the pattern.
The day before, Fittipaldi made an attempt to qualify. He was averaging 225.5 but the crew waved off the run. It was a speed that would have put him in row 10. Unser, Jr. did not come close to a speed that would get him in the field. The team put all their hopes into the final two hours of qualifying.
At 5:20 pm Fittipaldi completed a run at 224. 907 which placed him insecurely on the grid. With 12 minutes left in qualifying, Stefan Johanssen bumped Fittipaldi and Team Penske from the field of 33 for the 1995 race. The team that dominated the previous year did not come close to getting in the race.
To his credit, and one thing I have always respected Roger Penske for, he did not try to buy qualified cars to put his drivers in the race. Other owners have done that in this situation, as recently as 2011, when Michael Andretti bought one of A. J. Foyt’s qualified entries for Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Unser, Jr. was the first active defending champion to not make the race. It would be the first 500 without an Unser in the field since 1962. He and Bobby Rahal are the only defending series champions to fail to qualify. Rahal’s bump story is coming next week in this space.
Following the 1995 season, Tony George formed the IRL, which precipitated a 12 year war with CART. The competing open wheel series hurt the sport. It is slowly recovering, but will likely never regain the prominence it once held. Penske opted to stay in CART and didn’t return to IMS until 2001. His team won three consecutive races and his team has since won three more. Team Penske’s most recent victory was in 2015 with Juan Pablo Montoya.
As bizzare as qualifying was, the 1995 race was one of the strangest I’ve seen. It seemed as if every driver who led crashed. The strangest crash was Jimmy Vasser, who loked to be in complete control, crashed trying to pass a lapped car. Scott Goodyear took command and was well on his way to victory. On a restart with about 10 laps to go, Goodyear passed the pace car, which had not yet left the track. He ignored the black flag. Officials stopped scoring Goodyear’s laps after lap 195. Jacques Villeneuve, who had received a two lap penalty earlier in the day, inherited the lead and the win. Villeneuve drove 505 miles to win the 500.