The Racing Capital
of the World
May 19, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
By the numbers, when the weekend began, it appeared Michel Jourdain Jr. would be in the 33-car starting lineup for the 97th Indianapolis 500. After all, with 33 driver-and-car combination entered in the race, all he had to do was make a qualification attempt, and he would be starting in the Indy 500 on Sunday, May 26.
That was before Katherine Legge became the 34th driver when her deal was announced Saturday at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
By the time Old National Armed Forces Bump Day was over, Legge essentially gave Jourdain the boot.
“I haven’t slept in three days, I’m not going to lie,” Legge said. “I need a drink right now. It is amazing what has happened the past few days. I feel bad for Michel – it would have been nice if it had been a fair fight, and he had a chance to qualify. But I and thankful I’m in and have a lot of thank yous to give. It was very stressful.”
No, she didn’t actually bump him out of the race because she was the driver that spent most of Sunday on the “bubble” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after she ran a four-lap qualification average of 223.176 mph in the No. 81 Angie’s List Schmidt Peterson Pelfrey Honda. When Jourdain was unable to get the No. 17 Office Depot Honda fast enough to even make a qualification attempt, Legge was safely in the race.
That left Rahal and Jourdain struggling to understand why their car got slower as qualifications neared an end.
“It shouldn’t have been a contest, frankly,” team co-owner Bobby Rahal said. “It’s a mystery, for sure. I feel bad for Michel. Something happened along the line in the last day or so that made the car very difficult to drive. Having been there before in 1993, I know how he feels. I’m sure it is disappointing. We are going to do a big investigation as to what is wrong with the car because we put Graham’s setup on what he liked earlier in the week. There is something wrong with the car somewhere or something has been done to it where it is not the way it is supposed to be.
“I feel bad, but I’m not going to ask him to hang it out and potentially hurt himself. No race is worth that. It’s a shame, but I can commiserate with him because I’ve been there, and I know what it feels like.”
Rahal even put the nose and underwing from his son’s car, but the Graham Rahal pieces didn’t solve the problem. He thinks there may be a structural failure in the car – the same car that Mike Conway drove for RLL in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April.
“I hate to guess what is going on, but I’m sure we did everything we could do to get his car in the race,” Rahal said. “We heard the rumor that there would be a 34th entry in this race. We had to be prepared either way.”
In life, they say, “Two out of three ain’t bad.” But don’t tell that to a team owner in the Indianapolis 500. Two of Rahal’s three cars made it into the starting lineup, including Graham Rahal, who will start 26th after running a four-lap average of 225.007 mph in the No. 15 Midas/Big O Tires Honda. James Jakes made the field on Pole Day and will start 20th after running a four-lap average of 225.809 mph in the No. 16 Acorn Stairlifts Honda.
“Graham was 29th two years ago and finished third,” Bobby Rahal said. “My last two years here, I started in the back row and finished third both years. If you have a good race car, it doesn’t matter where you start.”
While Bobby Rahal and Jourdain lamented what might have been, Legge was looking forward to a chance to finally get some sleep.
“I haven’t slept in three days,” Legge said after climbing out of her race car when Jourdain aborted his qualification dreams with 16 minutes left on Bump Day. She had been sitting in her car in a black firesuit with the hot Indiana sun beating down on her for nearly an hour, ready to hit the track in case Jourdain was able to bump her out of the field. Instead of getting onto the race course, the car never left its pit area.
“We trimmed her out and were going to go do it having not done that before but we were ready,” Legge said. “Obviously, it’s not nice to do it in that manner; I feel bad for Michel because he has had issues. It’s never good to go out like that. You want it to be a fair fight. The run we did earlier was a banker lap, really. It was maybe 20 laps in for me for this month. I’m relieved and looking forward to Carb Day now.”
Legge competes in the American Le Mans Series in the unique DeltaWing car and didn’t have a deal with team owner Sam Schmidt until Saturday morning. She ran her first laps in the car in the morning practice session when she hit the track at 9:04 a.m.
