INDIANAPOLIS — This was a new one, even for Greg Ray.
The former IRL champion has driven for big teams and small teams, has started the Indianapolis 500 from the front row and from the back, has led more than 100 laps without ever winning and is one of just a handful of drivers to start from the pole and finish last.
But never, until this year, did he have to go through so much turmoil just to get into the race.
Never did he have to spend so many hours cooped up in his Gasoline Alley garage, working the telephones, answering e-mail and wondering how he would pay the bills. Never did he have to wait until the final day of qualifications before taking even a single lap of practice.
That’s what he gets as an owner-driver: an underfunded owner-driver.
“I’ve run the gamut,” said Ray, still without a major sponsor as he prepares for Sunday’s race. “There’s frustration, knowing we could be so much faster. We just didn’t have time to get the car sorted out. We carried a fair amount of stress the last couple weeks, and it wasn’t the optimal situation to just jump in the car. It’s not the kind of thing I like to do.”
Ray, the 1999 IRL champion and 2000 Indianapolis 500 pole winner, has not won a race in three years. He started his own Access Motorsports team last year but never finished higher than eighth in 13 starts and wound up 15th in points.
With his limited budget and no major sponsorship, he didn’t practice until Sunday morning and managed only 20 laps — the fewest by any of the 33 drivers in the race.
His four-lap qualification average of 216.641 mph was the fastest of the seven who completed the field on Sunday, but he’ll start 27th, on the outside of the ninth row. Buddy Rice’s pole speed was 222.024 mph, and 11 other drivers topped 220 in qualifications.
Ray thinks he could have been another 220-mph qualifier had he been able to get more practice.
“I really believe in the right situation that we could have been a pole contender,” Ray said. “But you have to do the smart thing. … Yes, you could go out and stand the world on fire, but we wouldn’t have qualified any higher up.”
The track will be closed until race day except for a two-hour practice on Thursday, still sentimentally called Carburetion Day even though fuel injectors replaced carburetors in Indy cars more than 40 years ago.
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