Working the entire schedule of the Indianapolis 500 is grueling and brutal. It is one of the most physically and emotionally destructive feats of human teamwork and coordination imaginable. But in the end, it comes with the promise of having perhaps the greatest collection of awards imaginable, the chance to participate in the greatest race mankind has ever known, the chance to shine throughout the contest, and the chance to win the most beautiful and storied trophy in existence. The only one that even comes close in comparison is Lord Stanley’s Cup in the NHL and with ravenous hockey fans, I’d lose that argument.
I’d planned on writing a column on Saturday night after Pole Day, but with everything that happened during the day, I was completely wiped out. Instead, I deferred to writing it on Sunday during the Bump Day festivities and again was denied because the day became overly hectic.
Bump Day was day number nine in a row for working the practice and qualifications for the 95th Indianapolis 500, the Centennial celebration of the storied event. Even as much fun as working the 500 is, nine straight twelve-hour workdays will begin to wear on anyone, so with the culmination of qualifications yesterday, heading into a two-day break is a welcome respite from the racing madness.
This is the second year in a row I’ve covered the 500 as a blogger for an INDYCAR team with last year spent with Ed Carpenter and Vision Racing. When that race ended, I never thought in my wildest dreams that a second chance to do the same would ever come. But come it did and I was certainly up for the challenge, though I knew exactly how hard it would be after having already gone through the tumult before.
The Monday following Bump Day has now traditionally become “laundry day” with most everything in my suitcase needing very badly to be cleaned, especially my crew shirt unwashed for six days. Laundry day was sorely needed and with it, an opportunity was finally afforded to record personal thoughts and experiences regarding two of the most exciting days around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Pole Day and Bump Day.
As with all “big” days at the Speedway, Pole Day starts very early in the morning. The alarm goes off at five-thirty and you’re at the track by seven. There are two practice sessions before qualifications begin where they separate the cars into groups of half. They run from eight o’clock until ten and then qualifications get underway at eleven. Davey Hamilton was not slated to go out until the second session, so my things were dropped off in the suite where I’ve been working all week before making way down to pit lane for practice.
With all of the rain over the past week, practice time has been rare and Davey’s crew has been searching desperately for the speed necessary to get the No. 11 car in the field. At the end of the morning practice session, Davey climbed from the car feeling quite enthused about where he was with the setup. We fully expected him to qualify somewhere in the 225 mph range. We were set to go out eleventh in the qualification order and I walked with the crew and the car out to the qualification line. It should be noted once again how the number eleven has been of particular significance this year. This will be Davey’s eleventh 500 as a competitor and mine as an attendee. The car is No. 11, Davey’s favorite number. Add the relevance to the years 1911 and 2011, framing the Centennial of the Indianapolis 500.
At precisely eleven o’clock, the first car fired up and sailed out for a qualifying run. Pole Day was underway.
Away they went one by one. Nothing was unusual. Some cars were fast and others were slower. As we crept closer to the front of the line, a rookie driver named Ho-Pin Tung crashed the No. 8 car on his fourth lap. At the time, only one car sat ahead of us, the No. 12 of Will Power. There was a bit of a delay while they cleaned the track and removed the wreckage. Thankfully, Tung seemed to be okay, though he was later diagnosed with a concussion and not cleared to return to the track. Tung’s Indy 500 dream had ended.
At some point during the wait for Davey’s qualification run, one of the crew members grabbed me while I sat at the wheel of the Kingdom Racing golf cart and asked me to drive him back up to Davey’s pit box to retrieve some wet towels to place over the cowlings above the exhaust manifolds. (If you’ve ever wondered, this is done to keep the hot exhaust manifolds from burning off the paint on the cowling.)
I agreed and whipped the golf cart around to head up pit road. I cut the turn too wide and smacked the inside of the pit road wall with the left front tire. It left a huge black mark on the wall and the entire team saw me do it. In all honesty, I can say that I’ve hit the wall on Pole Day at Indianapolis. That can never be taken away. I quickly recovered from the blunder and drove north to the pit and came right back with the towels. It was scintillating to drive up and down pit road at Indy on Pole Day in a golf cart. Even now, the opportunities I’ve been given at Indianapolis never cease to astound my soul. This is simply my favorite place on earth and having the chance to participate in the festivities is a blessing from Above.
While waiting in line, I was joined in the golf cart by D&R team principal Robbie Buhl and later on, Eric DeBord. Soon enough, it was time for Davey to qualify. The engine was fired, he took off, and away he went. As soon as this takes place, it is up to the rest of the team to immediately head back north to the spot right in front of the Pagoda and wait for the car to return from qualifications. While making the drive in the cart, Davey screamed by several times and the crowd cheered loudly. I suddenly realized they were cheering for us. That was us out there. Davey was doing good!
At the end of Davey’s qualification run, he had put up the following speeds on his four-lap jaunt, 225.336, 225.321, 225.192, and 225.152 for an average qualification speed of 225.250 mph. It looks like we were all right in line with our expectation of a 225 mph run. At the time, it put us temporarily seventh on the grid, a position we were all excited about. We had been praying and asking our fans and followers to pray for us during the last few days of practice and during the qualification run, and we have no doubt that those prayers made the difference for Davey and the team. God’s presence could be felt in the run and seen in the results.
One of the things that struck me personally was the fact that it had remained cloudy and overcast all morning, and even during Davey’s qualification run, but at the end of that run, the sun came out and shone brightly along the front stretch. It stayed that way until he came in, our qualification photos were taken, and we moved on to the media center for the press conference. To me, it was a sign from God and a peaceful one at that. God’s presence was most definitely felt during those moments.
