20 of the World's Best Racers Who Failed to Qualify for the Indianapolis 500

Emerson Fittipaldi after winning the 1993 Indy 500. He would later fail to qualify for the race.
Photo: Steve Swope (Getty Images)

The 2022 Indianapolis 500 won’t include “Bump Day” in its qualifying weekend — with 33 cars in this year’s field, there’s no need for last-chance qualifying to compete for a spot on the grid. Without the stressful excitement of Bump Day, we can afford to look back in history at some of the best racing drivers in the world who failed to qualify for the Indy 500.

As modern IndyCar fans will know, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway can be a cruel mistress to even the finest drivers in the world. Recent drivers who got bumped off the grid on Bump Day include Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso and current IndyCar championship contender Patricio O’Ward.

Sometimes, the car is bad. Sometimes, the driver just can’t get it together. Sometimes, an outside factor like bad weather ends a session before a driver can get a shot on the track. Let’s take a look back at those moments, and investigate how these world-class drivers failed to earn a spot at The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

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Juan Manuel Fangio

Juan Manuel Fangio at the Grand Prix of Paris, 1951
Photo: AFP (Getty Images)
  • Year: 1958
  • Legacy: 5-time Formula 1 World Champion
  • What Went Wrong: Fangio withdrew from the event after failing to get up to speed

When Juan Manuel Fangio arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1958, he did so to a massive amount of fanfare. He was already a celebrated F1 Champion, and he was one of motorsport’s most revered drivers. Unfortunately, his Kurtis Kraft machine just wasn’t up to par, and Fangio failed to reach a competitive speed. He withdrew from the event before he could be bumped from the starting grid and retired from racing that year.

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Graham Hill

Graham Hill after winning the 1963 Monaco Grand Prix
Photo: Express/Hulton Archive (Getty Images)
  • Year: 1963
  • Legacy: Two-time F1 World Champion, only winner of motorsport’s Triple Crown
  • What Went Wrong: Practice crash

1963 marked the first year that F1 drivers really started to take the Indy 500 by storm, and Graham Hill was one of the many who turned up to try his hand. Unfortunately, he was driving designer John Crosthwaite’s Harvey Aluminum Special, which was nicknamed the “roller skate car. Reports are mixed on why Hill didn’t race; some say he crashed the car and couldn’t wait in America for the machine to be repaired while others say he simply had other commitments in Europe to attend to. Whatever the case, Hill returned to the 500 to take victory in 1966.

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Emerson Fittipaldi

Emerson Fittipaldi during the 1972 Formula One season
Photo: John Downing/Daily Express/Hulton Archive (Getty Images)
  • Year: 1995
  • Legacy: Two-time F1 World Champion, two-time Indy 500 winner
  • What Went Wrong: Failure to reach speed

Emerson Fittipaldi’s legacy in open-wheel racing can’t be denied, but the mid-1990s were something of a disaster for the Brazilian. He attempted to qualify three different cars for the 1995 Indy 500 — two from Penske and one from Rahal — and ultimately failed to reach adequate speed. The following year, he suffered career-ending injuries at Michigan International Speedway.

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Giuseppe Farina

Giuseppe Farina after winning the 1950 International Trophy Race at Silverstone
Photo: Keystone (Getty Images)
  • Year: 1956
  • Legacy: 1950 F1 World Champion
  • What Went Wrong: Rained out of qualifying

Giuseppe Farina turned up to the 1956 Indy 500 with a Ferrari engine installed in a Kurtis Kraft chassis, but luck wasn’t on his side. Despite the fact that there were four whole entire days of qualifying, one day of rain meant that a handful of entrants never got a chance to hit the track. Farina was one of them. He returned in 1957 but struggled with the car, which he ultimately lost in a crash after another driver attempted to test it.

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Tazio Nuvolari

Tazio Nuvolari after winning an Ulster TT car race in Belfast, 1933
Photo: Chris Ware/Keystone (Getty Images)
  • Year: 1938
  • Legacy: 1932 Driver’s Champion, two-time winner of both the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio, winner of 24 Hours of Le Mans
  • What Went Wrong: Unclear

Records aren’t exactly clear about Tazio Nuvolari’s time in America. His appearance at the 1938 Indy 500 came with much fanfare, and we do know that he tested at least two cars during the Month of May. Why he didn’t make the race, though, is a mystery.

