INDIANAPOLIS — Qualifying speeds are down, accidents are up and the field for the May 24 Indianapolis 500 is more open than usual going into the final weekend of qualifications.
Eighteen drivers put cars into the tentative field last weekend, leaving 15 spots to fill today and Sunday. That's the most since 1974, excluding four years when rain interrupted one or both of the first two qualifying sessions. The last two years, there were just three spots to fill on the last weekend.
The usual scenario is that the field is filled and the slowest qualifiers are bumped out before the close of qualifications at 6 p.m. EST Sunday. There may not be much of that this year, although the slowest starter so far, former track record-holder Pancho Carter, is more than 6 m.p.h. slower than what once figured to be needed to make the race.
"There just aren't that many cars out there," said Gordon Johncock, a two-time Indy winner who came out of a two-year retirement this week. "What is there is good equipment, but I don't expect to see much bumping."
Michael Andretti, who qualified last Saturday, said, "I think there are enough cars to fill the field up, but there are some people out there I would rather not see running in the race."
An epidemic of accidents has wiped out almost a dozen cars and eliminated at least three and probably four veteran drivers because of injury. There were eight accidents in the three weeks before the race last year, and there already have been 20 this year.
The latest was Dennis Firestone, who suffered a concussion and several neck fractures Friday when he crashed for the second time this month during practice.
Firestone, who was driving again despite undergoing surgery to repair two small broken bones in his left foot after a May 5 accident, wrecked his Lola at virtually the same spot in the fourth turn on the 2 1/2-mile oval.
Speedway officials said he was dazed but awake when taken to Methodist Hospital Trauma Center. After his injuries were diagnosed, the driver was admitted for evaluation and observation. The Speedway medical report said Firestone was experiencing "some minor weaknesses of his arms and hands."
The three other drivers out for sure are Jim Crawford of Scotland, who suffered severe leg and foot injuries in a crash last Saturday at the start of a qualifying attempt; Johnny Parsons, who broke his left heel and right ankle during practice Thursday, and Danny Ongais, ruled medically unfit while recovering from a concussion suffered during practice last week.