INDIANAPOLIS — When it comes time for the comeback award in Indy car racing, how can anyone choose among Scott Pruett, Pat Patrick and Firestone? Tough, but not necessary, because they come as a package.
Pruett, a former boy wonder from Roseville, Calif., is back after a year's absence, brought on in part by a disastrous two years of trying to develop the Truesports "all-American chassis."
Patrick, owner of three Indianapolis 500 winning cars and two championships in 23 years of Indy car racing, is back three years after selling his team.
And Firestone, once the dominant tire here with 41 consecutive winners between 1922 and 1966, is back after a 21-year absence with new ownership, the Bridgestone Corp. of Japan.
Together, they are leading the PPG Cup Indy Car series after five races and are looking for more success May 28 in the 79th Indianapolis 500.
Pruett qualified Patrick's Lola-Ford in the middle of the third row with a four-lap average of 227.403 m.p.h.
"Now we can go to work on the race setup," he said. "Being out for a while makes you appreciate how all the pieces are coming together."
Although Pruett, who tested more than 10,000 miles on Firestones last year to prepare the Japanese-built tires for American racing competition, has not won a race, he has displayed remarkable consistency. He finished fourth at Miami, third in Australia, ninth at Phoenix, second at Long Beach and eighth at Nazareth, Pa.
"Frankly . . . we've done better than I expected," he said. "I hoped the car would have a couple of top-five, or -six, finishes while we worked our way up the learning curve.
"But Pat put together a tremendous team with [general manager] Jim McGee and [chief engineer] Steve Newey and the Firestone people. Our success has been the sum of all the pieces working together. I'm just another cog in the gears."
Twice in the last five years, it appeared that Pruett's career might be over.
On March 16, 1990, he crashed while practicing at West Palm Beach, Fla., breaking both knees, ankles, heels and his back. Doctors said he would never drive a race car again. But 10 months later--with a steel rod in his spine--he was testing a Jaguar prototype sports car and in February won an International Race of Champions at Daytona against the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Al Unser Jr.
"Winning IROC was a real boost for my confidence and showed a lot of people that I hadn't lost anything after the accident," Pruett said. "That was a real landmark in my career."
The pain and time lost in rehabilitation were nothing, though, compared to his next disappointment, Pruett said of trying to help Truesports team director Steve Horne develop an American-built Indy car chassis.
"The Truesports car wouldn't perform as well as everyone expected, and I got most of the blame," he said. "It was tough on my confidence and worse on the way people thought about my ability. It wasn't until Bobby Rahal, who is one of the best drivers in the world, found the car impossible to drive that I felt total vindication."
Rahal, the Indy car champion at the time, was forced to sit out the 1993 Indy 500 after failing to qualify the Truesports car. He later abandoned the project.
"When Rahal gave up on it, it showed it wasn't my fault," Pruett said. "Living with that perceived stigma was far tougher on me than the rehabilitation after my accident."
Without an Indy car ride in 1994, Pruett was glad to accept Patrick's offer to become a full-time test driver for the Firestone team.
At one track after another, Pruett, tire engineers and the Patrick crew raced endlessly to find a tire that would be competitive with the Goodyears.
"You can't imagine how boring it was to drive lap after lap on all those tracks in front of empty stands," he said. "There's no feeling of accomplishment. . . . You can't even try to go as fast as you can.
"In tire tests, the engineers want laps at a constant speed so they can check the results from different compounds and combinations. We tested at most tracks right after a race, so we could match our times with ones set during the race.
"It's paying off . . . but it's a whole lot more fun getting back to racing."
In the first weekend of time trials, seven cars qualified for the 500 on Firestones.
To keep himself in racing trim last year, Pruett drove a Camaro to the Sports Car Club of America's Trans-Am championship, winning three races. He also was on the winning team in the Daytona 24-hour race.
"Trans-Am helped me maintain my sanity, and while a Camaro isn't an Indy car, the basics of racing are the same, whatever the type of car," Pruett said.
Patrick hired Pruett strictly as a test driver, but as the tests progressed, he decided to keep him on to drive his '95 Lola-Ford in the Indy car season.
"Scott did a good job, but based on our test results, I expected we would have won a race by now," the 66-year-old oil wildcatter said. "We should have won at Phoenix. The car is excellent and Firestone couldn't be more cooperative."