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Nerves and Luck : Fueled by Excitement of Race Day, Compton's Kraco Team Goes From Green Flag to Failure in Long Beach Grand Prix

April 18, 1985|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — The sea's sweet air moved into Pit Lane but the stench of fuel refused to yield on a day when men with racing in their blood and grease under their fingernails also had butterflies in their stomachs.

It was several hours before the start of Sunday's Long Beach Grand Prix and several months after preparation began for the Compton-based Kraco team.

The testing and tuning were over. More than $3 million had been spent on state-of-the-art equipment. The goal of winning had been boldly stated. Now the time was near to show the world that Kraco was hell on wheels.

A mechanic pushed a rag across one of Kraco's two blue and yellow cars, which sat on the asphalt like an exotic insect, but it had already been shined to the limit.

Like Freeway Off-Ramp

Mid-morning was too early for the stars to come out, so drivers Michael Andretti and Kevin Cogan weren't around Pit Lane, which is like a freeway off-ramp where the cars roar in to be serviced.

But the rest of the team--more than 20 engineers and mechanics, anonymous to the public--had been fussing over the cars for hours.

Because of mechanical problems on the previous two days of qualifying, confidence was not as high as had been expected.

"We had hoped to be in the front two rows," said Ken Balch, Kraco's bearded racing division general manager. (Cars line up for the race in rows of two.)

Andretti would be in the sixth row and Cogan in the ninth, which meant that each would have to pass a lot of cars to win.

Peter Edwards, a 30-year-old English mechanic, sat on the pit's short concrete wall and watched people aim cameras at the cars.

"You either love this life style or hate it," he said. "You go to different places, you experience time changes, currency changes, temperature changes. You work in England in the freezing rain, then come to California for testing."

He was more excited than he looked.

"The old heart starts pumping a bit," he said of race day. "But it's not a crazy excitement. If you lose, you feel a bit sick afterward. But there's nothing you can do once the green flag goes. Your hands are tied."

Dale Frye punched at a pocket calculator, figuring fuel. He fed it factors: 90 laps, 2 warm-up laps, car capacity 40 gallons, 44 gallons in the pit's gas tanks.

"If we get two miles per gallon we can make one stop," he said to Balch. "You can pull in on laps 42 to 45."

Consider Gamble

The engineers jotted figures on legal pads.

It would be a gamble. But the team knew that the favorite in the race (and Michael's father), Mario Andretti, would make only one stop, so Kraco could not afford two.

At 10, the crew began practicing for that stop.

When crew chief Brian Stewart signaled, the car was jacked up. Mark Evans and Neil Pennell wrestled with the bulky tires of the Indy cars as if they were cowboys with a steer. They ripped off the old ones and put on new ones, then grabbed the hose of an air wrench and with a loud rat-a-tat-tat tightened the lugs.

Two mechanics in fire suits and helmets rehearsed the dangerous job of filling a hot car with gas. They jerked out their hose just as Stewart and the others scrambled away with the old tires, and the car was let down with a loud psssssssssst.

Time elapsed: about 15 seconds.

Athletes can choke under pressure. So can mechanics. A tire or tool can be fumbled. Fuel can be spilled, causing a fire.

"It happens," said Balch.

Puhtup, puhtup, puhtup, puhtup, puhtup, puhtup, VROOOOOOOOOOOM!

The 750-horsepower engine in Michael Andretti's car was being warmed up. Stewart tinkered with it.

Stewart, a London native, has been doing this for 17 years.

"I always wanted to do it," he said after turning off the engine. "You hate it sometimes. But it's just in your blood. They always say you can never leave the circus, and I think it's pretty much the same with this.

"There's a very good achievement out of the work, but a lot of disappointment too."

On the inside of his red tool cabinet was a sign: "It takes 1,875 bolts and screws to put a car together, but only one nut to scatter it all over the road."

"I'd like to put it on Andretti's dash," Stewart said, laughing.

But he didn't mean it to sound like mechanics resent drivers who crash into walls and destroy months of tedious and costly work.

Respect for Danger

"There is a lightheartedness," he said.

And a respect for the dangers of traveling 200 miles per hour.

"Do I look that silly?" said Peter Edwards when asked if he'd like to be a driver.

It was 1 p.m., an hour before the race, and time for the crew to change into fire-retardant suits. A sky still white with fog was finally letting the heat in.

Stewart changed in the huge Kraco truck, which is used to transport the cars. Andretti and Cogan were already in the truck. The stars did not have dressing rooms.

"He's got his motor home but he prefers dressing with us," Stewart said of Andretti.

Cogan, a blond man of 29, pulled on his suit, which was thick and yellow.

"I hate this thing," he said. "But you need 'em. I've been on fire before."

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