Bump Day: Boat hangs on

Billy Boat endured a tense final hour of qualifying in the Indy 500's Bump day to eventually make the field of the big race on May 27

Bump Day: Boat hangs on

Boat was the "Bubble Boy" in the Indianapolis 500 - the next driver in line to get bumped out of the race with 48 minutes remaining. Eight drivers took 12 qualification attempts, but none could knock Boat out of the race.

"We went out at 5pm and started taking bullets," Boat said. "Every time somebody clicked off a 221 (miles per hour) it was like taking a punch in the stomach. Right away, two guys got in and we were on the bubble. To sit there for 48 minutes seemed like eternity."

For the second year in a row, Billy Boat was the story of Bump Day at the Indianapolis 500. Last year, he was the last driver to get into the field when he left pit lane with 45 seconds remaining and bumped his way into the race.

"It's a night and day difference," Boat said. "Last year, when I was in the race car, I knew what I had to do. I was focused and went out and did my job. This year, I was sitting on a golf cart helpless."

On Sunday, he qualified earlier in the day, the first driver to make a qualification attempt, in fact. He turned a four-lap average of 221.433 miles per hour at 12 noon and became the 33rd qualifier to make the field.

After that, the bump process began where the slowest driver in the field was on the bubble. Fast and furious, Eliseo Salazar got into the race with a 223.740-mph four-lap average to knock Roberto Guerrero out of the race. Donnie Beechler put the third AJ Foyt entry into the field when he turned the fifth-fastest overall four-lap average at 224.449 mph.

After Raul Boesel qualified for Treadway Racing and Airton Dare re-entered the field in a back-up car, the fun part of Bump Day began. That's when deals were being made in Gasoline Alley as drivers and teams become desperate to get into the race.

As Bump Day entered its final hour, Navajo Indian Cory Witherill was the first to make a qualification attempt. He turned the fastest laps of the month at 221.621 mph over four laps to bump Shigeaki Hattori. Stephan Gregoire then bumped Felipe Giaffone out of the race with a four-lap average of 222.888 mph.

That put Boat on the bubble.

When the last punch was thrown as Memo Gidley started his qualification attempt just seconds before the gun was fired to close qualifications, Boat could sneer at his opponents and ask, "Is that all you've got?"

"It was almost a do or die for us to get in this race," Boat said. "We needed to put this car in the race and to be so close to not doing it is scary. The thing about Indianapolis in this last hour, there is no guarantee that anybody can't run click. Anything can happen and we were somewhat helpless at this point to take the punches and roll with them. I was in the car and once we pulled out of the qualifying line in my back-up car the last time, we were done. We were up against some tough guys and we still held up. It's a great feeling to make this race."

Boat's Bump Day heroics concluded two weekends of qualifications, which has produced the closest field in Indianapolis history. Only 3.2422 seconds separates pole winner Scott Sharp's speed of 226.037 to Boat's 221.528 mph. In 1999, the field spread was 3.695 seconds from pole winner Arie Luyendyk to Wim Eyckmans.

"You can go from being in the race to missing the race in just a tenth of a second," Boat said. "This team really stood behind us. It's really scary when you turn down a ride from AJ Foyt and you sit on the bubble for nearly an hour. We were just able to get it done. Last year, we were on the other side of it when we took the last shot and got it in that way. It's a lot harder when you are sitting there watching guys one after one take a shot at you. You never know what can happen here with somebody taking a quick lap at any time.

"It's an incredible feeling to make the Indy 500. It's the biggest race in the world and it keeps getting tougher and tougher to make."

Boat spent most of the day in the garage watching the events unfold on television. Every few minutes, someone would come in and inform the driver who was getting in which car.

"Kenny Brack got paged in the garage area," Boat said of the 1999 Indy 500 winner who now drives in CART. "All these crazy things were going on. You never know what can happen here in the final hour. This one rates the most intense by far. This was worse than last year. We had no control there at the end."

Boat was the pole winner for the 1998 Indianapolis 500 when he drove for team owner AJ Foyt. He had a chance to drive for Foyt this year, but Boat wanted to do his own deal, drive for his own team which is also owned by Greg Beck, along with the sons of famed Indianapolis 500 team owner JC Agajanian - Cary, JC Jr and Chris.

JC Agajanian came to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time as a team owner in 1948 with Johnny Mantz as his driver.

"We are very happy and very proud to run the number 98," Boat said. "The Agajanian name has a huge history with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I'm very proud to carry those colours and that number into the race. I think their father, JC was upstairs looking after us."

Sixty-year-old Cary Agajanian is a Southern California lawyer who had been involved in racing most of his life. His foray into team ownership provided some tense times this month at Indy. "I think this is probably the most tension that I've ever seen anybody go through because I don't ever remember at least eight or 10 guys having a shot at the guy on the bubble," Agajanian said. "We've seen two or three guys take a shot at somebody on the bubble, but nothing like this. That's what the IRL has done. It's brought so many good cars so close together that it's just the height of drama. I've never seen anything like this.

"I started coming in 1959. It's 42 years for me, and 52 years for our family. We've been on Bump Days before. I've never seen Bump Days with tension like this. I don't know how Billy stood up there."

Boat was offered the same car that Robby Gordon qualified for the outside of the front row by team owner AJ Foyt last month to run for this team.

"I'd be lying if when Robby Gordon was out there qualifying, I was sitting in my car and those thoughts went through my head," Boat said. "I had full confidence this race team could get it down. When I turned down AJ that was the hardest decision I had to make. You know AJ's cars are always fast here. But this was about the future. We want to take This Curb Records team into the future and run the entire Indy Racing League season. I was willing to take that gamble.

"There were times I was worried, but it turned out OK."

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