A Conversation with Patrick Karle
This week marks the 20th anniversary of Stefan Johansson’s 1995 Indianapolis 500 “Bump Day” run, which has to be remembered as undoubtedly one of the most interesting and exciting and perhaps, in retrospect, most bittersweet, moments in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Stefan Johansson, then a 38-year-old Swedish driver who made his mark in Formula 1, showed up in Gasoline Alley for looking for his third 500 start. With thick blond hair and boyish grin, he looked so much like an American cowboy that the reporters nicknamed him “Steven Johnson.” Although Stefan had participated in 103 Formula 1 Grands Prix 1980-1991, as the lone driver on Tony Bettenhausen’s Alumax Motorsports Team, few took him seriously; yet he would become the hero of that last great opera of speed.
Driving a one-year-old Reynard 94i/Ford XB V8t on Goodyear tires, Johansson bumped his way into the 31st position on the starting grid with a solid four-lap average of 225.547 m.p.h. only five minutes before the gun sounded the end of the qualifying period at 6 p.m.
Johansson’s run bumped two-time Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi from the field of 33 by a few tenths of a second, ending Team Penske’s chance to win a third Indianapolis 500 in a row.
Penske cars had won the 1993 and 1994 500s with Fittipaldi and Al Unser, Jr., respectively. In fact, the Penske 23B, powered by the 209-cid Mercedes-Benz 500I purpose-built pushrod engine that author Jade Gurss nick-named “the Beast,” had so dominated the ’94 field that the United States Auto Club (USAC) had drastically reduced its horsepower advantage for ’95 and basically outlawed it for 1996. Historians generally agree that without the Beast’s extreme horsepower, Unser and Fittipaldi struggled with Reynard and Lola chassis until the clock ran out.
Ironically, 1995 was the first time that Team Penske failed to field a car in the 500-mile race since 1969, and one of only 16 times in 78 years that the defending champion had failed to make the show.
I recently talked with driver Stefan Johansson and what it was like at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that day--May 21--twenty years ago.
Patrick Karle: The rules for qualifying were far different from today. How did the qualifying process work?
Stefan Johansson: It was the car that qualified, not the driver, and each car got three attempts to qualify. No matter who was driving, it was the average of the four laps that got you into the race. The rule that only the 33 fastest cars made the show and the fact that there were more than 10 cars that weren’t fast enough to qualify made bump day like a wall that you had to climb over to make it into the field.
PK: And how did the rules affect the fan experience?
SJ: The fans loved it. When you figure we ran 18 days, the Indianapolis 500 was a month-long endurance race with something happening on the track almost every minute. Qualifying was a series of mad, four-lap dashes around the 2.5-mile track.
They packed the Speedway up to 200,000 strong even on Pole Day. When you walked out onto the line and looked up into the stands at all those people the rush was unbelievable.
PK: They came to see speed records set, and they weren’t disappointed. Arie Luyendyk set an unofficial one-lap record of 234.913 mph on the last day of practice. Scott Brayton grabbed the pole in a Menard with a run over 231, and a lot of drivers qualified with speeds over 227. But there were exceptions, right?
SJ: Yes, we soon found out that the Penske cars that year just didn’t work at all on the Speedway. There were only 3 of using the Penske chassis that year: Emerson, Al Jr and myself. Earlier in the year, Tony (Bettenhausen) bought two PC 24s, and there had been a joint tech committee between Alumax Racing and Team Penske. Between me and my engineer, Bernie Marcus, we always seemed to find a little more speed than the others, but it soon transpired that there was a basic design flaw with the chassis that affected the car more on the Speedway than seemed to be the case on the regular ovals and road courses earlier in the year. Both me and the Penske drivers used up all three attempts on each chassis the first weekend. The cars simply were not fast enough—no matter what we tried. So for the second weekend of qualifying Bettenhausen switched to a year-old Reynard, which in fact was Hiro Matsushita’s show car, but this meant we now had only one car and three chances to qualify. Penske did the same and found a Lola for Emerson and a Reynard for Al Jr.
PK: Qualifying took the full two weekends. The field wasn’t filled to 33 until Emmo made his second attempt, becoming 32nd fastest at 224.907. Minutes later Scott Sharp bumped the slowest car out, and, incredibly, Emerson Fittipaldi, two-time world driving champion and two-time Indy 500 winner, became the man on the bubble. How does this happen?
SJ: That’s racing and in this case it was culmination of everything that had transpired through the last two weeks.
PK: If the run for the pole required horsepower, bumping was more like a complicated tango of egos and equipment.
