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Rain-checked

Indy 500: Teams get out hair dryers to get cars ready to try again today.

May 26, 1997|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — The 81st Indianapolis 500, the race some people believe might never finish 500 miles, instead never started.

For the fifth time in 81 years, the 500 was postponed because of rain Sunday when heavy showers drenched the Indianapolis Motor Speedway only minutes before Jim Nabors was to sing "Back Home Again in Indiana."

The 35 cars, which were in lines of three on the front straightaway, will be back again today, as will as many of the 300,000-plus fans as can afford an extra day in Indiana. Prospects are not all good for today, either, because forecasters predicted a 50% chance of more rain.

ABC-TV and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway radio network will carry the race at 9 a.m. PDT, as had been scheduled Sunday.

Although there was no official announcement, it was generally believed that if there is a postponement today, the race will be held over until Saturday.

That was the situation in 1986, the last time the race was postponed. The original date that year was also May 25, with the race taking place six days later.

Most of the teams, already apprehensive that their almost untested engines might not last 500 miles under racing conditions, now face another problem: making sure the electronics get completely dry.

"We've got to check everything out," said Larry Curry, Team Menard's director of racing. "All of our radios and computers were out in the pits. The rain came so fast that the pits were wiped out. Spare ignition boxes and other spares had a cover on them, but nothing was waterproof. There was no hiding from the water."

Late into Sunday night, crewmen were busy going over every part with hair dryers.

Most of the drivers said the delay would not affect them personally.

"There's no point in getting all upset about it," said Arie Luyendyk, the 1990 winner who will start on the pole today in an Aurora-powered G Force. "It's just a rainy day. I do feel sorry for the fans, especially the people who can't come back."

Defending champion Buddy Lazier said, "If the race starts [today], I hope it goes all the way. I want to run 500 miles. If you're leading [a rain-shortened race], it's great, but everybody wants to run to the end. If we were going to run a short race, we'd plan for a sprint. But we've been planning all month for an endurance race.

"The fans are the ones who are discomforted. I really feel bad for them, but you know, even after they were drenched, a lot of them still had smiles. It was wonderful walking out there this morning and seeing all those stands filled."

Most of the 300,000 fans were in their seats when a thunderstorm suddenly hit, flooding the track and the stands almost before anyone could get an umbrella open.

The wettest group on the premises had to be the Purdue band, which played on through downpour after downpour, in the best traditions of an orchestra playing as the ship goes down.

At least one driver couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.

Vincenzo Sospiri, an Italian Formula 3000 driver who will start on the front row, has never raced on an oval or anywhere else in the United States.

"I am used to racing in the wet," he said. "Why don't we just start in the wet with rain tires and let the race go cautiously."

Eddie Cheever, who drove eight years in Formula One before coming to Indy cars, said Sospiri must have been joking.

"I drove in many Formula One races in the rain, but there is a big difference," Cheever said. "There are no concrete walls on road courses. When you slip and slide, there's usually a nice sand pit to catch you, or a long runoff area. On ovals, there is no sand and no runoffs. I think Vincenzo was perhaps pulling your leg."

Tony Stewart, Team Menard's No. 1 driver and one of the race favorites, said the postponement made no difference to him.

"What is there to worry about?" he said. "It doesn't matter. I just want to get 500 miles in."

When it appeared that the rain wasn't going to stop, chief steward Keith Ward called proceedings off at 1:30 p.m., Indianapolis time.

The only other times the race had been postponed a day or more were 1915, 1967, 1973 and 1986.

Of all the postponements, the worst was 1973. It started as planned on Monday, May 28, but a first-lap accident involving Salt Walter caused it to be red-flagged. Before officials could restart the race, rain fell.

On Tuesday, the cars were on their second parade lap when it began raining again. Late Wednesday, with all the food stands and restrooms closed and almost no one in the stands, U.S. Auto Club officials hastily started the race, which was stopped because of darkness after only 332 1/2 miles.

Gordon Johncock was the winner, but there was no ceremony in Victory Lane and no victory banquet.

In 1940, although there was no postponement, officials ran the final 50 laps under caution because of rain. Rex Mays, who was poised to take the lead from Wilbur Shaw, had to parade along behind him for the final 125 miles.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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