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Rene Dreyfus

Rene Dreyfus at the Grand Prix of Nimes, 1928
Image: Nimes Auto Retro / Wikimedia Commons
  • Year: 1940
  • Legacy: Monaco Grand Prix winner
  • What Went Wrong: Unable to reach speed

We’ve written much about Rene Dreyfus here on Jalopnik before, but as a Jewish driver, his Grand Prix career was cut short due to the onset of World War II, and his American team owner Lucy Schell brought him to the Indy 500, in part as a way to help him flee Europe. Dreyfus was one of two drivers who attempted to qualify in a Maserati, but he failed to reach proper speed and was bumped from the race.

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Pedro Rodriguez

Pedro Rodriguez at the Daily Mail Race of Champions, 1967
Photo: Getty
  • Year: 1963
  • Legacy: Victor at 24 Hours of Le Mans and 24 Hours of Daytona, F1 driver
  • What Went Wrong: Unable to reach speed

Pedro Rodriguez was one of motorsport’s most promising young drivers when he took on the 1963 Indy 500, but his Cooper-powered Aston Martin just wasn’t fast enough. Rodriguez failed to reach speed, and he was bumped from the field by Johnny Rutherford.

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Junior Johnson

Darrell Waltrip and Junior Johnson recreate an iconic victory lane photo
Photo: Jason Smith (Getty Images)
  • Year: 1963
  • Legacy: Daytona 500 winner, six-time NASCAR Cup Series Owner’s Champion
  • What Went Wrong: Unable to reach speed

Junior Johnson is better known as a NASCAR Cup Series team owner than he is for his racing career, but Johnson found a fair amount of success behind the wheel. He scored 50 victories in NASCAR, retiring as the era’s winningest driver to never win a championship. Unfortunately, his Indy 500 outing wasn’t exactly successful; he failed to reach adequate speed and was bumped from the field.

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Neil Bonnett

Neil Bonnett after winning the 1991 Goodwrench 500
Photo: BILL HALL/ALLSPORT (Getty Images)
  • Year: 1979
  • Legacy: 18-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner
  • What Went Wrong: Rained out, withdrew

Neil Bonnett may not be NASCAR’s winningest driver, but he’s fondly remembered for his skill behind the wheel — something he tried to display by competing in the 1979 Indy 500. Unfortunately, rain washed out his opportunity to qualify, so Bonnett withdrew from the race, never to return.

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Hurley Haywood

The Dauer Porsche 962LM driven by Hurley Haywood, Mauro Baldi, and Yannick Dalmas at the 1994 24 Hours of Le Mans
Photo: Pascal Rondeau (Getty Images)
  • Year: 1979
  • Legacy: Five-time Daytona 24 winner, three-time Le Mans 24 winner, two-time Sebring 12 Hour winner, IMSA GT and Trans-Am Champion
  • What Went Wrong: Didn’t complete qualifying

A legend of the endurance racing scene, Hurley Haywood also made a few starts in open-wheel racing. His attempt to qualify for the 1979 Indy 500, though, wasn’t exactly a great one. The No. 51 that Haywood attempted to qualify in was originally slated as Johnnie Parsons’ No. 15. Haywood, however, didn’t complete qualifying and therefore didn’t make it into the race.

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Willy T. Ribbs

Willy T. Ribbs at the 1990 Long Beach Grand Prix
Photo: Ken Levine (Getty Images)
  • Year: 1994
  • Legacy: 17-time Trans-Am winner, NASCAR and IndyCar racer
  • What Went Wrong: Waved off for being too slow

Willy T. Ribbs will go down in history as the first Black driver to test a Formula One car and to attempt to qualify for the Indy 500 — though his success at the latter track left a lot to be desired. Ribbs withdrew from the 1985 Indy 500 after failing to reach the same speeds as the other rookies, but he made two starts in 1991 and 1993. His final effort at the world’s biggest open-wheel event, though, came in 1994, when he tried to make the race just before the end of qualifying. He was waved off for being too slow.

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Scott Pruett

Scott Pruett at IndyCar’s Surfers Paradise event, 1996
Photo: David Taylor/Allsport (Getty Images)
  • Year: 1993
  • Legacy: Victor at 12 Hours of Sebring and Daytona 24, 24 Hours of Le Mans class winner
  • What Went Wrong: Too slow

If it has four wheels, Scott Pruett has probable driven it. The American driver is probably best known for his endurance racing success, but in 1993, Pruett failed to make the race. He was one of the slowest rivers in the field and was ultimately bumped from the field because he simply wasn’t fast enough to compete.

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Bill Vukovich

Bill Vukovich’s Indy 500-winning car, as seen in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum
Photo: Doctorindy / Wikimedia Commons
  • Year: 1950
  • Legacy: Two-time Indy 500 winner
  • What Went Wrong: Unable to make speed

Bill Vukovich is a legend of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but his first attempt at making the legendary 500 went poorly. In 1950, he failed to qualify two different cars — a Maserati and a Rounds Rocket-Offenhauser — because he was unable to reach adequate speed.

