INDIANAPOLIS — For years, race car drivers and observers have pleaded for reduced speeds at the Indianapolis 500.
This year, for the first time since 1980, speeds are slower, substantially so, than the previous year, but it hasn't resulted in safer racing.
When A.J. Foyt and Emerson Fittipaldi, two of the most respected drivers in the world, crashed during practice Thursday, it brought the accident total to 23 for the 17 days cars have been on the track since the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened for practice May 2.
All were single-car crashes, a trend that has brought a high level of anxiety and apprehension for today's 71st running of the Indianapolis 500.
The carnage has left three drivers--Johnny Parsons, Dennis Firestone and Jim Crawford--in the hospital and a number of cars destroyed.
Fittipaldi, a two-time world champion from Brazil, had never hit the wall before in four years here, but his brush with the third turn wall forced him to move from his starting position in the fourth row to the back of the field in a backup car.
The fear of all the drivers is that the single-car crashes of the past three weeks could become multicar wrecks during today's race.
Roberto Moreno, who left Indy car racing to drive in Europe this year, may have summed up the feeling. Moreno was walking through the pits when a fan said, "I'm sorry you're not driving here at Indy."
To which the Brazilian driver replied, "I'm not."
Former winner Tom Sneva, who crashed twice this month, was only half kidding when he warned:
"They should move the women and children back a few rows. I'm going to be doing a lot of cardiovascular exercises to build up my heart for race day."
The problem is a combination of many things, but the most mentioned are (1) new radial tires being used for the first time at Indianapolis, (2) a stretch of unusually warm weather that has left the track oily and slippery, and (3) a new '87 March chassis that apparently does not mix with the radial tires as well as the '86 March or the Lolas.
Seventeen of the 23 crashed cars were Marches.
The scary thing about nearly all of the crashes is that the driver had no warning of impending trouble.
Foyt, who hadn't hit a wall here since 1966 except when he was knocked into one, was following two cars into the first turn when the turbulent air swept his Lola up the track and into the concrete barrier.
"I don't know what happened," Foyt said. "All of a sudden it was gone."
Kevin Cogan, Fittipaldi's Patrick teammate, said he felt that anyone who finished had a shot at winning.
Even Mario Andretti, the pole-sitter and favorite to win his first 500 since 1969, is concerned. Andretti qualified at 215.390 m.p.h. and has consistently been the fastest driver on the track.
"Turbulence is going to be a problem," Andretti said. "I think it will be a conservative start because the track is going to take some getting used to on race day."
Andretti, in a Lola entered by Paul Newman and Carl Haas, seems more confident than he has been in years.
"I love being the favorite," he said. "If someone says that about you, you must have something going for you.
"Sure, you need some luck, but going in, I think we all feel good. The more times I compete here, the more chance I feel I have of luck going my way. It's the law of averages. I figure Lady Luck has to smile on me sometime."
Asked if he felt safe at today's speeds, Andretti replied: "I don't know how to answer that. Do you mean free of harm? Nothing's free of harm."
This is the third Indy car race of the season and Andretti has been on the pole for all three. He went on to win on the road course at Long Beach with a wire-to-wire performance, but Roberto Guerrero, the slender Colombian who now lives in San Juan Capistrano, came from last place to win the oval race at Phoenix.
If Mario wins, he will not quite be the oldest winner. When Bobby Unser won in 1981 he had been 47 eight days longer than Andretti is today.
Two other winners, defending champion Bobby Rahal, and two-time winner Rick Mears, share the front row with Andretti.
Rahal and Mears also indicated concern with race-day conditions.
"Every time you pit and change tires, it's like coming back on the track with an entirely different car," Rahal said. "The feel and balance of the car is changed radically.
"That means you have to be extra careful when you're getting up to speed."
Mears, who won in 1979 and 1984, will be in a year-old March after team owner Roger Penske put his new Penske PC-16s aside and brought in '86 Marches for Mears, Danny Sullivan and Al Unser.
"When you see guys like A. J. and Emmo (Fittipaldi) hitting the walls, it tends to grab your attention," Mears said. "In past years, people could buy a car, put their foot on the throttle and go fast. This year you've got to get your foot and head wired together. If you don't, you can be in serious trouble."
Mears also pointed out, however, that the last time he drove a year-old car was in 1979--the year he won his first 500.