Indy 500's biggest Bump Day shocks: Alonso, Fittipaldi & Rahal

Indycar Racing News

The Indianapolis 500 is a merciless challenge, and even some of racing's greatest champions have failed to make the grid on the race's notorious Bump Day – we select the biggest scalps

2 Fernando Alonso McLaren 2019 Indianapolis 500

Alonso centre of the attention – for the wrong reasons


A year, maybe even more, has been leading up to this moment.

Thousands of testing miles, muscle-crushing gym sessions, hundreds of never-ending engineering meetings, unbearable moments of tension and stress.

And then, after all that, you don’t even get to race.

The Indianapolis 500’s Bump Day is motor sport’s greatest demonstration of agony and ecstasy when, after putting their lives on the line at 240mph, some drivers find out whether they have made the 33-car strong grid in the last-gasp qualifying session.

If the Indy 500 race itself really is the self-proclaimed ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing’, then the accompanying last-gasp qualifying session isn’t far off either – a merciless levelling contest which has made zeroes out of racing heroes in an instant – claiming F1 champions, multiple Indy 500 winners and motor sport legends of all disciplines.

We run through five of the Indy 500’s biggest Bump Day knockouts.

1993 – Bobby Rahal

Bobby Rahal 1993 Indianapolis 500

Rahal gives it the thousand-mile stare

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1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal enjoyed instant success after founding his own team for 1992, clinching a third IndyCar title.

However, when his eponymous squad tried to develop its own chassis the following year, things all went a bit awry, coming to a head at The Brickyard.

A runner-up finish in the prior round at Long Beach had shown that things weren’t all bad, but on the razor’s edge round Indy, something clearly wasn’t right.

From the archive

As the field gradually filled out the 33-starting sports, Rahal was on the provisional grid – but in danger of being ‘bumped’ out by other prospective qualifiers in the last chance session. Team Menard offered him one its spare cars, but he decided to try his own spare chassis instead.

Asked why he didn’t take the offer, Rahal said “In the heat we don’t think anyone will get close to [our time of] 217mph, and if it cools off we can run 220mph.”

The tension would rise though as the Bump Day session got underway. Instead of setting another, potentially faster lap – but also forfeiting its current, good-enough time in the process – Rahal’s team repeatedly opted to wait and see what would happen.

When asked by a reporter whether he should have taken another chassis, the Ohio native said “We chose this path, and you live and die by it.”

With fifteen minutes to go, Eddie Cheever bumped the three-time champ out of the field, before Didier Theys got himself onto the grid also, pushing Rahal further down.

With seconds left until the session ended, Rahal made it out on track, but it was all too little too late. His first lap was just about fast enough to bump his way in, but subsequent tours of the four-lap average were well off – a multiple IndyCar champion and 500 winner was out.

1995 – Penske capitulates: Emerson Fittipaldi & Al Unser Jr

Roger Penske Emerson Fittipaldi Al Unser Jr 1995 Indianapolis 500

Penske and co face the music in ’95

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For almost the entirety of its racing life, Team Penske has been a name synonymous with success. However, at the 1995 Indianapolis 500, it all went very wrong.

Just one year earlier the team had blown away the field with its mega Mercedes-Illmor engine but now, without its now-banned power unit, testing had shown the team were struggling to get up to the limit for the biggest race in IndyCar.

From the archive

During the opening practice sessions, Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr, drivers who had both one races prior to Indy that season, were struggling to make the top-ten, and weren’t finding anymore pace while others were improving.

As the days ticked by, things weren’t getting any better, and neither Penske car bothered to run one the pole day qualifying or the main second session – the cars were clearly too slow, and it simply wasn’t worth it.

Penske took a Lola chassis from Rahal Racing for Fittipaldi while Unser stayed with his Penske car. The Brazilian managed to get up to 223mph while his American team-mate hovered around 218mph, but with Adrian Fernandez the fastest non-qualifier at 228mph, Penske was still clearly way off.

Eventually Unser moved to a Rahal car too. Both Penske drivers had shown enough pace in practice to qualify, but only Fittipaldi showed enough when it mattered to transfer this into a grid slot – he was 33rd.

Come Bump Day, Stefan Johansson knocked out Fittipaldi with 12min to go, while Unser was never even in the reckoning. It was the first time since 1968 that not a single Penske car had make it into the 500.

“It hurts,” said Unser afterwards. “What Indy means to me, it is really hard to put into words how it feels now.”

2010 – Paul Tracy

Paul Tracy Andretti 2010 Indianapolis 500

Champ Car champion failed to make the 2010 Indy field

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Racing firebrand Paul Tracy was a mainstay of ChampCar throughout IndyCar’s infamous ‘split’ period, as the series went head-to-head with the Indy Racing League.

However, when the two championships reunited for 2008, the 2003 Champ Car title-winner failed to find a front-running seat, leading to various travails for a man who was used to winning.

From the archive

This proved particularly so in 2010, when Tracy attempted to make the Indy 500 with the KV team.

Reliability issues meant that the Canadian only had Bump Day to make it into the field – it was all or nothing.

His first attempt was just about good enough, but he was gradually pushed down to 33rd.

