- John Schwarb
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Richie Hearn took in last year's Indianapolis 500 from a bar in Lime Rock, Conn. He was a lousy drinking buddy.
"I wasn't a happy guy to be with. The people with me were like, 'Man, you've got to go back there,'" Hearn said.
Hearn had run at Indy in 2005 and six times altogether dating to 1996, but a year ago the opportunities for a ride had dried out. So he stuck to his day job, which on Memorial Day weekend 2006 meant running his Formula BMW team far away from Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
This year, he just couldn't stand it. So the 36-year-old, in his words, "put the truck driver in charge" of Hearn Motorsports and bought a one-way ticket from his home in Las Vegas to Indianapolis, joining the annual club of drivers looking for employment in the month of May.
It's not a glamorous life, trolling Gasoline Alley for work. Hearn said it was a week of bumming places to stay with friends and eating hospitality-tent food, interrupted by stints on pit road watching enviously.
"It's hard not to be a grumpy guy in the pits, you don't like watching other people having fun doing what they're doing," Hearn said. "You want to be out there."
His story found a happy ending. Hearn landed a ride late in the week in Jon Herb's backup car with Hemelgarn/Racing Professionals, then Sunday, he practiced for the first time and successfully qualified the car 32nd -- all within a four-hour span.
"We taped it up and put on new tires and just went out there," Hearn said.
From there, experience took over. That's what got the phone call, even though Hearn brought no sponsorship dollars to the table. It's what Hearn knew would make a difference, having experience but also simply being around to take advantage of an opportunity.
"Sometimes it's just being in the right place at the right time. That's why you have to be here. Look at Roberto [Moreno, subbing for injured Stephan Gregoire], if he wasn't here, he wouldn't be in that car," Hearn said. "Ron [Hemelgarn] had my number, I had run for him a couple years ago, the last time I drove a Dallara [chassis]. He said, 'Hey, this is what I'm thinking of doing, what's your plan?'
"You've got to put yourself out there; I told him I would be there either way. I had my medical [exam] done, I was ready to go from [last] Saturday on."
The team was late in forming, so late that when Hearn qualified Sunday, there were no official team hats for pictures and interviews. He wore a 2004 Indianapolis 500 hat for his first round of interviews, then had a 2007 model later in a news conference.
He can be forgiven. Outside of the occasional go-kart race ("I don't really count that," he said), Hearn had not raced anything since the 2005 Indy 500. He was miles out of the open-wheel loop, but when offered the chance, he made the most of it.
"One thing about this place, it rewards experience," said Hearn, whose best finishes in those six starts at Indy are third and sixth. "People will look at me because I've had some decent success here, they know I can get it in. That's what I hoped would happen."
Elsewhere in the field
The majority of the first-weekend qualifiers took advantage of good weather Sunday to put in a final full day of practice. Ganassi Racing's duo led the way, with Dan Wheldon claiming the day's top speed at 222.797 mph, with Scott Dixon close behind at 222.779.
Ryan Briscoe had an especially busy weekend, driving his primary and backup Luczo Dragon Racing cars Sunday. On Saturday in Tooele, Utah, he teamed with Sascha Maassen to win the American Le Mans Series' Utah Grand Prix. He took a red-eye flight from Salt Lake City to Indianapolis on Saturday night.
Only one more hour of practice -- at Friday's Carb Day -- will be available to the field before the 91st Indianapolis 500.
Thirty-four drivers made a total of 60 qualifying attempts during the two weekends of qualifying. The field's qualifying average is 222.505 mph. It's the seventh-closest matched field by time in race history, as 5.0207 seconds separate pole sitter Helio Castroneves from slowest qualifier Marty Roth. The record is 3.2422 seconds in 2001. This year's two-driver rookie class (Milka Duno and Phil Giebler) is the smallest since 1979. There are 30 Dallara chassis and three Panoz chassis in the field. All are powered by Honda engines.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.