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Qualifying Turns Into a Boat Race

Indy 500: 1998 pole-sitter barely makes the field in a backup car after crashing Saturday.

May 22, 2000|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — On a Sunday so dreary for nearly five hours that more spectators were hanging around the speedway's new entertainment plaza than watching nothing happen on the race track, "Bubble Day" lived up to its name in a dramatic final 45 minutes that saw cars and drivers bumped and bumped again.

For a time, it appeared that wrecks and timid driving might leave the Indianapolis 500 field short of its 33 cars as the 6 p.m. quitting time approached. When Robby Unser gambled and accepted a speed of 212.678 mph--more than 10 miles slower than pole-sitter Greg Ray--it seemed he might have stolen a spot in next Sunday's big race.

Then Billy Boat, Steve Knapp and Jack Miller put their cars in the field, making 33. It was 5:30 when Miller's No. 21 took the checkered flag.

Boat, the 1998 pole-sitter while driving for former Indy 500-winning-driver-turned-car-owner A.J. Foyt, had crashed his Team Pelfrey car early in the day, wrecking it so badly it could not be repaired. Foyt offered the Arizona veteran one of the Foyt/Brack Motorsports cars to make another try. He put it in the field, but barely. A third lap of only 150.928 mph, caused when the engine temporarily quit, left him on the bubble with a 192.105 average.

Lyn St. James, returning after having crashed heavily on Saturday, took teammate Stephan Gregoire's backup car from Dick Simon's stable and bumped Boat. This left Unser on the bubble.

Davy Jones, coming back for the first time since a life-threatening crash in 1996, reached 214.932 in Team Coulson's car, bumping Unser. Scott Harrington, with a 215.971, immediately bumped Jones. Roberto Guerrero, another veteran struggling in a comeback, gave it a shot but fell short.

Only three minutes remained when Jeret Schroeder bumped Harrington, leaving Miller on the bubble at 216.154 in a car that had been driven 219 mph by Tony Stewart in checking it out earlier Sunday. Stewart, who drives in Winston Cup, is co-owner of the No. 21 car, but will be in Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600 Winston Cup race on Sunday.

Dan Drinan was next. If he took a warmup lap and his four qualifying laps, his would be the last attempt. But after only one lap he waved off.

Thirty seconds were left on the clock when Foyt helped push Boat onto the track in Eliseo Salazar's backup G Force. The gun went off as Boat went through the third turn of his warmup lap, but all he needed was to be moving to get a qualifying attempt.

He had to better 216.154. As Boat took the green flag, Foyt's face was full of torment. Boat had crashed his car in the morning and the car he was attempting to qualify had not had a lap on it.

"I have to hand it to A.J.," said Boat. "He said, 'Go out and stand on it.' I didn't have a radio. I didn't really didn't know what speed I was running."

His first lap was 219.947 and Foyt forced a smile, but only a small one. The next lap was 219.357 and he brightened considerably. As Boat cruised through his final two laps, Foyt thrust his fist in the air as if he'd just won the 500.

Foyt had done it again. It was his third car in the race, having had Salazar qualify on the front row and Jeff Ward on the second row Saturday.

Left waiting at the gate were Guerrero and Harrington.

*

For the first time in the Indianapolis 500's 84 renewals, the famous command on Sunday will be, "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines."

It has been "Lady and gentlemen" on other occasions since Janet Guthrie first qualified in 1977 and when Lyn St. James made the starting grid, but Sunday will be the first time for two women in the race. And they are the two extremes: Sarah Fisher, 19, is the youngest driver, and St. James, 53, is the oldest.

*

Mario Andretti, not known for being politically correct, said he still isn't convinced that a woman should drive in the Indy 500.

"They're testing themselves in what is determined as a man's sport and they've carved a little bit of a place for them," the Hall of Fame veteran said when asked about the women at Indy. "But they've never proven that they can be competitive. I mean, I'm talking about winning. I'm not talking about second or third. Winning is what it's all about. And until they win, they're not a factor. It's that simple."

*

Jason Leffler, three-time U.S. Auto Club midget champion from Long Beach, celebrated getting into his first Indianapolis 500 Saturday afternoon by winning a USAC Silver Bullet series race later that night at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Leffler won the pole with a 121.6687 mph track record and led every lap in a car co-owned by Winston Cup driver Tony Stewart and car builder Bob East.

Leffler will be busy this weekend too. He will drive Joe Gibbs' Busch Grand National car on Saturday at Lowe's Speedway in Concord, N.C., then return to drive in the 500.

*

Andy Hillenburg, the Indianapolis native who will start 33rd Sunday, is not the driver of the same name who races World of Outlaws sprint cars.

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