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JIM MURRAY

Now Simon Has Quality With Quantity at Indy

May 26, 1994|JIM MURRAY

INDIANAPOLIS — It is the romantic view of most auto race fans--conditioned by years of Clark Gable and James Garner movies--that the race driver is this dashing, swashbuckling character who straps himself into any old stock-block machine and streaks out for some hell-bent, wheel-to-wheel combat with a similarly boisterous cast of daredevils whom he beats by superior nerve and reckless courage.

It's a nice bit of mythology. Auto races might have been decided in Ray Harroun's or Barney Oldfield's day that way. But today, they're decided the same way most other things in life are--on a computer screen. By a complicated system of science and engineering that doesn't eliminate the human element, just makes it secondary.

At 232 m.p.h., can you be said to be "driving" a vehicle--or are you just hanging onto the back of a raging tiger?

No matter how good a rider he has on him, no burro is going to win a Kentucky Derby.

And no driver is going to win Indianapolis in a bad car.

The wonder of Indy is not the high-powered teams that come in with their high-tech equipment, unlimited resources and cars that embody every automotive advantage Detroit or Stuttgart ever charted.

You get one of these engineering gems and put Nigel Mansell in it--and just wait for him in Victory Lane.

But how about the guys who start this thing every year with no real hope of winning--the chorus line, so to speak, the spear carriers of Indy? There's no Indy without them, but they fire it up year after year, fill out the card in cars that are light years behind the star chassis in speed, reliability and endurance. They are the Don Quixotes of the roaring road, dreaming impossible dreams.

Dick Simon knows all about that side of Indy. Dick was a guy who was president of his own insurance company in Utah who couldn't resist the lure of racing. May after May he showed up in an underpowered, uncompetitive used car that served as traffic on race day. Dick, in effect, got in the Derby on a burro. Dick would start 33rd, 32nd, 31st, pilot his car to a middle-of-the-race finish. But no one would put him in a set-up commanded by Penske or Newman-Haas or any of the lords of the speedway. Dick's cars were put together by wrenches, not state-of-the-art computers.

"Sometimes, we'd hawk the barrels in front of the glamour garages, take the gear boxes out of 'em," Simon recalls. "We put 'em together with everything but chewing gum. But we got 'em in the race. Then, we got sponsors almost by going door to door like vacuum cleaner salesmen."

To the Dick Simons in the world, Indy is like a fickle seductive mistress. "I gave up a job, a marriage, a career to get in a race car," he admits.

Some people would say Indy destroyed him, but Simon couldn't live without it. Given the wheels under him, he was a very good driver. Once, he had a car that wouldn't even start. He started 33rd and finished 33rd. The miracle was he qualified the car at all.

But he learned Indy as you never could from a Mercedes-Benz proving ground or a Detroit boardroom. When he started as high as sixth (1987), he finished sixth. He was a quick, resourceful pilot of whom a competitor once said, "He drives five miles an hour faster than his car."

When he got too old to drive --he'll be 61 this year--the thought of leaving Indy never occurred to Dick Simon. He would simply be on the other side of the pit. He began pasting together a team instead of a car.

Dick Simon has more cars in this year's Indy 500 than any owner has ever started--six. Last year, he had five and four the year before that.

He has a woman, two Japanese, a Brazilian and three rookies.

He has a driver on the front row, Raul Boesel, splitting the royal Penskes, Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi with their 21st-Century dynamics.

Indy's first lady, Lyn St. James, is a Simon driver, starting at the end of Row 2, outmaneuvering former winners Mario Andretti and Arie Luyendyk to get there, to say nothing of Her Majesty's special agent, Mansell.

Simon's other drivers are scattered through the field with rookies Hideshi Matsuda and Dennis Vitolo in Row 5, Hiro Matsushita in Row 6 and rookie Marco Greco starting where Dick Simon felt familiar--last.

You can't pull a car off a lube rack and tee it up at Indy anymore. Dick Simon spends more hours in a suit and tie than a flameproof coverall these days, and when he isn't on a racetrack, he's in a boardroom selling the wonders of Indy as a marketing tool, pounding desks from Tokyo to J.C. Penney headquarters. "It is the most visible championship in all of sport," he insists. "A sponsor is buying more than a 230-mile-an-hour billboard, he's buying a piece of Americana. You don't have to explain the Indianapolis 500 in any corner of the world."

Racing at Indy is as big business as the stock exchange today, and the Dick Simon who once only needed a helmet and bandanna now needs a briefcase and a slide show to scare up about $1 million per car. He has a 38,000-square-foot car shop, 62 employees and a direct line to most Fortune 500 companies.

He doesn't pull gear boxes out of dumpsters anymore--his cars are as thoroughbred as Man O' War. There isn't an inch of this track he doesn't know or on which he finally had to park a spent car.

He tests his drivers as thoroughly as his engines and stopped in Florida to rent a track and check out St. James before signing her.

He hopes about 2 p.m. Sunday to be able to stand near the first woman ever to win Indy, or the first Japanese or the first rookie in 67 years and to thank the Roger Penskes and/or all the modern Dick Simons for filling the field and tell them how grateful he is because racing couldn't survive without them. He ought to know.

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