An unusually high number of 15 starting positions remain to be filled this weekend for the May 24 Indianapolis 500, but the caliber of drivers not yet qualified is even more unusual.
Three former winners, Al Unser, Gordon Johncock and Tom Sneva, are not yet in the race, although Unser and Johncock are late replacements for injured drivers and did not get on the track last week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Unser, 47, was named to replace Danny Ongais in one of Roger Penske's three cars after doctors refused to give Ongais a medical clearance following treatment for a concussion he received in a crash last Thursday. Unser, a three-time winner of the 500 who has driven in 21 of the last 22 500s, will drive an '86 March-Cosworth rather than the Penske-Ilmor Chevy that Ongais was scheduled to drive.
Unser managed to get in eight laps Wednesday and reached a speed of 197.585 m.p.h. The 500 will be his first race this year.
Johncock, a two-time winner who has not raced an Indy car since retiring two years ago, replaced the injured Jim Crawford in Pat Patrick's American Racing Series Buick and did not get on the track until last Monday. After moving cautiously up to speed, the 50-year-old hit 200.405 Wednesday.
Sneva crashed two of Mike Curb's Skoal Bandit Marchs last week, and the crew is attempting to patch together one car strong enough to make it through four qualifying laps Saturday.
Sneva is considered one of Indy car racing's premier oval track qualifiers, having won the 500 pole three times with record runs, so his absence focuses attention on the strange circumstances surrounding this year's time trials.
Kevin Cogan, runner-up to Bobby Rahal in last year's 500, and Al Unser Jr., winner of 1986's final race in Miami, are also not yet in. Cogan reached 210.102 m.p.h. in practice last week, but after his March brushed the wall the following day, the Palos Verdes driver was unable to approach racing speeds again. Cogan did not make a qualifying attempt last weekend.
Young Unser, on the other hand, made one attempt but when his first lap was only 201, he called it off. His team, Doug Shierson Racing, apparently made the wrong switch between seasons. When national champion Rahal changed from his winning March to a Lola, Shierson went the other way, going from Lola to March.
There have been 14 crashes since the Speedway opened May 2 and 10 of them involved new-model Marchs.
"It's no fun being on the outside looking in," Unser Jr. said. "I can tell you right now what our problem is, and that's tires. We're just not used to the radials. The March is a very good car and the Goodyear radial is a very good tire, but the combination of the March, the radial and the amount of rubber on the track made me too slow to qualify."
Apparently the '86 March chassis does not have the same problem adapting to radial tires as the '87 and by race day the entire Penske team of Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan and Unser may be in the older models. Mears abandoned his '87 Penske PC-16 last week and qualified an older March on the front row. Sullivan, whose March was back at Penske headquarters in Reading, Pa. and not available last weekend, qualified his Penske-Ilmor Chevy at a relatively slow 205.288. However, the 1985 winner is expected to have his March at the track today and may withdraw his qualified car and try anew with the older car.
Other Indy car regulars under the gun this weekend include Josele Garza, Johnny Parsons, Dennis Firestone, Tony Bettenhausen, Ed Pimm, Derek Daly, rookie Fabrizio Barbazza and A. J. Foyt's entourage of veteran George Snider and rookies Davy Jones and Stan Fox.
MIDGETS--Billy Vukovich III, firmly entrenched as leader of the United States Auto Club's supermodifed series, will take time off Sunday night to drive in the USAC Western States midget race at Ascot Park. Vukovich will be facing Sleepy Tripp, who has won 4 of 7 races since returning from a successful tour of Australia and New Zealand. Also on the program will be a three-quarter midget race featuring Rick Gray, Dennis Hart and Denise Bennet. . . . The TQs will also race Friday night at Ventura.
SPRINT CARS--California Racing Assn. cars and drivers will be back at Ascot Park on Saturday night to resume the Parnelli Jones Firestone series after six races in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Lealand McSpadden, who makes Baylands Raceway in Northern California his home track, won four of the six races, but the other two winners, Mike Sweeney and John Redican, will be at Ascot.