Shortly after the gun sounded to end qualification attempts on Bump Day, Ryan Hunter-Reay squeezed enough out of the month-long nemesis that was his #21 car to best Alex Tagliani by a couple bazillionths of a mile-per-hour. 220.597 mph was his average. In the Vision Racing pits there was much rejoicing, while down pit road Tagliani sat in his car - which was next in line for qualifications - weeping silently to himself in the knowledge that like Stanton Barrett and Buddy Lazier he would not be participating in the festivities on May 24th.
The sad truth is Tags should have been in the final list of qualifiers, because earlier in the day as he was turning practice laps well in excess of 221 mph - a speed that three qualified drivers did not achieve. But while throughout the day Mike Conway, Tomas Scheckter, and others were withdrawing qualified times and improving them with help from the better weather conditions, Conquest Racing decided to sit on Tagliani's average speed of 220.553 mph from Saturday.
Ooh, I'm sorry. That's not the correct answer. Thank you for playing, though.
At the time it appeared the Conquest team could take some solace in the fact that Bruno Junqueira, who only this weekend reached a deal to drive their second entry and qualified it safely after turning but a dozen practice laps. They could rally around a proven driver like Junky, who back in '02 (a race getting WAY too much discussion these days) managed to claim the pole position for this very race.
Except, that's not what Conquest Racing is doing. From the press release:
Conquest Racing announced late Sunday night that they will be replacing Bruno Junqueira aboard the #36 Conquest entry with the team's primary driver Alex Tagliani for this year's Indianapolis 500.
Yes, that's right - Conquest is pulling a switcheroo, swapping out the driver who did get in for the driver who didn't. Thanks for the memories, Bruno, and we have some lovely parting gifts for you.
According to the same press release, Bruno is taking it well, saying "I knew coming into this that Alex is Conquest's primary driver and that if something happened to the first car that I would likely give him my place and I completely understand it." I don't know if that's him or a poor, beleaguered PR person talking there, but either way this is a mess. Conquest has very tangible reasons like sponsorship concerns for punting Junqueira, as owner Eric Bachelart explained.
"(Alex) simply fell victim to exceptional circumstances. That's how the magic of Indy works sometimes; it can be good or bad. We've been working with Alex for a long time now and have built our commercial and marketing program around him. He has been our primary driver since the start of the season and we felt that it was in the best interest of the team and our partners to have him in the car for the Indy 500 as we continue to build our future together."
Anyhow, despite Bruno's gracious words savvy fans who watched qualifications know he qualified and Tagliani didn't, and that Tagliani's first ever trip into the Field of 33 will not represent an accomplishment for him as much as an injustice towards another driver who impressively turned a dozen laps and put that car in the show. Of course that's an oversimplification as Tagliani worked with team members all month to try to get the car up to speed, but go tell that to Bruno right now.
UPDATE: More to the story is added by From John Oreovicz at ESPN.com:
Certainly, Junqueira deserves to be in the field as well after what may go down as one of the most remarkable qualifying performances in the long history of the Indianapolis 500.And Robin Miller of SPEED:
Forty-two hours before he successfully qualified, Junqueira's entry was little more than a bare tub. Confirmation of his deal came at about 7 p.m. Friday, leading to an all-nighter for a combination of a few Conquest mechanics and a couple helpers recruited from the dormant Roth Racing team.
"I'm not happy with the situation and obviously it's very upsetting but I think Eric must have had some big money reasons to do it," said Junqueira late Sunday evening.And Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun:
"I put my butt on the line today, did a good job and was very happy because Alex and I were both in the race. Now I don't feel very happy."
Fool No. 1 on the property was owner Eric Bachelart's team, which pulled the Canadian driver out of the line twice in the final 19 minutes of time trials to make it into the 33-car field.
He didn't even get on the track. Which is to say "Rexall Edmonton Indy" didn't even get one trip around the track in the final hour of the Bump Day telecast.