With 10min to go, Tracy and co opted to gamble and go again – proving disastrous. A huge wiggle through Turn 1 undid any good work that would come thereafter.

Ultimately his previous lap which KV gave up would have been enough to qualify – Tracy essentially bumped himself out of the field.

“The car was quick all week when it was cold, and as soon as the track temperature came up we just couldn’t get the handle on it,” Tracy said afterwards.

“It cuts deep, it’s a hard blow – it’ll be a long drive home in the motorhome, that’s for sure.”

2011 – Ryan-Hunter Reay

Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti 2011 Indianapolis 500

Hunter-Reay had to pack up early in 2011

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2011 proved a game of cat-and-mouse for IndyCar teams. Persistent rain showers meant you had to be in the right place at the right time, and it was the Andretti team which lost out.

Finding itself well down the timing sheets as the clock ticked down, all four Andretti cars went into Bump Day: Danica Patrick, Mike Conway, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

From the archive

Patrick went out first and bumper her way into the field, but Conway – despite three attempts – wasn’t quick enough to make it onto the grid.

Hunter-Reay and Andretti were 32nd and 33rd respectively. When Andretti was pushed out by a late Alex Lloyd lap, the American driver went out with 55sec left on the session – and eliminated his own team-mate Hunter-Reay from the 500.

The pain on the Hunter-Reay’s face as his colleague secured a place at his expense was plain to see: “I can’t even fathom this at the moment,” he said immediately afterwards. “Now here we are. This is what matters most to me. My team-mate bumped me out – it’s heartbreaking.”

However, Hunter-Reay would make the field – his team did a deal with the AJ Foyt squad to buy its entry at the expense of Brazilian Bruno Junqueira.

“My mind is OK,” said the magnanimous Brazilian at giving up his hard-earned 500 spot. “I think I did my job well. I put the car in the field in good position, solid in the first day, and I did what I could.”

2018 – James Hinchcliffe

James Hinchcliffe 2018 Indianapolis 500

2018: Hinchcliffe left high and dry

James Hinchcliffe has experienced almost all the ups and downs the pressurised run-in to the Indy 500 can offer.

In 2015 he suffered a near-fatal crash after a horrifying impact with the wall which saw his legs impaled by a broken suspension wishbone.

From the archive

After emergency surgery saved his life, a year later the affable the Canadian was at the speedway with a vengeance, taking pole by 0.15mph from Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Two years on from that, and it was sheer Indy 500 agony that Hinchcliffe found himself going through again.

Unable to hook up his Schmidt-Peterson IndyCar due to a lack of set-up preparation caused by rain delays, Hinchcliffe found himself bumped from the field with half an hour to go, with his first run simply not good enough.

Lining up for another attempt with 15min to go, his run had to be cancelled after a vibration was detected – a tyre sensor had come loose and was ‘pin-balling’ inside the wheel hub.

The clock ran out before the team could get his car prepared again, and it was all over.

“It’s devastating in every way possible,” said Hinchcliffe in the aftermath. “Indy is a cruel mistress sometimes – the highest of highs, the lowest of lows.”

2019 – Fernando Alonso

3 Fernando Alonso McLaren 2019 Indianapolis 500

Alonso proved too slow on second Indy attempt – nice paint job though


Double F1 champion Fernando Alonso skipping the 2017 Monaco GP to take on the Indy 500 is one of racing’s greatest stories.

Driving a McLaren-liveried Andretti car, the Spaniard put his car seventh in qualifying and then fought for the win until an engine failure took him out of the reckoning.

However, what was a dream drive in 2017 turned into a nightmare two years later.

From the archive

In a rather less well-prepared effort, McLaren partnered with the British Carlin outfit, a powerhouse in junior formulae but a backmarker in IndyCar.

The team’s run up to Indy had been described as a “comedy of errors”.

During the April-pre Indy test at Texas, Alonso’s car was unloaded only to find it had no steering wheel – leaving the McLaren boss Zak Brown having to make personal calls to secure so it could run that day. As the team’s head honcho put it so succinctly in the third person: “Zak Brown should not be digging around for steering wheels.”

The spare car was also, according to McLaren sources, painted the ‘wrong’ shade of papaya orange, so that when the Spaniard had a crash in practice at Indianapolis, the No2 machine was back at the factory being resprayed – from there what was already a tough-task looked near undoable.

With incremental differences often making or breaking Indy entries, Alonso’s car just didn’t seem right once it was repaired, and the F1 legend struggled to find the speed needed to qualify.

“Alonso lost out by 0.019mph”

The effort was further stymied by a puncture on an early run and the discovery that the team had been calculating its set-up measurements in imperial units when it should have been using metric.

Come Bump Day, a rain delay meant that the six slowest cars would only be given one shot each to fill out the final three places on the grid.

Alonso was beaten by the minnow one-car Juncos team and their driver Kyle Kaiser, using a chassis that was largely white due to losing two major sponsors on the eve of the event. The F1 legend lost out by 0.019mph.

“I tried. I tried my best,” Alonso said.

“We didn’t give you a car that was fast enough,” said the late sporting director and Indy legend Gil de Ferran afterwards in a strained press conference.

“You drove like the champion you are. We couldn’t have asked anything more from you. I am sorry, man. You are an amazing driver.”