Party in the Back: Indy 500 Drivers Take Their Lumps

At the newly revamped Last Row Party, three less-than-stellar qualifiers got roasted for being slow.

The 11th Row Society isn’t something most Indianapolis 500 drivers want to join, mainly because it means they’re the slowest ones in the field. As an added insult (literally), they dutifully attend the Last Row Party—an annual Indy tradition that returned yesterday evening after a hiatus last year—where an emcee buries whatever ounce of pride they still have.

Don’t presume the three drivers bearing this indignity are always no-name, why-are-these-guys-even-racing types. In fact, former 500 winners like Mario Andretti, Tony Kanaan, and Tom Sneva have all received the “honor.”

The 42nd Last Row Party, held on the sixth floor of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Pagoda, featured Buddy Lazier, winner of the 1996 Indianapolis 500 and a former IndyCar series champion; Sebastian Saavedra, 2009 Indy Lights Rookie of the Year; and Sage Karam, USF2000 Champion.

They qualified 33rd, 32nd, and 31st, respectively.

Emcee Bob Jenkins, who has been announcing auto races for more than 30 years, started the night by welcoming attendees to “celebrate the underachievement of three very deserving drivers.”

Jenkins’s first victim was Sage Karam. Being the youngest driver, at 19 years old, Karam was subjected to jokes about having baby food in his car’s water bottle and his mommy being nearby to change his diaper during the race.

Karam took it in stride. “Even though we’re on the last row, we still have to cherish this moment,” he said. “We made the field. That’s the main thing that matters. I’m proud to be racing in this event at 19 years old. So last row or not, I’ll give it my all.”

He finished by reassuring the crowd that he won’t be on the back row for long once the race starts.

The second victim was Sebastian Saavedra. Saavedra qualified on the pole for the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis earlier this month but stalled at the start of the race. He failed to complete a lap because another driver crashed him out. Jenkins quipped that he must be happy the 500 has a rolling and not a standing start.

“We’re here,” Saavedra answered. “We’re in the back of the field, but as [Karam] said, it’s not going to be for long. We have a very long race and three very good cars. [We] haven’t shown [our] full potential yet. We just want to make it interesting. I’m blessed to be a racing driver at this moment, and I’m going to race it, enjoy it, and have some fun.”

The last driver on Jenkins’s hit list was Buddy Lazier. Since he’s the most-senior driver in the field at 46 years old, and has been in the last on row on multiple occasions, the old-timer jokes rolled in—like, for example, that he crashed out of the 500 his rookie year and wasn’t injured along with his riding mechanic.

(On a more serious note, Jenkins recognized Lazier’s efforts on behalf of the Stephen A. Wynn Institute for Vision Research at the University of Iowa. Lazier’s daughter was born with a rare eye disease and has lost vision in her right eye.)

“I’ve never liked the Last Row Party, but I can tell you that our car is a lot better than the qualifying position,” Lazier said. “I remember when I was young, I qualified, and I saw a guy in the hotel and said, ‘Hey, how’d you qualify?’ knowing that I beat him. He turned to me and said, ‘Son, these are racecars, not qualifying cars.’ And so that’s what I say. I’d be surprised if any of the three of us are anywhere near the back [by the end]. Thank you.”

Proceeds from the event, organized by the Indianapolis Press Club Foundation, help fund scholarships for Hoosier journalism students. And the drivers got something out of it, too: checks for 33, 32, and 31 cents, a tradition since the Party’s inception four decades ago. Each took his check and bolted for the exit—relieved, no doubt, to be done with the ordeal.