INDIANAPOLIS — One of the first rules of racing is, "Don't knock the tires."
After all, the only contact a racing car has with Mother Earth is on four tiny patches of rubber, and without tires there would be no racing. So no one wants to point the finger at a tire company when problems occur.
One of the first rules of commenting on racing is don't call a race driver "scared."
So, apprehension over the performance of radial tires being used for the first time at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, combined with a tricky wind and drought conditions in central Indiana, created the most unusual pole qualifying day since 1955.
Mario Andretti, who predicted speeds of 220 m.p.h. earlier in the week and who ran 218 on several occasions during practice, won the pole for the May 24 race with a surprisingly slow 215.390-m.p.h. average for four laps in his Lola-Ilmor Chevy.
For the first time since 1981, the winning speed did not break the track record.
Two other former 500 winners, defending champion Bobby Rahal and Rick Mears, the track record-holder at 216.828, filled the front row.
Rahal, in a Lola-Cosworth, qualified at 213.316 m.p.h. despite being disturbed by a bouncing beach ball during his run. Mears, who switched to a year-old March late Friday afternoon from his regular Penske PC-16, ran 211.467 with only a minimum of practice laps.
A. J. Foyt, in his 30th consecutive year here, startled himself and his legion of fans with a four-lap average of 210.935, good for the inside of the second row. It was Foyt's best qualifying spot since 1982.
Foyt spent most of his time during the week tutoring his two proteges, Davy Jones and Stan Fox, and had only a few laps in his Lola.
Even more unusual than the slower than anticipated speeds was the reluctance of drivers to even attempt, or complete, a qualifying run.
Only 11 drivers qualified, several of them accepting less than anticipated speeds late in the day, and left at the gate without qualifying were such veterans as Tom Sneva, Al Unser Jr., Kevin Cogan, Geoff Brabham and Jim Crawford, whose 215.982 was the third fastest time during practice.
It was the smallest number of first-day qualifiers since 1981, when rain helped keep the number to nine. Only two qualified in 1955, when drivers agreed not to run because of dangerous high winds--although, late in the day, Jerry Hoyt, one of the slower drivers, pulled his car to the line and grabbed the pole, with time left for only one other qualifier.
Crawford crashed in the first turn during his second qualifying attempt Saturday, hitting the wall almost head-on after spinning completely around. The impact broke both his ankles and his right shin bone.
The accident was almost a mirror image of incidents during the week in which a number of drivers found the wall.
Sneva, the 1983 winner and former Spokane, Wash., schoolteacher, verbalized the anxiety experienced by the drivers.
"You go into a corner with the car working perfectly," he said. "The tires are grabbing, and you're feeling good when suddenly, with no warning, they have no grab at all. All you can do is brace yourself for the wall."
Al Unser Jr., one of those who elected to come back and try today, warned: "You have to be careful with the tire because (sometimes) it does give up in the middle of the corner."
Sneva, along with Pancho Carter, Dennis Firestone, Danny Ongais, Dick Ferguson, Rocky Moran, Phil Krueger, Fox, Cogan and Crawford all had solid hits on the cement barriers during the week.
No one would come out and blame the tires, but there is an undercurrent of feeling that something is different, something a lot of drivers aren't sure how to handle.
"They have new tires, a new feel and a new concept," said Leo Mehl, worldwide director of racing for Goodyear, the only tire manufacturer involved with Indy car racing. "They've been using bias tires here for 50 years, so switching to radials takes some adjustment.
"Some of the teams have adjusted quicker, and they're the teams running quicker, but everyone is on the bottom of a learning curve regarding radial tires."
Goodyear made the switch, Mehl said, because the radials' construction utilizes more modern technology and they have been widely accepted in other racing situations, including Indy car road races and at short tracks such as Phoenix and Milwaukee.
They were used last year in the Pocono 500, but this is the first time they have been at Indianapolis.
"The radial does a number of things better," Mehl said. "They are more puncture-resistant, they maintain their dimension more accurately during stress, and they wear longer."
Nearly every team tested the new tires in March and April, and Mehl said there were no complaints.
However, at that time the weather was cool, the track surface was clean and the teams were using 1986 model cars.