IRL: Indy500: Whirlwind week ends with dramatic spot for Steve Knapp

INDIANAPOLIS, Sunday, May 21, 2000 -- There's nothing in sports like the final hour of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. A last-second shot in a basketball game or a touchdown pass on the final play doesn't begin to compare. ...

INDIANAPOLIS, Sunday, May 21, 2000 -- There's nothing in sports like the final hour of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. A last-second shot in a basketball game or a touchdown pass on the final play doesn't begin to compare. Often the careers and livelihoods of drivers and teams depend on squeezing into the 33-car starting field. It means driving at outlandish speeds and putting the car on the very edge for four laps adding up to 10 miles and lasting about 160-plus seconds, trying to bump the slowest car from the field. But the most amazing happening during the heart-pounding final 60 minutes Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the qualifying run of Steve Knapp, 1998 Indianapolis Bank One Rookie of the Year. Knapp crashed last July in an Indy Racing Northern Light Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He suffered a broken vertebrae in his neck and, at age 36, contemplated ending his driving career. He didn't have a ride and wasn't seeking one this year. He also was depressed over the January testing accident in which driver Sam Schmidt suffered paralysis. Then Knapp read where CART drivers Juan Montoya and Jimmy Vasser and NASCAR driver Robby Gordon were going to compete at Indianapolis. His competitive juices started to flow. Then his closest friend, Bruce May, a Formula Ford driver who lived in Plainfield, Ind., died of a heart attack last week. Knapp came from his Wisconsin home to Indianapolis for the funeral on May 14, Opening Day for the Indianapolis 500. After the service, he drove to the nearby Speedway and visited with Mitch Davis, his Indy Racing crew chief when he drove for ISM Racing. Davis now is team manager for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, which fields a car for Indy Racing Northern Light Series points leader Robbie Buhl. "I was in such a bummer state over Bruce that the only people I talked to were Mitch and my cousin (Tom Knapp, team manager for Team Menard) and went home," he said. "I went back to work (engine-building business) for three days, and on Wednesday I called Mitch to see what was going on. He told me maybe there was a chance here and what would have to take place in order for it to come together. "I started thinking about it. Bruce May, he would want me to be here now. He actually spotted for me last year in this race." Knapp returned to the track knowing that first he would have to wait for Buhl to qualify in the Dreyer & Reinbold team's Oldsmobile-powered primary car. Then Knapp would have a chance to put Buhl's Infiniti-powered backup car into the field with little practice. Eddie Cheever Jr., 1998 Indianapolis 500 champion, has the only other Infiniti in the lineup. Knapp pulled his Team Purex Dreyer & Reinbold Racing G Force/Infiniti/ Firestone onto the asphalt racing surface at 5:23 p.m. This was it, because there would be no other opportunity for him. Six cars pulled into the qualifying line behind Knapp, and Davis said, "You'd better do it now." For two minutes, 43.421 seconds, Knapp brought the storied 2.5-mile oval to its knees. Knapp turned consecutive laps of 220.372, 220.496, 220.286 and 220.006 mph to average an outstanding - considering the pressure - 220.290. That puts him in 27th starting position. "It was like, 'Man, I want to be in the race,'" Knapp said, "because I know I should be here. I've always had the confidence in myself. Now I'm in, and it still hasn't even sunk in, because this day has been a huge whirlwind. "My business I have is so pressure-packed every day because you're meeting deadlines and everything," he said. "This is almost relaxing. "I don't mean it in a laid-down kind of mode. When you're out there, it's just a totally different universe. It's like you penetrate out of this world and go into somewhere else. It's hard to describe. "I remember when I was doing the qualifying run how calm I was breathing. Not gripping the wheel very hard. I was out there just having a nice Sunday drive." But it wasn't that simple. It took doctoring on the bottom of his racing shoes and planting his left foot over on the right to keep the throttle to the floor. Knapp, one of the tallest drivers, said his ankle was so far extended on full throttle that he had to think about keeping his foot all the way to floor. So a thin strip of aluminum and similar strip of plastic were glued to the bottom of his right shoe. "You need to be able to be comfortable running flat and you can't be having to think about little things like that," he said. "It made a big difference. I picked up 5 miles per hour with one, and 2 more with the other." The heel of his left shoe had to be sanded down so it would fit in the car. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he said about getting a new pair of shoes for the race. "I'll figure out something. I'm sure something will make me comfortable." Knapp is driving with a piece of his ankle bone grafted in his neck. During his recovery from surgery after his Atlanta accident, whenever he bent his head forward he was charged with electrical energy. He even had trouble eating. The problem was uncovered, and therapy has helped eliminate it. Knapp may have been calm, cool and collected after making the Indianapolis 500 field in stunning fashion. But you can believe there will be an unbelievable electrical charge in Victory Lane if he completes his incredible comeback by winning the race, too.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Robby Gordon , Eddie Cheever , Robbie Buhl , Jimmy Vasser , Sam Schmidt , Steve Knapp
Teams Dreyer & Reinbold Racing