MILLER: Heroes of Bump Day

Images courtesy of Greg Littleton

MILLER: Heroes of Bump Day

IndyCar

MILLER: Heroes of Bump Day

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This should be qualifying weekend at Indianapolis, so to honor this dramatic part of American motorsports history, here are three ballsy stories of Bump Days gone by that illustrate what a driver was willing to do under the gun. And thanks to Greg Littleton’s book The Race to Make The Race for bringing them to my attention.

In 1954, likable Bob Scott thought he had his third-straight starting line-up made until he was bumped with 90 minutes to go. So he began looking for something to drive, and wound up with the Ray Brady Special.

Earlier in the month this car had been described as a “Model T” by Ernie McCoy before he got out of it, and there wasn’t a big line waiting to hop in it. But Scott, despite never having sat in the car, was game and pulled away at 5:51 p.m. to try and do the impossible.

The bump speed was 137.673mph (Frank Armi) and Scott’s first flyer was an “astounding” 138.419 mph (according to The Indianapolis Times). His second lap was even faster at 139.018mph and Bob Sweikert ran out to the pit wall to cheer on his pal. Lap 3 was down to 136.778mph, but his average speed was still plenty fast enough.

Scott supposedly saw Sweikert with his hands clasped over his head in a victory salute as he completed Lap 3 and the crew jumping up and down while the grandstands were standing and screaming.

But then came the unthinkable. Instead of finishing his run, Scott slowed and pulled into the pits, mistakenly thinking his third lap had been his fourth. Armi had been spared, but the 25-year-old Californian was inconsolable for the next two hours as he wept openly in his garage about his mistake and apologized 100 times to his crew.

It turned out to be his last hurrah at IMS, because he was killed two months later when Indy cars raced at Darlington.

A similar scenario developed in 1957, when Chuck Weyant was bumped with 25 minutes remaining in time trials. Weyant had changed into his street clothes and was preparing to head back to Springfield, Ill., when a friend ran into his garage and told him that Pete Salemi’s Central Excavating Special was near the head of the qualifying line with no driver.

So Weyant sprinted out to the pits, and after introducing himself to crew chief Andy Dunlop, climbed into the four-year-old car he’d never turned a lap in and roared off to tempt fate at 5:50 p.m.

Rookie George Amick was on the bubble at 139.443mph but got his heart ripped out when Weyant (pictured above celebrating afterward) strung together an amazingly fast and consistent run of four laps at 141mph!

“We changed the gear, poured in a little nitro and prayed,” said Dunlop to The Indianapolis News.

Added Weyant: “I drove it down in the corners pretty deep and it felt good so I kept my foot in it.”

His crew makes plain what they thought of Jim Hurtubise’s Bump Day heroics in a completely unfamiliar car in 1962. Image courtesy of Greg Littleton

By the time 1962 rolled around, Jim Hurtubise had become one of the fastest, most fearless and popular racers at the Speedway after shattering the track record as a rookie in 1960 and then leading the first 33 laps of the 1961 race from the outside of Row 1.

Herk was back in the Demler Special in ’62 but the month had been a disaster as he crashed heavily twice –  the second time on the third day of qualifying – and wiped out the car. Because of his status, teams that hadn’t made the show were offering him $1,000 to jump in their car for the final day of time trials, and he accepted Joe Hunt’s offer.

At 4:30, Hurtubise went out and ran a damn good warm-up lap of 147mph, but didn’t take the green and pulled in because he didn’t like how the car felt and wanted to make a couple of adjustments. But he didn’t calculate the long line of cars in the qualifying line, and suddenly realized he wouldn’t have enough time to go back out in Hunt’s No. 47.

So, he started car hunting and chose Jim Robbins’ roadster, an original A.J. Watson creation modified by Floyd Trevis. He’d had zero laps in No. 97, but  his buddy Parnelli Jones leaned in and gave him some encouragement before Herk took to the track with 15 minutes remaining.

The whole Speedway (with the understandable exception of Ronnie Duman, his crew and family, since he was on the bubble at 145.908mph) was rooting for the kid from North Tonawanda, N.Y., to do something special, and he didn’t disappoint. His four-lap average of 146.963mph turned out to be the 15th fastest of the 33 qualifiers.

“I feel like a race driver again,” he told Jep Cadou of The Indianapolis Star after his run. “It’s been a long month and I need a beer.”

Of course, those were the days when a race driver’s whole year usually depended on making the show at Indy. The 40 percent he could earn from the purse outweighed any logic or fear of going out to qualify with no practice in a strange car and the clock ticking.

It was the risk of their profession, and they were more than willing to take them.

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