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Indy 500 fills 33-car field without a bump

Posted: Monday, May 19, 2003

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Drivers took no chances on Bump Day.

When Jimmy Kite's car sputtered twice in his first qualifying attempt, he turned it off, coasted into the pits and waited for another chance to make the Indianapolis 500 lineup.

When Airton Dare thought about waving off his first attempt, he reconsidered and accepted a subpar four-lap average of 223.609 mph.

Anything else would have been too risky Sunday.

''It seemed to be more a formality than pressure-packed, like it usually is,'' said Jimmy Vasser, the day's third-fastest qualifier.

While the Indy Racing League barely managed to fill the starting grid, it at least avoided the ignominy of starting fewer than the usual 33 cars for the first time since 1947.

But the day was hardly filled with drama. The only suspense was whether crashes or mechanical problems would prevent the nine non-qualifiers from starting in the May 25 race.

So little was at stake on the 2 1/2-mile oval that some fans stretched out across empty bleachers and napped.

Nine spots remained open after last weekend's time trials, and nine driver-car combinations made attempts on the last of three qualifying days.

All qualified, and each seemed to have the same game plan: Play it safe.

Sarah Fisher, the only woman in the field and the slowest of 24 first-day qualifiers with a four-lap average of 224.170, finally practiced in her backup car, in case she was knocked out of the starting lineup.

Dare's average was slower than Fisher's, meaning Dare would have been the first knocked out of the starting lineup once the field was full.

Neither bothered to break a sweat, though. It was a big change from the sometimes chaotic Bump Days when drivers made banzai runs to beat the rain or the clock.

Even the speeds Sunday were disappointing.

Vasser, a full-time CART driver who is with Bobby Rahal's team at Indianapolis, returned to make his eighth Indy start and had no trouble qualifying with a four-lap average of 226.873.

Alex Barron replaced two-time Indy winner Arie Luyendyk for Mo Nunn Racing and went 227.274 the fastest of the day but nowhere near the 230s of pole day last weekend.

Both expected to go faster.

''This morning threw a little glitch into it,'' Barron said. ''We had to pull out of line and make sure the car would work. We went with a real conservative setup.''

Rookie Vitor Meira was the only other driver to challenge Barron.

Meira put a second car in the field for team owner John Menard by going 227.158 on the day's final qualifying attempt about 90 minutes before the track closed. He is one of six Brazilians in Indy's starting field, joining pole-sitter and two-time defending champ Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Gil de Ferran, Felipe Giaffone and Dare.

''Probably our primary motivation was everyone seeing 33 cars,'' Menard said of adding a second car. ''This has been a tradition for years, and we didn't want to break that tradition.''

Two drivers who hadn't even been on the track until Sunday also made the starting grid. Robby McGehee, driving Panther Racing's third entry, went 224.493 and will start on the inside of Row 11. Richie Hearn, who took over de Ferran's backup car when Team Penske leased it to Sam Schmidt Motorsports, went 225.863 and will start 28th in the three-car rows.

''This ride is like winning the lottery,'' Hearn said. ''This is probably the best ride I've had anywhere in any situation.''

Also qualifying Sunday was another Foyt driver, Shigeaki Hattori, at 224.589; another Panther driver, former pole-sitter Billy Boat at 225.598; and Kite at 224.195.

Kite's car sputtered on the third lap of his first attempt. When he got back to pit road, his PDM team pulled the engine cover, but the problem was not that complex.

''I think they're allowing me to say I ran out of fuel,'' Kite said.

After Kite qualified, the concern about a full field dissipated. There were no crashes, no engine problems and nobody else took a shot at the starters.

As the scenario played out, the drivers knew they had only one option.

''You can't take a risk,'' Barron said. ''It looks like there's going to be 33 cars, and there's no sense in taking a risk.''

The field average of 227.125 was the third-fastest ever at Indianapolis.



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