INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Fernando Alonso did everything in his power to put McLaren in the Indianapolis 500. He drove flat-out when his car was loose, when it wouldn’t steer and when it had a punctured tire.
When his team put together a desperate final setup and no one had a clue how it would perform, he charged wide-open into the first turn at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with zero fear.
“I tried. I tried my best,” he said.
His effort could not overcome the mistakes made by McLaren in its hyped return to the Indy 500. Alonso was bumped from the field by 23-year-old Kyle Kaiser in a dramatic last-gasp bid by tiny Juncos Racing. McLaren came to Indy with every inch of its car sold in sponsorship and guaranteed to turn a profit. Juncos Racing lost its two primary sponsors right before opening day and spent most of this week in an unmarked white car.
Juncos was the underdog from the very start, and when Kaiser crashed Friday and destroyed the car, every one of Ricardo Junco’s employees worked through the night to put together a car for Kaiser to qualify.
“We worked 48 straight hours, we couldn’t think straight,” Juncos said.
Juncos all week has done everything better than mighty McLaren, the Formula One team that dominated Indy in the 1970s. Kaiser was faster than Alonso every day, and while Juncos was able to rebound fairly quickly from Kaiser’s crash, it took McLaren almost two full days to get a car ready after Alonso crashed on Wednesday.
McLaren then begged and borrowed for assistance all across the paddock, threw an entirely new setup on the car Sunday morning, and it dragged and sparked along the track on Alonso’s first lap. He had to pit for a fix, got in just five more laps of practice, then rain ended the session.
Juncos, meanwhile, never went on track Sunday morning in a decision the team owner believes got Kaiser into the race.
“We decided not to practice that was a key decision because it allowed us another four, five hours to work on the car,” he said. Now his phone is buzzing, potential sponsors are lining up, and he vowed to have a covered car in next Sunday’s race.
Alonso said he would be watching from home, and McLaren head Zak Brown told The Associated Press the team would not be buying out another entrant to get the two-time Formula One champion into the race.
“We’ll come back fighting. We don’t want to buy in,” Brown said. “We want to earn it. Anyone can buy in. We want to get in on merit.”
The McLaren miss is one of the biggest failures in Indy 500 history. Roger Penske missed the show with Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi in 1995, a year after dominating the race. Reigning CART champion Bobby Rahal missed it in 1993, and two-time Indy winner Rodger Ward never got up to speed to make the 1965 field.
Gil de Ferran, the competition director for McLaren and a former Indy 500 winner, was gutted and apologized about a dozen times for the team’s failure. He also turned to Alonso and directly apologized to the driver during a news conference some two hours after they had been eliminated from the field.
“We didn’t give you a car that was fast enough. You drove like the champion you are. We couldn’t have asked anything more from you. I am sorry, man. You are an amazing driver,” de Ferran said. “We didn’t underestimate the challenge. We knew this was going to be a tremendously hard challenge. I’ve seen some incredible people not make the race so we certainly were very aware of how difficult this was going to be.”
Kaiser bumped Alonso by .02 mph in the “Last Row Shootout” to set the 33-driver field.
Sage Karam, who has been spooked all week and needed teammate JR Hildebrand to shake down his car and check for issues, rallied Sunday in the shootout to make the field.
“This is probably one of the biggest battles I’ve ever had to go through mentally,” Karam said.
James Hinchcliffe, who was bumped out of the race last year and that in part led to this year’s two-day format, recovered from a crash in Saturday qualifying to also make it into the show.
Max Chilton and Patricio O’Ward, who both drive for McLaren technical partner Carlin, were eliminated. Chilton is a full-time IndyCar participant and rookie O’Ward, who was fast until he crashed in practice and had to qualify in a reconfigured road course car, has a partial schedule with Carlin.
Alonso tried to watch each driver make their qualifying attempt on pit lane but was swarmed by fans and media. He began signing autographs while keeping an eye on Kaiser, but once he saw the final speed, he hopped on a waiting golf cart and was driven away.
“I don’t think I can wrap my mind around what we just did,” Kaiser said.
McLaren last raced in the Indy 500 in the 1970s but is back this season to both help Alonso complete his quest to win motorsports’ version of the Triple Crown and as a feeler for a potential full-time IndyCar team. But the entire process has been a disaster from opening day because of electrical issues, an Alonso accident, a lengthy delay in rebuilding him a car, a tire puncture on his first qualifying attempt, and, finally, a car too difficult to handle for Alonso to qualify in the top 30 on Saturday.
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