INDIANAPOLIS — Trivia question: After the Indianapolis 500, what is the best-attended automobile racing event in the country?
The Daytona 500? Long Beach Grand Prix? World 600 at Charlotte? The 12 Hours of Sebring? Talladega 500?
None of the above.
The second-largest crowd--200,000 or more--will be at Indianapolis Motor Speedway today to watch pole qualifying for the 500, to be run May 24.
Today is Indiana's day. The home folks, many of whom can't get tickets for the race itself, come in droves to lay down their $5 and take any seat they can find. First come, first served.
Race day belongs to America, with jets flying in from every direction, laden with big-buck corporate guests and old-timers who have ticket reservations handed down from generation to generation.
Today, though, they drive in from Lafayette, Lebanon, Brownsburg, Anderson, Zionsville and all the other hamlets that funnel into Indianapolis, the hub of Indiana. The local residents walk to 16th and Georgetown, coolers of beer on their shoulders, children tagging along.
They come to see the annual carnival of speed, the time trials peculiar to Indianapolis that determine the 33-car starting field. Each car is on the track alone, running four laps around the venerable old 2 1/2-mile rectangular oval. The average speed for the 10-mile trip is its qualifying speed.
In each of the last five years, speed seekers have been rewarded with records--and the trend is expected to continue today.
The record is 216.828 m.p.h. for four laps, and 217.581 m.p.h. for a single lap, both set last year by Rick Mears in a March-Cosworth.
Mario Andretti, who won the pole at both Long Beach and Phoenix in 1987's two Indy car races, has exceeded 218 a number of times and has a best unofficial clocking of 218.234 m.p.h. in his Lola, powered by a new Ilmor Chevrolet engine.
It is the fastest lap Andretti has ever driven anywhere.
Andretti was fastest again here Friday, the final day of practice for qualifying, but a hot sun and a crowded track helped keep his best effort to 216.242.
Mario, who won the pole here in 1966 and '67, is wary. He has been the fastest driver on the final day of practice in each of the last four years but always failed to get the pole the following day.
"Nothing is simple here," Andretti said. "It looks like we've had the handle on things all week, but it's not that easy. At no time have we felt happy with our position; never did we feel we had everyone covered."
Today's weather is expected to be warm and sunny, conditions not conducive to the record speeds of as high as 220 that have been predicted.
"When we ran 218, the air was cool, we had a slight breeze and it was overcast," said Andretti. "Then today the sun came out, there was no cloud cover and the air was still.
"That difference is worth 40 horsepower. The weather can change up to 2 m.p.h.
"The other most important factor is the draw. I want to be in the first 10 to be comfortable. It's pure agony sitting in that line, waiting to go, when you're way in the back."
It's going to be agonizing for him, apparently. Mario drew No. 44 out of the 56 cars drawn, which means the track will probably be at its hottest when he rolls out. Actually, only 35 cars will be ahead of him, since eight of the preceding cars won't be on the line today.
Luck wasn't all bad for the family, however. Son Michael, in a March-Cosworth, drew No. 1.
Mears, last year's pole winner, has been uncertain which car to drive--the new Penske that he has driven all season or the year-old March in which he set an all-time speed record last year.
The Penske PC-16s have been disappointing since Mears, Danny Sullivan and Danny Ongais arrived with them last Sunday.
Mears reached only 211.466 m.p.h., Sullivan 205.570 and Ongais 205.902 before he crashed Thursday and destroyed the car that Ted Field had underwritten for him.
Ongais and Dennis Firestone, who crashed his Lola last Tuesday, were released from Methodist Hospital Friday, but both are outpatients. Ongais had a concussion, and Firestone shattered bones in his foot.
In a move similar to one he made in 1984 when he scuttled his own Penskes in favor of a store-bought March, car owner Roger Penske rolled out a Chevrolet-powered March 86C for Mears late Friday.
In '84, Penske had the same disappointing problems with the cars of his own name and put Mears in a March, with which the Bakersfield veteran won the 500.
Although he had only a few laps of practice Friday in the March, Mears reached 209.
"We've got no feel for which way to go," Mears said. "It was frustrating because we couldn't get but one fast lap in at a time before the yellow light came out.
"We will have both cars ready in the morning for practice, and before our name is called, we will decide which one to qualify."
The March has never been in a race, but Mears ran an American-record 233.934 m.p.h. in a test last November at Michigan International Speedway.
Tom Sneva, another former winner, will also have a backup car for today's time trials, but that is because he put his primary car, a Buick-powered March, into the first-turn wall.
"The car felt good in (Turns) 3 and 4, and then when it got down to 1, it wouldn't turn," Sneva said. "It gave no warning that it wouldn't turn in, and we just went straight into the wall.
"I think that's been the complaint this year with the guys who have crashed. One minute things feel fine, and then, all of a sudden, it takes off."
Sneva, who has won the pole three times at Indy, will have another March-Buick at his disposal today.
Two other crashes damaged cars driven by Dick Ferguson and Phil Krueger, who was in Firestone's backup Lola. Neither driver was hurt.