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An Indy Repeat Flaunts History : Auto racing: Last year's winner, Emerson Fittipaldi, starts on the pole with the knowledge that no one has won consecutive Indianapolis 500s in almost 20 years.

May 27, 1990|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — When Emerson Fittipaldi rolls off the starting line today in defense of the title he won so dramatically in last year's Indianapolis 500, history will be against him.

No driver has repeated at Indy in almost 20 years, and only four have successfully defended their championship in 73 years. The last one, Al Unser, who won in 1970 and '71, is in today's race in an Alfa-Romeo.

The others were Bill Vukovich, 1953-54, whose grandson, Bill III, is also in today's race as the youngest driver among the 33 starters; Mauri Rose, 1947-48, and Wilbur Shaw, 1939-40.

"I know it is very difficult to repeat here, but the pressure has only made me work harder to try and win again," Fittipaldi, the Brazilian veteran, said as he watched a midweek rain wash the Indianapolis Motor Speedway clean for today's race. The weather forecast calls for an overcast sky with early-morning rain.

"I knew before I came to Indianapolis that there would be a lot of pressure on me and my family," Fittipaldi said, "because there would be such a demand on my time, but I feel I have managed to control the situation so that I am relaxed. It is the price of being the champion, but it is a price I am happy to pay."

The 43-year-old, two-time former Formula One world champion, who retired for two years before joining the American open-wheel racing circuit in 1984, will start on the pole today in a new Penske Chevy V-8. He qualified two weeks ago at a record 225.301 m.p.h.

Starting on the pole could be another historical footnote indicating that Fittipaldi won't repeat. Only twice in the past 18 years has the pole-sitter won the 500. Both times it was Rick Mears, Fittipaldi's teammate, who did it in 1979 and 1988.

One thing is different for Fittipaldi this time. Today he is with a different team, having taken his Marlboro sponsorship from the Pat Patrick-Chip Ganassi team to the Super Team of Roger Penske. The switch was part of a reported $30-million, three-year contract between Penske and the Philip Morris Tobacco Co. for his cars to carry the red-and-white colors of their product.

The move took Fittipaldi from a one-car operation to a three-car team with former Indy 500 winners Mears and Danny Sullivan as teammates, a situation he likes.

"(Among) three cars, I get much more information," Fittipaldi said. "That's the big advantage. I remember last year, at Phoenix and Long Beach, then Indianapolis, to set up the car was much more difficult. Because I was by myself, the information I was getting in testing the car and I was giving (team manager) Morris Nunn, I would say, was less than half the information I get now after practice."

Being on the Penske team should give Fittipaldi another edge. The team has a record seven 500 victories, five in the last decade: Mark Donohue, 1972; Mears, 1979; Bobby Unser, 1981; Mears, 1984; Sullivan, 1985; Al Unser, 1987; and Mears, 1988.

Fittipaldi won in a PC-18 that Penske sold to the Patrick-Ganassi team last year.

Mears will start in the middle of the front row, with the surprising Dutchman, Arie Luyendyk, on the outside. Mears will be making a record 10th front-row start. He and Bobby Unser had been tied with nine each.

Sullivan is in ninth position, on the outside of the third row.

"I'm not complaining," Sullivan, 40, said. "Rick and Emmo (Fittipaldi) came here in March and tested and got ahead of me. I was at home having a baby--or rather, my girlfriend was having a baby--so I missed that and fell behind. But all the guys put their heads together after each race or each practice, and I feel like my setup for the race is just the same as theirs."

In the second row is another former winner, Bobby Rahal, with the Andrettis, son Michael in the middle and father Mario, who won back in 1969 and is still looking for No. 2, on the outside.

"I think it will be a much closer race than it was last year," Fittipaldi said.

Last year's race was decided on the next-to-last lap when Fittipaldi, trying to pass Al Unser Jr. for the lead, touched wheels with Unser's Lola and sent him into the wall. However, the rest of the field was six laps or more behind.

Fittipaldi said: "I would say you have about seven, eight drivers with a good chance of winning: Rick, Danny, Al Jr., Mario, Michael, Bobby and Arie, he's been a surprise to everyone.

"I have a good feeling about my own car and my own chances, but I think I will have close competition the whole race."

The younger Unser, who had been favored to win the pole after an unofficial lap of 228.502 m.p.h. during practice, will start in the seventh position after being able to average only 220.920 in four qualifying laps.

"Qualifying was a setback," Unser said. "I made some changes (to the car) I shouldn't have done and I learned from it. A.J. (Foyt) kind of put it best. He said he made some changes, rolled the dice and won. I rolled the dice and it came up craps. I learned from it and we'll go on from there.

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