This message is for all the naysayers who were certain the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race would consist of fewer than 33 cars: wrong!
When the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval opened for final qualifying at the crack of noon there were drivers in line to take four timed laps around the famed Brickyard circuit.
Jones called the events of the past week - being announced as the driver last Sunday and then being unable to take to the track until late Saturday, turning all of 36 laps - "emotional. Just looking back over the years thinking about how many years we wasted not being here for whatever reasons, you know it's pretty special," Jones declared.
His father Parnelli Jones, the 1963 Indy 500 winner was a bit tearful, according to his namesake son. After all, PJ is driving "for the same [Agajanian] family my Dad drove for. This is a pretty cool opportunity," Jones grinned. "Having the opportunity to paint the car the way my Dad's was and the opportunity to have the same number doesn't all fall into sync very often."
Storm clouds appeared to be gathering in central Indiana and the tech line got busier. Next out on the track, Marty Roth pushed his #25 Dallara/Toyota to an average of 211.974mph and got in the show. "It's been a long way to get to the 500 and I'm sure it hasn't sunk in yet."
Immediately after Roth's run, 1996 Indy 500 champ Buddy Lazier took to the track in his #91 LifeFitness Dallara/Chevy from the Dreyer & Reinbold/'Hemelgarn conglomeration and turned four laps at 215.110mph. "I'm certainly I've never qualified with so much downforce" in his Indy 500 career.
"The car is really good and this is definitely our race car. I think they would have wrung my neck if I would have pushed too hard take a bunch of downforce out (for qualifying). It's just so special to be in the race," Lazier admitted. "This is not the best of what will be our program. The best of what we're going to do, what we're all about is going to be race day."
Racking up 21 laps late yesterday afternoon in the #12T Pioneer Dallara/Toyota for Mo Nunn Racing and another 48 today, Jeff Simmons went to the line and knocked out a quartet at 214.783mph. Simmons passed the fourth phase of his Rookie Orientation Program this morning and was ecstatic about making it into the show.
"It was a whirlwind 24 hours and I haven't had a moment to stop yet," Simmons remarked. "When we went out this morning I was much more comfortable in the car. It's just been tremendous, getting the car in the show solidly and now we're ready to focus on next weekend." Simmons, while boasting a long racing resume has never performed pit stops in his career. "I need to make sure I can get in and out of the pits quickly and also hit the marks every time."
After that run, and with cloud cover increasing by the minute and radar showing imminent thunderstorms, the track opened for practice once again. It was 12:35PM on Bump Day and there was Greg Ray, making his first appearance of the month in the #13 Renovac Panoz G Force/Honda. He got 20 laps in with a fast lap of 216.975mph before Richie Hearn's car came to the qualifying line.
Hearn, just one day into his stint driving the #33 Lucas Oil Products Panoz G Force/Toyota leased by Sam Schmidt for his former golfing buddy to pilot, ran four safe laps at 213.715mph. "I appreciate what Sam and the people from Lucas Oils have been able to do to give me a chance to get my fifth '500' here.
"This is one of the few tracks I enjoy driving; I respect the place but it doesn't scare me to where it keeps me from focusing on what I need to do," the Henderson, NV native said. "Every time I come here I feel I know I can do a good job. I just need to have the full month again." The last time Hearn had that luxury, 1996, he finished third in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
The cloud cover deepened once Hearn qualified and Robby McGehee, despite being unable to break 207mph in practice elected to take his chances in the #18 PDM Racing Dallara/Chevy. The St. Louis businessman turned four laps at 211.631mph, the slowest pace of the month for time trials. McGehee's first thought this morning: "I can't wait for this day to be over with good results. Just get me through this."
There was time for about six minutes of practice before the skies opened and the rain began. Would the day be done?
"There's only so many times a guy can call you before you can call him back and I got tired of listening to his voice mails," Stewart laughed. Was he playing possum? Would the track dry in time for Stewart to shakedown a car?
Nope, didn't happen. Even though the tow trucks cleaned the circuit and prepared it perfectly for a final hour of practice and/or qualifying, Robby McGehee was safe. Why? "Contractual obligations" were cited.
You see, Tony drives a Joe Gibbs Chevy in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup series for sponsor Home Depot. A.J. Foyt campaigns a Toyota engine in the IRL's IndyCar Series. But it sure was fun for everyone at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to think of the "what ifs".
And so, Robby Gordon remains the sole Cup driver to attempt the Double for 2004 and the field is set at 33 for the 88th Indianapolis 500. There are two former two-time winners: Al Unser Jr. and Helio Castroneves in the field of 33.
The 88th Indy 500 has eight rookies: the fastest is Kosuke Matsuura, starting ninth; the slowest is Marty Roth in 32nd. Three of those rookies, Jeff Simmons, PJ Jones and Roth qualified for their first 500 today under pressure-filled conditions.
While Honda weighed in with the fastest cars out there, this race is 200 laps long and doesn't always go to the fastest car. We've had a couple of weeks of intrigue and now the track goes dark until this coming Thursday, Carburetion Day, when 33 drivers and cars will be on track to shakedown their race cars for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
One half of the drama is finished; on May 30th part two ensues.