Sore Saavedra returns to track as happy man

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Sebastian Saavedra stood at Tuesday's annual rookie luncheon and looked just fine.

He smiled, he chatted, he answered questions for as long as reporters wanted to hang around and then the 19-year-old Colombian with the spiky hair and the aching back was relieved that the wildest 48-hour ride of his life had ended.

Now he can focus on getting healthy enough to do his personal 600-mile double at Indianapolis — Friday's Freedom 100 and Sunday's Indianapolis 500.

"It's just a bruise," Saavedra said, referring to the back. "You know (team owner) Bryan (Herta) told me there are two kinds of drivers at Indy — those who have hit the walls and those who will hit the walls."

Saavedra understands what Herta meant after going from the second list to the first in a millisecond that nearly cost him a starting spot in Sunday's race.

By all accounts and on any normal weekend, Saavedra probably would have been out.

But in last weekend's chaos, almost nothing went as expected. Tony Kanaan, a pre-qualifying pole favorite, crashed twice and was fortunate to get in the race at all. He'll start 32nd. Danica Patrick, the series' best-known personality, wound up with the worst starting spot of her Indy career, 23rd.

And Saavedra's late addition fell right in line with the other oddities.

After posting the slowest speed of the 33 qualified cars, Saavedra found himself on the bubble when he went back out for practice with about an hour to go in qualifying. As the Indy Lights regular drove through the slick first turn, his car spun into the outside wall at 175 G's, ending Saavedra's day and leaving him without a Plan B to make the race.

That's when the craziness began.

Saavedra was quickly released from the infield medical center before returning later complaining of back pain. Doctors immediately sent him to Methodist Hospital for X-rays at about the same time Kanaan was bumping Saavedra out of the lineup.

"When the crash happened I had more pain knowing I was pretty much out of the race," Saavedra said. "I knew T.K. had bumped me out, so, not knowing the rules, I thought I was done."

Not quite.

Paul Tracy, still holding one of the 33 starting spots, withdrew his speed in an attempt to post a faster time. That put Jay Howard back on the bubble with 10 minutes to go, which is where Howard stayed when Tracy waved off his attempt. Two more drivers, Jaques Lazier and Milka Duno, pulled off the track before completing their qualifying attempts, giving Howard the No. 33 spot.

But with two minutes left, Howard inexplicably withdrew his speed to make one more attempt and put Saavedra back in the lineup. Howard's four-lap average of 223.120 mph was not enough to beat Saavedra's 223.634 — though Saavedra didn't even realize he had made the race.

"I was watching on TV and I saw everyone celebrating in the pits, and I didn't know what was happening," he said. "No one was picking up their cell phone or telling me what happened. Then I saw Bryan shaking and he screamed, 'We're in the Indy 500.'"

Saavedra wasn't the only one surprised with the strange twists.

"I was talking to Sebastian yesterday and told him this was unbelievable," said Simona de Silvestro, one of four women and two female rookies to qualify for Sunday's race. De Silvestro is starting 22nd, just ahead of Patrick.

The fastest of the six rookies is Brazil's Mario Romancini. He'll start 27th, the outside of Row 9, after posting an average of 224.641 on Sunday.

Another Brazilian, Ana Beatriz, has the best starting position, 21st, of the rookies. She qualified Saturday at 224.243.

"It's pretty cool that there are four women, but it would have been nice to have five," Beatriz said, smiling.

The only other rookies in the field are Japan's Takuma Sato, who starts 31st, and Belgian Bertrand Baguette, who is 24th. Sato has appeared on the Indy podium once before, when he finished third in Formula One's 2004 U.S. Grand Prix.

But it was Saavedra's wild ride that had everyone talking.

"I would have probably had a heart attack because I would be so emotional if you're out of the race," Beatriz said.

Fortunately for Saavedra, all he had was a bruised back, a pain in the neck and an improbable starting spot in the Indianapolis 500.

It won't be enough to keep him out of either race this week.

"The crash itself, we were on the limit. We're always on the limit here and the track conditions were very greasy," Saavedra said. "They're still putting the car back together and making sure every single thing is perfect. But I'll be ready to go for both races."