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INDIANAPOLIS 500 NOTES

It's Just Another Game of Hardball for Stewart

May 27, 1997|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

INDIANAPOLIS — Tony Stewart was so excited about being the 15-lap leader of the Indianapolis 500 Monday that he had to be awakened from a nap to tell reporters about it.

He shrugged off the early lead, saying it was about the equivalent of a practice session and that he wouldn't have any trouble going back to sleep. But he was considerably more animated about the first of those 15 laps of the rain-interrupted race, and what he considered attempted intimidation by pole-sitter and 1990 winner Arie Luyendyk.

Stewart, who started next to Luyendyk, passed him coming out of the fourth turn.

Asked about the start, Stewart said, "With the exception of Arie trying to squeeze me and Vincenzo [Sospiri, the third front-row starter], it was OK.

"It was definitely a psych job. Arie's a veteran here and he knows what he's doing . . . but he was trying to play hardball with a guy who plays hardball 106 times a year, not just five days a year."

Stewart was a rookie here last year but is a veteran of racing in karts, midget cars, sprint cars and dirt tracks and said he doesn't intimidate easily.

In fact, he said, the try by Luyendyk prompted him to change his strategy:

"I didn't plan on trying to lead any of the first 100 laps, but when I saw that, I decided I'd lead the first lap. [I caught him] pretty easily and pretty quickly."

Luyendyk said that was mere happenstance.

"The only reason he passed me was, my spotter told me there was a blown engine in Turn 4. I got out of the throttle, actually pretty good."

*

One of the many race-day traditions here--the release of thousands of balloons just before the start--might have caused a safety problem had the start not been delayed by the three-car wreck on the pace lap.

Normally, prevailing westerly winds lift the balloons high and carry them over the vast infield and into the countryside.

But winds from the east, gusting to 20 mph, kept the balloons from rising Monday and drove them across the main straightaway, where many were caught against the safety fence atop the outside wall.

Chief Steward Keith Ward said he was concerned when he saw what had happened, but most of the balloons had found their way over the fence by the time the race started and there was no problem.

*

Quote of the day, after two days of rain, by driver Paul Durant, when asked how the interruption would affect him: "It is frustrating, once the race gets started, not to finish it. But we're all in the same boat."

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