Updated: Sunday, 24 May 2009, 10:01 AM EDT
Published : Sunday, 24 May 2009, 9:58 AM EDT
SPEEDWAY (WISH) - INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bruno Junqueira was fast enough to be in the race.
But when the green flag drops Sunday at the Indianapolis 500, the Brazilian will be watching from the pits of a team that had to make a cold, hard business decision.
Alex Tagliani, it's your ride.
Junqueira, you're out.
"I think I'll be OK," he said, not sounding all that persuasive. "I'm just happy that I did my job. It was a job well done."
Junqueira did all he could to get in the race — an amazing job, really. It started when he got a call from Conquest Racing two days before the final round of qualifying. With just eight laps of practice last Sunday morning in the team's second car, he was able to post a speed that was good enough for the inside spot on the final row.
"I knew if they gave me a good car, I could go straight out there and get in with the experience I have at Indy," said Junqueira, who won the pole in 2002 and has twice finished fifth at the Brickyard.
But circumstances beyond Junqueira's control knocked him out.
Tagliani, who is Conquest's regular driver, gambled that his speed — which looked to be comfortably in the field at the start of the final round of qualifying — would hold up. But the track conditions were much more favorable than the previous day, and the Canadian watched himself slip farther and farther down the speed chart.
Finally, realizing Tagliani might get knocked out, the team sent him out to make another run. But he was stuck in line as the gun went off to end the session. Ryan Hunter-Reay was already on the track and claimed the last position in the 33-car field by going 0.044 seconds faster than Tagliani's Saturday time over 10 miles.
At first, Conquest owner Eric Bachelart said he would stick with Junqueira. But the low-budget team couldn't afford to do that as Tagliani has sponsorship lined up for most of the season. Missing the biggest race of the year might have jeopardized those deals, so the team had little choice except to put Tagliani in the No. 36 car that Junqueira had qualified.
Bachelart called Junqueira less than two hours after qualifying ended, asking if he could meet with the driver at his hotel. The Brazilian was ready for the news.
"I know that Alex has all the Canadian sponsorship lined up," Junqueira said. "When Eric called me, I knew what was up. Unfortunately, he had to do it. I know. I've been racing for 22 years. I know how all the deals work. When you're a team like Conquest, you need to do that to survive."
Showing there are no hard feelings, Junqueira planned to fly up from his Miami home to watch the race — in Tagliani's pits, no less.
Tagliani certainly empathizes with the driver he replaced.
"I felt bad for him. I felt bad for the team," Tagliani said. "Why don't we have two cars on the grid? We should have been something like 26th and 31st."
Instead, they'll have one car starting from the back. Even though Junqueira claimed the 31st spot, changing drivers means Conquest must go to the rear.
Tagliani wasn't sure if he should phone Junqueira after the decision was made, but decided it would be best to clear up any hard feelings. Amazingly, the Brazilian sounded almost apologetic about beating out Tagliani's time.
"He goes, 'Look man, I understand. I got into this deal at the last minute. I knew what I was getting into. ... You deserve it. You did the work the whole month to get the car to where it is,'" Tagliani said. "He took it well. It was kind of like he made it easier for me to go through it. I'm not the sort of guy who takes for granted that I should be in the car. I truly felt for him."
Although Junqueira isn't upset about getting replaced by Tagliani, he wonders why he doesn't have a regular ride in the IndyCar series. He's been sitting at home all year, while drivers with much thinner resumes are out on the track.
"I'm not mad at Eric Bachelart. I want to thank Conquest. At least they gave me an opportunity," the 32-year-old Junqueira said. "Some other teams said, 'Bruno is going to drive for me,' and they never ended up doing it."
It all comes down to dollars. Junqueira figures there are as many as 10 drivers who landed rides in these tough economic times because they brought sponsorship to their teams. Instead of getting paid to race, they're the ones forking over money to get behind the wheel — a tried-and-true tradition in all forms of racing for low-budget teams.
"Unfortunately, people don't remember what I've done," said Junqueira, an eight-time winner in the now-defunct Champ Car series. "They remember the last race. At least now the last time I was on the track, I was able to qualify at Indy. I hope that will refresh people's minds."