INDIANAPOLIS — Qualifying returned to normalcy Saturday as former champions Al Unser, Gordon Johncock, Tom Sneva and Danny Sullivan and nine others made it into the May 24 Indianapolis 500.
After a rash of crashes created an uneasy feeling around Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend, the third round of qualifying went off without a single wall being hit. Before that, there had been 22 crashes in 14 days.
The 13 qualifiers brought the field to 30, leaving three berths open with one qualifying session remaining today. Once there are 33 cars qualified, the bumping process will begin, where a car posting a faster time than the slowest qualifier knocks the slow car out of the race.
Rookie Sammy Swindell, a two- time World of Outlaws sprint car champion from Bartlett, Tenn., is the man on the provisional bubble at 201.840.
For the first time in the 71-year history of the 500, nine former winners have qualified for the race.
The others include the front row of Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal and Rick Mears, plus A. J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Danny Sullivan.
Johncock, coming out of a two-year retirement, and Unser, who had not raced a full schedule since he won the PPG Indy car championship in 1985, were not expected to be here. Both replaced injured drivers, Johncock for Jim Crawford and Unser for Danny Ongais.
Johncock was at home in Pima, Ariz., last Saturday night when he got a call from car owner Pat Patrick to drive the car vacated by Crawford when the Scotsman was hospitalized with foot injuries after an accident earlier in the day.
The silver-haired 50-year-old Johncock, who looks more like a visitor from Sun City than a race driver, cautiously worked his way up to speed in the Buick-powered March and then posted his fastest laps of the week in qualifying.
Johncock made the field at 207.990 m.p.h., with his first three laps better than 208.
"I told the crew this morning that if it got right down to it I could run a 210," Johncock said. "I never pushed it to the limit during practice. If you do that too often it'll turn around and bite you."
Johncock, the 1973 and 1982 winner, said he had not even attended races during his two year retirement.
"I sat at home and watched them on TV," he said. "Sitting there watching, I kept thinking I could still do it, and that I ought to be there. Now I'm sure of it. A week sure does make a big difference in one's life, though. A week ago I was spectating at a mud bog race back in Arizona."
Three-time winner Unser got his chance when Ongais was denied a medical clearance after suffering a concussion when he hit the wall May 7.
"Had Little Al (Unser Jr.) qualified last weekend, and I didn't have a ride, I would have gone home last week," the elder Unser said. "But I decided to stick around to give whatever support I could to Little Al. I know what he's gone through. It's hard."
Little Al, after not making a qualifying attempt last week, moved into the field Saturday at 206.752, slightly slower than his dad.
"I'm so sorry for what happened to Danny (Ongais) and his not being able to drive, but under the circumstances it benefited me to step into the Penske team," Big Al said.
"I've worked with them the last three years and they understand my bad habits and I understand theirs. Just because you have a few years and miles here you still have to have a good team."
Sullivan, the 1985 winner, withdrew one car and then qualified another for Roger Penske's team. This meant that Penske scuttled all of his Penske PC-16s, built especially for his team, in favor of year-old, store-bought Marchs.
"I feel a lot more confident with this chassis," Sullivan said after posting a 210.271 for the fastest four laps of the day. However, instead of starting 11th with his 205.288 in the PC-16, he will start 18th in the March.
Starting positions are determined by the day on which the speed was achieved.
"I'm not disappointed with my starting position." Sullivan said. "I feel the car will handle traffic well to make for a good race.,"
The decision to switch was made at 4:30 p.m. Friday when Penske called team manager Derrick Walker from his private plane and told him to "Park it (the PC-16), and run the March five laps."
That's what Sullivan did and after a 207.804 lap, there was no question about changing cars.
"We're not going to scrap the PC-16 program," Sullivan said. "We're going to fine-tune it, but right now we've got to go with the best race day car."
Sullivan's 1986 March-Ilmor Chevy is the one he won the pole with at Cleveland last year. Unser's car, a March-Cosworth, sat on the pole here last year with Rick Mears the driver, and won at the Meadowlands with Sullivan driving.
Fabrizio Barbazza, who attracted owner Frank Arciero's eye by winning the American Racing Series last year, became the fastest rookie in the race with a 208.038 average.
"This is my first time here," said the excitable Italian. "I talked to Teo Fabi and Mario (Andretti) and they tell me to take your time here. This place can really scare you. All you see is white wall, white wall every lap.
"Last year I watched the race from Turn 1 as a guest of Frank Arciero. I think I have better seat this year."
Left as possibilities for the final three berths are Ed Pimm, Rocky Moran, Phil Krueger, Davy Jones, Rick Miaskiewicz, Dominic Dobson, Dick Ferguson and George Snider, who has been in 21 consecutive races, mostly in one of A. J. Foyt's backup cars.