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Al Unser, Sr.

Al Unser Sr., as featured in a 1978 advertisement
Photo: Hulton Archive (Getty Images)
  • Year: 1994
  • Legacy: Four-time Indy 500 winner, three-time IndyCar Champion
  • What Went Wrong: Retired

Al Unser Sr. is an American motorsport icon who has competed in everything from open-wheel machines to stock cars to endurance racers. He competed in the Indy 500 for three decades, during which time he scored one pole position and a record-tying four wins — but his final outing in 1994 ended in retirement before the race. It was a fitting passing of the torch, as his son Al Unser Jr. not only secured pole position but also won the race.

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Al Unser, Jr.

Al Unser Jr. at the 1992 Long Beach Grand Prix
Photo: Mike Powell (Getty Images)
  • Year: 1995
  • Legacy: Two-time Indy 500 winner, two-time IndyCar Champion
  • What Went Wrong: Failed to reach speed

Just one year after securing his second win at the 500, Al Unser Jr. failed to qualify for the race. He simply couldn’t get his car up to speed, and it signaled a downturn in his performance. In the seven following 500s, Unser Jr. finished in the top 10 only once.

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Tom Sneva

Tom Sneva photographed in pit lane
Photo: Ted Van Pelt / Wikimedia Commons
  • Year: 1973, 1991
  • Legacy: Three-time USAC Championship Car Champion, Indy 500 winner
  • What Went Wrong: Unable to make speed

Indy 500 victor and former math teacher Tom Sneva failed to qualify for the race twice: once in 1973 and again in 1991. He failed to make speed for both events, first due to inexperience and later during a slowing-down of his career. Interestingly, after his 1983 victory, Sneva never finished a 500 again.

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Rick Mears

Rick Mears at the 1990 Long Beach Grand Prix
Photo: Ken Levine/Allsport (Getty Images)
  • Year: 1977
  • Legacy: Four-time Indy 500 winner, three-time CART Champion
  • What Went Wrong: Unable to make speed

As with many of the other stories on this list, Rick Mears failed to qualify for the first Indy 500 he ever entered thanks to a mediocre car and a lack of speed. Perhaps most fascinating, though, is that Mears’ first 500 entry was also the event where A. J. Foyt won for a record-setting fourth time. Mears would go on to match that record in 1991.

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Gary Bettenhausen

Gary Bettenhausen removes his helmet at the inaugural US 500
Photo: MATT CAMPBELL/AFP (Getty Images)
  • Year: 1979, 1983, 1984, 1988, 1994
  • Legacy: Two-time Sprint Car Champion, two-time USAC Silver Crown Champion
  • What Went Wrong: Unable to make speed

Gary Bettenhausen was a second-generation racer whose father, Tony Bettenhausen, took an impressive second place in the 1955 Indy 500. The younger driver, though, never had that kind of luck; despite a third-place finish in 1980, Gary Bettenhausen also failed to qualify for the event a whopping five times. He wasn’t able to get up to speed in two different cars in 1979. He was waved off and unable to set a time in 1983, 1984, and 1988. And in 1994, he crashed during practice and was never able to get back up to speed.

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Gordon Johncock

Gordon Johncock races at Pocono
Photo: Ted Van Pelt / Wikimedia Commons
  • Year: 1988
  • Legacy: Two-time Indy 500 winner, USAC Championship Trail Champion
  • What Went Wrong: Bumped, unable to make speed

Gordon Johncock’s two victories were no match for the competition in 1988. On Bump Day, Johncock did manage to bump other drivers, but he was in turn bumped by Rich Vogler. Johncock’s performance at the 500 hadn’t totally run out, though; two years later, he scored an impressive sixth-place finish.

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Johnnie Parsons

Johnnie Parsons’ 1950 Indy 500-winning car
Photo: Doctorindy / Wikimedia Commons
  • Year: 1957
  • Legacy: 1950 Indy 500 winner
  • What Went Wrong: Unable to make speed

While Johnnie Parsons initially failed to qualify for the 1957 Indy 500, he did still manage to start the race and finish 16th. How? He was selected as replacement driver for Dick Rathmann, who had qualified the car but was deemed unable to drive after being mugged. It highlights a unique quirk of the Indy 500: Cars, not drivers, qualify for a race, which means the driver that qualifies doesn’t necessarily have to be the driver that takes the green flag.

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