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At Marlboro 500, Change Is Almost as Quick as the Cars

Motor racing: With Gugelmin on the pole at 240.942 mph, accident puts Zanardi on sideline and Luyendyk in today's race.

September 28, 1997|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FONTANA — When CART champion Alex Zanardi withdrew from today's Marlboro 500 because of dizzy spells, team owner Chip Ganassi flew in his old friend Arie Luyendyk, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, as a replacement.

"Arie still has his Target uniform, which he brought along with him," Ganassi said. Luyendyk drove for Ganassi in 1992 and 1993, when he won the pole for the 1993 Indy 500 and finished second.

For the past two seasons, Luyendyk has been driving for Fred Treadway in the Indy Racing League, which included a win in this year's Indianapolis 500. He also won at Indy in 1990.

Because he arrived too late Saturday to qualify on California Speedway's lightning-fast D-shaped oval, Luyendyk will start from the rear of the fastest field in auto racing history.

Mauricio Gugelmin, of Bruce McCaw's PacWest team, followed up an all-time record practice lap of 242.333 mph in the morning with a record official qualifying lap of 240.942 mph.

Curiously, the records the Brazilian veteran broke were set by Luyendyk before the 1996 Indianapolis 500, a practice lap of 239.260 and a qualifying lap of 237.498.

"I tend to think of 240 as just a number, but that's a damn big number," said Gugelmin, who left Formula One in 1993 to race with CART. "I knew I had run 240 on my warmup lap, so I tried to remain calm and just do the same on my next two laps. Running at these speeds, you can get a little hyper.

"In qualifying, at these speeds, your job is to just steer correctly. You just keep your right foot clear to the floor. It is a nice feeling when the car is that good, but it is too fast. We don't need to go that fast."

Jimmy Vasser, last year's PPG CART champion and Zanardi's teammate, will start alongside Gugelmin with a qualifying speed of 239.222 mph. Because Zanardi demolished both of his cars in crashes Friday, Luyendyk will drive Vasser's backup car.

Gugelmin was not the only one who complained about the blistering speeds, which were attributed to a smooth, new surface that allowed for a comfortable transition through the 14-degree banked corners.

"The cornering speed isn't that much different than the average speed," Gugelmin said. "When those speeds are so close, it shows the team is getting the most efficiency out of the car."

Bryan Herta, third-fastest qualifier at 237.890, said, "We're really going too fast here. It's not very comfortable at these speeds. I think most of the drivers, not all of them but most of them, feel that way."

Zanardi, who had been cleared by CART officials to drive, despite having smacked the wall at a reported 88 Gs on his second crash, said he woke up Saturday with a headache and was examined by Dr. Stephen Olvey, CART director of medical affairs.

Olvey said the 30-year-old Italian had a mild concussion, which would cause "dizziness with extreme motion," making it all but impossible to drive a car 230 mph around an oval.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," said Zanardi, who clinched the CART championship two weeks ago. "Not only for myself, but for the entire team and the fans. But for me to drive the car right now would not be fair to myself or the team or the other drivers."

Zanardi has a history of head injuries. Four years ago, in August 1993, he crashed on the Spa-Francorchamps course in Belgium and suffered temporary blindness from swelling in the brain.

"People thought I was finished as a driver," Zanardi said earlier this year. "After the sort of impact I had, people thought I wasn't going to be the same person."

Ganassi, who rescued Zanardi from a faltering Formula One career last year, said he asked him what he thought about having a replacement for today's race.

"He said he didn't mind and he appreciated the fact that I asked him," Ganassi said. "Then I called Arie. After he accepted the offer, I sent my private plane to Phoenix to pick him up and fly him back."

Luyendyk arrived just as the qualifying session ended.

After the Indy Lights race, he drove 15 laps and worked his speed up to 225.988 mph. He will get an additional 30 minutes of practice in this morning's 8 a.m. warmup. The race starts at noon.

"I was in Washington, D.C., Friday and did not even know that Alex crashed," Luyendyk said. "I came home late Friday night and this morning about 9:20 I got a call from Chip [Ganassi] asking me if I wanted to come over.

"When I heard about Roger [Penske] building this place, I had thought about trying to get a ride here, but I never dreamed it would happen on Saturday morning before the race."

For the 500 miles, Luyendyk said his plan would be to "get in a groove, stay on the lead lap and when I get comfortable, start moving forward."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Race at a Glance

* What: Marlboro 500.

* When: Noon today.

* Where: California Speedway, Fontana.

* TV-Radio: ESPN, 5 p.m., delayed; KCKC (1350), noon.

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