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Pole/Bump Weekend Was Mostly Good

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 22 2018

Driver Pippa Mann provided some of the Bump Day heartbreak for which Bump Day is known. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

It seems to get more and more difficult to issue attaboys to American racing series these days: It’s tough to pat somebody on the back when you are using your hands to scratch your head.

But over the weekend, thanks to the good old Indianapolis 500, it became easy to rekindle a bit of love with auto racing all over again.

Up until Friday, the Month of May at Indy had been if not exhilarating, then at least interesting. Watching teams shake out the new spec chassis, watching those teams taking turns trying different approaches at developing speed, was kind of cool. But gripping? Not.

Then came Friday’s news that INDYCAR officials had decided to increase the boost on the Honda and Chevrolet turbochargers. The result was several teams breaking the 230 mph mark.

The difference between 227 mph and 230 may not seem all that significant. But when it comes to being a fan of the 500, it’s huge.

For those race fans who grew up in the Midwest – and, one suspects, other areas of the country where the smell of hot Castrol was akin to the smell of bacon frying – the Month of May was every bit as thrilling as the month of December.

It meant the opening of the garages at IMS, day after day of practices, qualifying and finally, the 500 itself.

But in recent years, three things have been missing from the Month of May that made the Month of May seem much less thrilling than the Months of May of the good old days.

The first thing missing from action has been mechanical innovation.  For most of the 20th Century, one of the allures of Indy was watching the cars being pushed down Gasoline Alley for the first time and seeing what bizarre/creative things engineers and mechanics had done to make their cars go faster than everybody else’s.

Over the years, innovations included everything from moving the engine to the rear of the chassis to the Granatelli turbines. Prehaps the last great stunner came in 1994 when Team Penske rolled out the PC 23Bs, which, going against the grain, were powered by Mercedes pushrod engines.

But as the costs of racing rose disastrously near the end of the century, and crowds began to thin, innovation was sacrificed to the gods of budgeting and level playing fields. That’s understandable, but it’s too bad fans will never again be treated to the sight of something like the Pat Clancy Special six-wheeler being un-trailered at Indy.

The second thing missing from action has been the thrill of watching new track records being set during qualifying and the third thing missing has been the excitement of Bump Day.

The increase in turbo boost in no way produced the month long assaults on speed records at Indy, but it at least provided a couple of ‘yes’ moments and gave a welcome touch to the nostalgia bone. It would be great were officials to deem it safe to tune the engines up to a point where they would actually challenge track records again in the future, but, well safety first.

An actual Bump Day returned this year, albeit one held out of sequence – in the golden era, Pole Day preceeded Bump Day while this year, it was the other way around because of the Fast Nine format.

Bump Day once featured almost as much intensity as the 500 itself. Teams worked on cars for almost an entire year before the 500 and drivers looked forward to May liked they looked forward to getting their first driver’s license..

The joy and relief of bumping ones way into the field, the gut rendering feelings of being bumped out of town as 6 p.m. approached offered big human drama. On Saturday, it was again. The look on the faces of driver James Hinchcliffe and team owner Sam Schmidt were killer.

Though one could easily put this whole Fast Nine thing in the category of gimmick, it did deliver excitement on Sunday. If only three-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves, the final driver to make a pole run, could have made things a bit more memorable by mounting a better charge at Ed Carpenter’s speed.

Overall up to this point in the Month of May at Indy; attaboy INDYCAR.

The big flaw during qualifying weekend was the not fault of the series. It was the fault of the source of much frustration among American sports fans – television.

ABC’s telecast produced two significant frustrations; both on Saturday.

The first involved commercial breaks. Specifically breaks inserted as Bump Day action came to a head. By unofficial count, 6 of the final 12 minutes and 12 seconds of bumping action were covered up by commercials. It was reminiscent of an SNL sketch in which a local TV news talking head says, like: Our top story tonight, the president is assassinated – but president of what? We’ll tell you after this word from our sponsor.

The second involved driver interviews. There was just one – that with Hinchcliffe who was bumped – after the gun went off and then the red lights on the ABC cameras.

Yikes.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, May 22 2018
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