“No pressure,” Legge said jokingly after practice. “I’m just really fortunate I’m with such a good team. Simon Pagenaud and the engineers and Tristan Vautier (her teammates at Schmidt Peterson) have done a really good job setting the car up so far. It’s tight on time. I’m not going to lie; I was freaking out this morning. We just have to work through things in a very organized way. The team has just been incredible. So I’m relatively happy right now. I think I’ll be happier at the end of the day when we’ve put her in the field but it’s a challenge.”
After 1996 Indy 500 winner Buddy Lazier, Brazil’s Ana Beatriz, Sebastian Saavedra, Conor Daly, Graham Rahal, Vautier, Pippa Mann and Josef Newgarden all put their cars into the starting lineup there was one spot open with two drivers attempting to fill it.
Legge began her qualification attempt at 12:53 p.m. Her four laps were the slowest of any competitor, but the 223.176 mph four-lap average would be enough to keep her in the field. She will start on the outside of the last row when the green flag drops Sunday.
“To have the opportunity to even jump in and do a few laps was a dream come true,” Legge said. “Sam gave me the opportunity, and for that I will be eternally grateful. Simon and Tristan set the car up really good so I could just jump in and go flat. By lap four in practice, I was flat. I was aware it was a conduced schedule. In traffic, the car worked really well.
“I just like to create a drama.”
The last time Legge drove an Indy car was in the 2012 season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. She was in the top five before she made a mistake that would doom her in the race.
“Fontana we were running P4 before I got caught speeding on pit lane and had a drive-through penalty,” she said. “That was my bad. That was inexperience. I won’t make that mistake again. Five hundred miles is a long way. We can make our way through the field if I’m smart about it.
“Last year we didn’t have much time on the track, so I’ve jumped into a good car this time. At least I’m in a great car with great support from this team.
“I’m in the show, and that is what counts. We will go out on Carb Day and get the car ready for the race.”
Schmidt has three drivers in the Indianapolis 500 and was confident her car had more speed if she had to bump her way back into the race.
“We still had another 1-1/2 miles per hour of downforce to take off the car,” Schmidt said. “Our first attempt was to just put her car into the show and make Michel beat us. I haven’t been here as long as three-quarters of the people out here, but I do know when he was trying his hardest at 216 or 217, it just wasn’t going to happen.”
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing even put Graham Rahal in the car Sunday to try to get a feel for what was wrong, and the car was more than diabolical.
“It was going to be very hard,” Jourdain said. “All week, we struggled. Right away, I didn’t feel the car very well, but when you’re only driving once a year it’s just so hard to know. It’s just a feel thing, and some days it feels really well and getting a little better every day, and it was just a low point. I tried James’ setup this morning, and he was the fastest of the three cars. Coming out of Turn 4 on the first lap I almost spun, and I felt this car isn’t drivable. We put Graham in the car with his exact setup and everything, steering wheel and everything, he just could drive it. He got the 204 and said ‘I’m not going any faster.’ He said you try to go flat out and come in Turn 4 and it’s impossible.
“So we went back and we changed it – the front wing, we tried, but as soon as I came in, the car was the same. We didn’t want to do something stupid and put the car in the wall – not the make the race anyway – so there was no point in it.”
Jourdain’s last lap on the track was 214.421 mph at 5:33 p.m. A few minutes later Rahal realized the chances of making the race were doomed.
“We know there is something wrong with the car,” Jourdain said. “Something is bent, broken, bending, loose; something is wrong in the car that we haven’t seen all week.”
Legge had been talking to Schmidt about a ride since 2011. It finally became a reality on Pole Day.
“We spent 90 days putting together a commercial program to run Townsend Bell again, but at Long Beach it got yanked because Chevrolet wanted it involved with a Chevy team,” Schmidt said. “I don’t have a problem with that. That is business. That is racing. They paid a lot of money to be part of the ‘Turbo’ movie. It was too late to put a full-week deal put together, so we ended up signing her deal on Pole Day morning.
“Everybody in the paddock knows I had a solid six drivers calling me every 15 minutes this week because they knew I had that car was available. But the combination of her, the PR she brings, the personality and the fact she needs to be in this series full time. I’m proud of the fact that we brought Simon Pagenaud back to this series, and if she does well and someone offers her a job, that’s fantastic because she deserves it.”