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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

Cars Not the Only Things Going Around in Circles at Indy

May 09, 1997|SHAV GLICK

INDIANAPOLIS — Maybe it's the uncertainty caused by new Indy Racing League regulations, or maybe it's simply because it's May in Indianapolis, but with pole qualifying Saturday for the 81st Indianapolis 500, it seems there is more confusion this year than usual.

How else can you explain Team Menard and driver Tony Stewart testing 2,700 miles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Firestone tires, running consistently at speeds of 218 mph, then switching to Goodyears four days before qualifying? When Stewart couldn't better 215 in practice, car owner John Menard announced Thursday the team is switching back.

Or how about Arie Luyendyk, the 43-year-old Dutchman who skipped all preseason practice on Indy's 2 1/2-mile rectangular oval and then proceeded to establish himself as the pole favorite with laps over 220 mph?

Or Jim Guthrie, the Cinderella winner of the Phoenix 200 with a shoestring operation who parlayed his surprising win to a hefty package of sponsorship, and then couldn't get more than two Olds Aurora engines for himself and rookie teammate Sam Schmidt? Guthrie hopes to get a fresh one next week to use for the May 25 race.

Or Steve Kinser, the World of Outlaws' 14-time champion from nearby Bloomington, returning to the Speedway after an absence of 16 years to try to make the race? In 1981, Kinser easily passed his rookie test in an A.J. Foyt-owned car but crashed the day before qualifying. He had not driven at Indy since then until Thursday, when he began rookie tests.

Kinser's not giving up his regular job. He will drive his winged sprint car tonight at Terre Haute.

The main bone of contention, however, in and around the Speedway grounds, is the reliability of the normally aspirated V8 Olds Aurora and Nissan Infiniti engines. They are all in their first year of development, and the stress of 10,000 rpm on untried parts has taken its toll.

There has even been speculation that there might not be 33 cars to fill the starting field.

Tony George, IRL founder and president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway; and Leo Mehl, IRL executive director, claimed there was no cause for concern in what turned out to be a "feel good" news conference on a rainy Thursday morning.

"A lot has been made of the engine situation, but I am sure we will have 33 cars start the race," George said. "A lot of people that are working on these engines feel very strongly that, given time to develop within the next six months, which means by the end of our season, these things should be very reliable. We look forward to that."

Mehl, a fixture at Indianapolis for 30 years with the Goodyear tire team before he retired and took a position with the IRL, pointed out that scare stories have been part of the 500 for years.

"I think the problems you see are the kind of problems you see crop up every May," he said. "The only difference is that the names are different. Earlier in the year, there were a number of engine failures, but the Aurora and Infiniti engine builders have made significant changes. I think we've only lost three engines since practice started here. And the handling of the cars has been wonderful.

"We've already achieved two of our basic goals. One was to control the costs. I think the basic cost of our cars is about 50% of what it was.

"The other was safety. We wanted to cut the speed, which we've done by about 20 mph. Cars ran 230-mph laps last year, and we sure didn't want that again. Cars qualified at 237; this year it'll probably be closer to 220. The fact that we've reduced speeds is a definite positive.

"The average spectator at the track won't know whether the cars are running 230 or 215 unless someone tells them. What's important is that the cars will be competitive. It's not the top speeds, it's the relationship between them."

Saturday, barring rain, that relationship will be known.

NASCAR

John Andretti has been the pole-sitter for the Winston 500 at Talladega for nearly two weeks now, but that hasn't prevented him from hanging around Foyt's garage in Indianapolis, still looking for a ride in the 500. Andretti, who drove in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on the same day in 1994, hopes to do it again on May 25. But when the Talladega race was rained out April 27, it was rescheduled for May 10, the day Andretti had hoped to qualify at Indianapolis.

"We'll see how things go at Talladega, and if things work out with A.J., I'll be at Indy for the second week of qualifying," Andretti said. Foyt is Andretti's godfather.

Robby Gordon also has plans for an Indy-Charlotte double, but he will be in Indy this weekend for pole qualifying. Joe Nemecheck, his Team Sabco teammate who failed to make the 43-car field for Talladega, will drive Gordon's car in the Winston 500.

CART

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