SJ: True. Bumping involved a lot of strategy and it was almost like a game of chess. You had to pick the right moment and make your move. On the first run, we were quick enough to make it comfortably and then the pop off valve blew off so we had to abort that run. We then had to wait until later in the day when the track cooled down a little before we tried our second attempt. While I was waiting in the tech line to make my second attempt, Bernie said to go out and try to turn four consistent 224s. I went out and took the green flag, but the car was too tight and draggy in the corners and instead we turned three laps slightly below 224, and Tony waved off the run with a yellow flag.
Next, Marco Greco turned two laps just a tick over 222 and waved off. Defending champion, Al Unser, Jr., went out and after turning a lap at 224.101, he was waved off. It was Al’s last attempt on the car, and he walked back to the garages with only 24 minutes to six p.m.
PK: Jeff Ward, Marco Greco and Davey Hamilton made attempts to be waved off one, two, three. Then it was your last chance. There were only 12 minutes remaining on the USAC official clock!
SJ: Rather than stopping in our regular pit after the previous run I drove the car straight to the tech line in the hope we would get one more run before the pistol went off for the day. Tony and the rest of the team had pretty much thrown in the towel at this point, but I spoke to him and told him “I know I can do it.” I then told Bernie to take out all the downforce, which was a big step, like 5-6 times more than you would ever do in one change, and let’s just go for it! Both Tony and Bernie said no. “We don’t want to have peel you off the wall, you don’t have to do it.” At this point I was in a different zone and was so sure I could pull it off that there was not a question or doubt in my mind. So they took out enough wing front and rear to free it up as much as was possible with the adjustments we had left, and we pushed it through tech inspection. When USAC Tech Inspector leaned into the cockpit for the 9th time that month to tell me the rules for the qualifying run, I interrupted him and said I know the drill, just let me go!
PK: I was there that afternoon and I will never forget the scene: The shadow of the grand stands hung over the track like a tunnel, yet the air was hot with more than 200,000 fans breathing and sweating. Far down the line we heard the first rousing of Stefan’s engine, then we saw the #16’s blue nose cone, wings and spindles of the wheel assembly through the crowd standing on the pit lane, the engine stuttering as it worked against inertia; we saw the blue and white Reynard passed the scoring pylon, and up the pit lane and onto the track itself.
SJ: The rules allowed two warm-up laps before you took the green and I worked it up to speed, shifting into sixth gear as I crossed the Yard of Bricks the first time around. I got the engine up to full song the second time around, then Duane Sweeney waved the green flags and I was on it.
PK: What was it like out there?
SJ: The car felt pretty comfortable in the warm up laps but I had no idea if it would stick going into Turn One for the first flying lap and I remember screaming at the top of my lungs, and I put my left foot on top of my throttle foot to make sure I wouldn’t lift. The car stuck and it had a pretty decent balance and at that point I had a good feeling it would be a quick run. I made some small adjustments to the roll bar which made the car even better for the following three laps.
PK: Your first lap was 224.826. Lap 2 was 255.739. Lap 3 was 225.921. The final lap was off a tick at 225.705. Your four-lap average was 225.547. When did you actually realize you’d qualified?
SJ: I knew it when I finished the run as I was able to calculate in my head that it was good enough, and I actually broke down completely on the in lap going down the back straight, I had made it, on my ninth attempt and the pressure from the whole month finally released and I just couldn’t control my emotions at that point.
PK: Stefan Johansson drove the #16 Alumax Reynard into the 1995 Indianapolis 500—with only five minutes left on the official USAC clock. You received a standing ovation on both sides of the 5/8s mile straight.
SJ: Yes, I did, and it was amazing, all the team members from all the different teams, including the Penske guys, were clapping their hands as I drove down pit-lane, I will never forget that!
PK: Bobby Unser liked to say “It just goes to show you the big teams don’t always win.” It was a long, hard month, and when the final gun went off, you were the last man who made it into the show.
SJ: This is what made the Indy 500 the greatest show on earth, I am forever grateful I had the opportunity to be part of that history. I will always remember that day and those four laps, because in so many ways it made me realize the person I am, and what my limitations are, and what you are capable of doing when the pressure is on. And it was true. All the work, strategy, and effort that went into just getting a car into 31st position—not even winning the race.
PK: A lot of things have changed at the speedway since then, including the widespread use of Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other social media, the new Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the new one-weekend qualifying format. You have a good relationship with the new generation of racers. You're still vitally involved there as manager of 2008 winner, Scott Dixon, who is a first-rate champion. Do you think the Indianapolis 500 is still the Greatest Spectacle in Racing?
SJ: There is nothing that comes close to the Indianapolis 500 in my opinion and the races now are every bit as good as they’ve ever been. We’ve had some fantastic races since 1995, including the years Scott, Helio, Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dario Franchitti and Kenny Brack won. Indianapolis will always be the biggest single race to win and it is without a doubt the best show in motor racing, if not in sports in general.
Watch the video here!