This was the second year in a row that I got to participate in a qualification photo for the Indianapolis 500. It was a dream comes true for me in 2010, and it was another one in 2011. The only difference this year is that I knew where and how to stand. Those pictures and the memories they stand for will be treasured in my heart forever. I thank God for the guidance and opportunity that made both possible.
Following Davey’s sensational run, we whisked him off for media interviews and a quick press conference before returning to the garage area. The entire No. 11 team was ecstatic with the results. We knew that we would be in the show. We knew that we would not be in the “Fast Nine” shootout at the end of the day, but would not have to get back on track for another attempt. Again, it was a peaceful feeling of satisfaction delivered from Above. In fact, everything about this year’s Indy 500 schedule has reminded us that He is in control of everything we do. The persistent rain has dictated that all of this year’s events happen on His schedule rather than ours, and the shortened schedule due to rainouts has benefitted Davey’s team more than any other. In fact, it has probably served as a detriment to the bigger, more funded teams by taking away their advantage over the smaller ones.
What became the day’s story were the struggles encountered by those larger teams with deeper pockets. They were having trouble finding the speed Davey and the No. 11 had been graced with. Even the other three members of Davey’s Dreyer & Reinbold team, Paul Tracy, Ana Beatriz, and Justin Wilson were having trouble finding the speed that Davey did, not to take anything away from any of them either, because they are all very talented racecar drivers. But for some reason, Davey and the No. 11 made it and made it big time.
The first qualifying segment was due to end at four o’clock, locking in the top twenty-four and sending the top nine to the afternoon shootout. Rain hit the Speedway with less than thirty minutes remaining in that session and the day appeared to be over. Thankfully, that was not to be. At the end of the first segment, Davey and the No. 11 were locked into 15th starting position, firmly and comfortably in the race on the outside of the fifth row. Davey and the rest of the team were all cool with that.
The track was reopened for the Fast Nine shootout at 5:25 PM and the first driver out of the gate was Buddy Rice, followed by Oriol Servia, Will Power, Ed Carpenter, Townsend Bell, and Dan Wheldon. The next driver to go out, defending and two-time Indy 500 champion Dario Franchitti was laying down a decent run, but suddenly slowed down on the fourth and final lap to gasps from the crowd. It turns out that his team had not put enough fuel in the car and it ran dry before finishing the run. Sadly, someone probably lost their job over the fiasco, but it brought up the question if the same thing might also happen to his teammate, Scott Dixon, who was headed out next.
Dixon made his run successfully, but definitely ran out of fuel on his cooldown lap, because he came creeping back into the pits at a snail’s pace. The final run of the day came from Alex Tagliani, already sitting on the provisional pole from the first segment.
Tagliani, from Canada, put down four blistering laps averaging 227.472 mph to capture the pole for the 95th Indianapolis 500. Finally, one of the little guys won one. Tags drives for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, named for its owner, a former driver paralyzed in a racing accident who serves as an inspiration to disabled people around the world. Sam was seen crying as he approached the celebration. And the entire crowd cheered for Sam and Tags. It was a sensational day, one blessed everywhere visible by a gracious and powerful God. He’d written a spectacular script.
As mentioned previously, Pole Day takes a tremendous toll on everyone who participates. By the end of the day, you are physically and emotionally spent, especially once you go through the gauntlet of running your driver from one interview to another and then through the hordes of fans seeking autographs. All I wanted to do was head home and fall asleep. I came home and uploaded the day’s photos, but decided against staying up and creating an article overnight. I’m glad I didn’t either, because it would not have been this thorough. Sleep came easily as Sunday morning would come bright and early.
Bump Day also comes with an early morning practice session, beginning at eight o’clock, but Davey and the team decided to hold off until nine to let some of the teams struggling to find speed get out and run without endangering the primary No. 11 car already solidified in the Big Show on May 29th.
I made my way down to pit road in time to take some pictures and document the event but Davey climbed out of the car with plenty of time to spare with a big smile across his face. They had been working on the race setup and felt that the car was in great shape. And anytime you catch a driver with a smile on their face, it is a good indication of how they feel. Unhappy drivers never smile, and you should never approach one with a scowl unless you desire a serious beating. By all means, give them plenty of space and respect at that point. Luckily, we did not have to worry about Davey on Bump Day. He was as happy as a lark and the vibes were positive all the way around.
For the remainder of the day Davey could relax and spent it helping his teammates get their cars into The Race. Probably the most sensational moment came when Paul Tracy electrified the crowd and placed the No. 23 car in after missing the 500 last year. Davey had been talking to Paul about putting No. 11’s setup on the 23 and it seems to have helped greatly in getting them both locked in with good speeds.
Rain interrupted Bump Day three times and with each, questions arose as to whether cars would be able to return to the track. And in classic Indy 500 fashion, the end of the day was filled with drama when Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti suddenly found speed they’d not had all week to place their cars in the secured field for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Marco even hit the track just moments before the final gun sounded to close the day’s qualifications, bumping his own teammate out of The Race in the process. It was thrilling to watch from the stands.
And that was it. Nine straight days of grueling Indianapolis 500 preparations had come to an end. And all I could think about was going home and sleeping without setting an alarm.
But I had to get up. After all, I had laundry to do.
It has been an amazing ride for these past nine days. But it’s time for a break. Let us not pause without thanking God for His wonderful gifts. Without Him, none of this would be possible. It is because of Him that we are here, and it is His message that we are charged to deliver. We’ve been through the tumult and trials of the past nine days, but come May 29th, Kingdom Racing and Davey Hamilton will have the ability to relay the message of Christ to the world through the little team that could, the one that refused to give up, that kept pushing and pushing and found the speed necessary to enter the race. And we will race to win on Sunday as well as every day thereafter.
Matthew 11:28 says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
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