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JIM MURRAY

Forget A.J., Call Noah for a Boat

May 26, 1997|JIM MURRAY

INDIANAPOLIS — Well, it do rain in Indianapolis in the summer time. Maybe God doesn't like auto racing on Sundays. He did away with it at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this Sunday. Left it with nowhere to go and 300,000-plus people sitting in the rain with their potato salad, chocolate brownies and fried chicken--to say nothing of the cases of Bud Lite, Jack Daniels and Ripple--to spread all over the landscape. This is not America's Race. It's America's Picnic.

I came 2,000 miles to cover a rainstorm. Reminds me of the story of the time the New York Times reporter was sent to cover the Johnstown Flood and, overcome with the emotion of it all, he wrote, "God sat on a rock in Johnstown today and wept." And the editor in New York interrupted the transmission to wire, "Forget the flood. Interview God."

Well, we didn't even get the national anthem over with Sunday before God intervened. About 20 minutes before the start of the race, the heavens opened and deluged the 81st Indianapolis 500. They had 35 cars on the line, trucks were blow-drying the track from earlier drizzles and everybody thought all systems were "Go."

They put the race on hold and kept telling the fans to be "patient," but that's hard to do when you're soaking wet and starting to sneeze and the chicken is soggy--and you can't even interview God.

The good news is, no one crashed.

Rain, ordinarily, is nice. It fills the cisterns, waters the crops, invigorates the rivers and bathes the land.

And it stops races.

For the first time in years, I was sorry to see it rain. Back home, rain is almost always a welcome sight. But it's racing's worst nightmare.

Modern race cars in America cannot function in heavy rain. Or even light rain. They turn into surfboards, hydroplanes, rafts on white water. Their slick tires can send the cars hurtling in circles, bouncing off walls and into each other and around the track as helpless as a log going through rapids.

So, here we sit covering the race that wasn't. Rain is no stranger to the Indy 500. But, it appears from a study of its history, rain could not have been a factor in early days. Not till 1926 did the race have to be stopped in progress on account of rain. That year, it was stopped twice, then restricted to 160 laps (400 miles). As late as 1940, they ran as many as 50 laps in the rain (under caution).

Postponements are nothing new to Indy but only five times in its history has the race been shortened. In 1976, we had the Indianapolis 255 (102 laps), much like a five-inning ball game.

God still holds the green flag. Will he drop it for a start? Prospects for today's rescheduled race is for more of same.

What does it mean to be a race driver and go through a month's intense work and planning and finally get ready to climb in the car and be told "Hold it right there?" And later be told to go home and sleep on it another night?

I brought the question to A.J. Foyt, an owner now but a racer who has driven more races (35) and more miles (12,272) around here than any driver who ever lived.

"Well, what do you do when it rains?" demands Foyt. "You let it rain!"

Ah, A.J.!

Eddie Cheever is not so philosophical: "You have a routine, a schedule you set up for race day. You try to get yourself relaxed for the time the race starts. Then the rain subverts your whole program and you have to start all over again the next day. It puts everything out of kilter."

For Owner Foyt, it means drying out the electronics of a car that had to sit out in the pouring rain, and it means draining off some fuel and hoping the machine is not temperamental.

For Driver Cheever, it doesn't mean another sleepless night: "I sleep my best the night before a race--and badly the night after."

If the cars recover--and the drivers do, too--and God consents, the 81st Indy is scheduled again, same time, same station today.

But God did make little green apples and it does rain in Indianapolis in the summer time. Maybe their only shot will be to turn it into America's Cup--or a canoe race.

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