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Luyendyk Is Up to Speed in Slower Car

Auto racing: Dutchman wins second Indy 500 pole; Stewart and Italian rookie Sospiri complete the first row.

May 11, 1997|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — Given the dramatic drop in speeds in the Indy Racing League era of Indy cars, Arie Luyendyk's name may be in the record books forever as the fastest man to drive at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It is unlikely his one-lap record of 237.498 mph set last year will ever be approached.

But the 43-year-old Flying Dutchman, shorn of the flowing locks that were his trademark when he came from Holland to race in the United States 10 years ago, proved Saturday he can be the fastest even when he is slower.

Luyendyk, driving a G Force-Aurora for Fred Treadway, won the pole for the May 25 Indianapolis 500 with one lap of 218.659 mph and a four-lap average speed of 218.263 mph. It was his second pole, having started in front in 1993 with a speed of 223.967.

From the day practice started Tuesday, Luyendyk's had been the fastest car on the track despite having done no testing at the Speedway.

"Testing would have helped us, sure, but the good thing is that we had no mechanical problems during the entire week," Luyendyk said. "Our engine manufacturer did a great job.

"The data we had from past years helped us. I'm glad we didn't test here, it was too damn cold. I'd rather stay at home [in Scottsdale, Ariz.]"

With the IRL mandating that its engines be derivatives of production-based, non-turbocharged V8s, qualifying speeds are the slowest since 1987 when Mario Andretti qualified on the pole at 215.390.

From another viewpoint, however, Luyendyk's speed is a record of sorts. In fact, all 21 qualifiers bettered the Indy record for normally aspirated engines of 204.224 set by Steve Chassey in 1985.

The huge front grandstands, where an estimated 200,000 fans annually showed up for pole qualifying day, were barely half full. The lower speeds may have been a factor, but more likely it is the racing public's dissatisfaction with what has become of what once was Indy car racing--with drivers such as Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti and Bobby Rahal racing in Brazil instead of Indianapolis.

On an ideal afternoon for time trials, 21 cars qualified for the 81st 500. The remaining 12 positions will be determined either today or next Saturday and Sunday.

Tony Stewart, who qualified second last year and was moved into the pole position with the death of pole winner Scott Brayton, again qualified second, this time at 218.021 in Team Menard's G Force-Aurora.

"It felt like somebody kicked my dog," a disappointed Stewart said. "When you have the fastest practice laps, faster than what was needed, you have high expectations. It was just a bad decision we made on the tires."

Stewart had tested several thousand miles on Firestone tires before team owner John Menard abruptly switched to Goodyears three days ago. Then, when Stewart failed to run competitive laps, he switched back to Firestones on Friday.

"All that time we lost switching one way and then the other cost us time we could have used to trim the car," Stewart said. "I'll forget about it in a few minutes, though. I'm headed for IRP [Indianapolis Raceway Park] to run my midget tonight."

The front row will be filled by Italian rookie Vincenzo Sospiri, who was driving a Formula One Lotus when the year started, only to find himself without a ride when the Lotus team folded. Sospiri, who had never driven on an oval track before last Sunday's rookie orientation, qualified in his Dallara-Aurora with a consistent 216.822-mph run.

"I think the biggest surprise today was Sospiri," Luyendyk said. "You just never know when somebody's going to come out of the blue like that and take you by surprise."

Sospiri is one of Andy Evans' five-driver Scandia team, which is coached by former driver-car owner Dick Simon.

"Simon was the key to making the deal work," Sospiri said. "He told me to keep my foot down and turn left when I came off the corners."

Winston Cup driver Robby Gordon, who passed up the rain-postponed Winston 500 Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway to try for the front row here, failed to make it in Felix Sabates' car. His disappointing 213.211 left him on the outside of the fourth row.

"It's frustrating," Gordon said. "We only ran about six laps here. I've got to hand it to Arie, getting the job done with no testing here."

The first seven rows offer a potpourri of drivers: two former winners (Luyendyk and Buddy Lazier), five rookies (Sospiri, Jeff Ward, Affonso Giaffone, Kenny Brack and Jack Miller), one woman (Lyn St. James) and one former national motocross champion (Ward).

Ten of the 21 are foreign-born, although Roberto Guerrero (Colombia), and Ward (Scotland) are American citizens. The others are Luyendyk (Netherlands), Sospiri and Alessandro Zampedri (Italy), Goodyear (Canada), Eliseo Salazar (Chile), Stephan Gregoire (France), Brack (Sweden) and Giaffone (Brazil).

"I'm really happy being here for the first time," Giaffone said. "I have been watching Indy on TV since I was a little boy, and I've got to say TV doesn't do it justice. I can't believe the size of the place.

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