If you talk to an IndyCar fan about Bump Day, you’re going to get two very drastic responses. People are either super incredibly excited about the fact that we’re finally going to see cars bumped again, or they’re dreading the entire day of qualifying dedicated to seeing which drivers aren’t going to make it.
If you haven’t already guessed, I am firmly in the “Bump Day is very very bad” camp.
For those new to IndyCar or who just need a refresher, Bump Day is the name for one of the Indy 500's two days of qualifying (yes, two days). Back in the day, demand to run the 500 was so high that not everyone who showed up to Indianapolis would be allowed to race because it would just turn into chaos. So, they limited the field to 33 drivers and turned to a two-day quali format.
Today, Saturday, everyone in the field will have a chance to qualify their car. The fastest nine cars will be locked into place. The next 33 cars will be locked into place. On Sunday, those cars will run again to actually confirm where they’ll start. But this year, with 35 cars entering, two aren’t going to make it to that Sunday qualifying session.
This, my friends, is exceptionally terrible news.
I will acknowledge that a large part of my feelings stem from complete and total bias. I’ve defined my time in the motorsports world by embracing the title of Ultimate Backmarker Fan. I have a soft spot for all those cars showing up every weekend just to truck along at the back of the grid, doing their best which is unfortunately not quite enough. But they’re trying! And they need love too!
So as someone wholly committed to the slow cars on the grid and to a significant portion of the Indy 500 one-off drivers, there is a pretty solid chance that I’m going to be devastated by whoever they bump.
But hear me out: I’m also going to try to justify myself.
The fact that we even have Bump Day this year is good. It speaks to the exceptional upward momentum of the IndyCar Series over the past few years. Not only are people tuning in to watch, but so many people want to race that we actually have to tell some people, hey, sorry, no can do. That’s a massive change from the past few years, where the series was even struggling to get 33 cars on the starting grid, so the very extreme one-offs like Buddy Lazier would show up because he had a car and a spare weekend. The fact that 35 competitive, dedicated drivers are fighting for position? That’s awesome.
And it gives a reason for people to pay attention. That’s the drama of Bump Day! You tune in because anyone could theoretically be bumped! It can throw a massive monkey wrench into everyone’s pre-written storylines if a driver crashes or just can’t find the momentum. A top driver might not even start! For the past few years, there really wasn’t any pressing reason to watch Saturday’s qualifying. Everyone, at least, would start the race, so why bother? Now, you have a reason to watch in anticipation.
But all that forward momentum the series has been enjoying could be nipped in the bud as a result of today’s results.
See, Bump Day stems from tradition. In fact, most of the Indy 500 is centered around tradition. Normally a dirty word in any other racing series, “tradition” is given a free pass for the Month of May. And, to be fair, it results in some pretty unique stuff. Three straight weeks of race cars and parties and events in Indianapolis is really cool. Drinking milk post-race is, like, entirely unheard of. It draws out the fun and gives fans tons of time to participate in all the events they’ve known and loved from their childhood.
But Bump Day is one of those things that might just be a deal breaker.
It’s rare that a Penske driver won’t make the cut—but it could easily happen. And with legions of Newgarden, Power, Pagenaud, and Castroneves fans, the series could easily repel a fanbase it’s worked hard to develop. Part of the beauty of IndyCar is that most of the drivers are pretty down-to-earth. You might feel like you get to know them on a personal level. And it could be a real turn-off if suddenly this really great driver isn’t even going to have a chance to take part in the so-called biggest spectacle in racing.
“Well that’s why the one-offs are there!” I hear you cry. “It’s probably going to be one of them who gets bumped, so who cares?”
But it’s not that easy. A driver who gets bumped doesn’t just shrug their shoulders and say, “well, better luck next time!”
In this era, sponsorship is hard to find. Great drivers struggle to find full-time rides because they lack the money, and sponsoring a car is a commitment. You’re running the risk of making your company’s name look bad if you put it on the car of the wrong driver. Most of these one-offs have spent an entire year putting together a deal that could get them a chance to star in one race in hopes that someone with even more money will recognize their talent and help them get a foot in the door.
And if that driver gets bumped? That could be a career ended on the spot, just like that.
IndyCar has been trying for years to draw new teams into the mix. And this year, with Juncos, Carlin, and Harding coming into play—that could spell disaster for a team that’s worked so hard to finally make it into the big time. It’s awesome to have a strong starting field of 24 cars. It would be heartbreaking if the 2019 season was a step in the wrong direction as a result of a bumped driver.
It’s harsh. You might say it’s just the name of the game, and I’d understand. You can only field so many cars before it becomes a hazard, so I understand why there are limits. But Bump Day could have consequences that ripple through the next few years.