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Sky's the Limit as Indy Qualifying Is Rained Out

May 11, 2003|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — New Zealand rookie Scott Dixon blistered Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a 233.236-mph lap, Phoenix veteran Billy Boat survived one of the most frightening one-car crashes in the track's history, and then the rains came. And came. And came.

With warnings on all the speedway's monitors to "Please vacate the stands, a violent storm is approaching," there was little doubt Saturday morning that chief steward Brian Barnhart would call off Indianapolis 500 pole day qualifying.

Rain began falling at 10:24 a.m. CDT and when the skies darkened to an eerie, shadowy color that smacked of tornado weather, the track was closed at 12:02 p.m. It was the first time since 1990 that pole day qualifying had been rained out.

Qualifying was rescheduled for today. Everything will follow Saturday's planned schedule except TV. Instead of ABC, today's time trials will be on ESPN2 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4-5 p.m.

Boat, 37, had just completed a lap of 223.946 during pre-qualifying practice and it appeared he was heading toward the pits after coming off the fourth turn. His car, a Dallara-Chevrolet entered by Panther Racing, broke loose and did a 180-degree spin before hitting the safety attenuator at the end of the north pit wall.

The impact ripped the car apart and sent it spinning in a pair of 360s across the track before it slid to a stop on the main straightaway, facing backward.

Boat was taken to Methodist Hospital, where he was evaluated and released a few hours later.

Speedway medical director Dr. Henry Bock said Boat will be reexamined this morning to determine if he is fit to drive.

"The attenuator did what it was supposed to do," said Kevin Forbes, track engineer. "The car didn't redirect the attenuator. It did exactly what we hoped it would do. It stayed intact for the full duration of the impact."

The attenuator was designed to absorb energy at the end of the pit wall after accidents to Dennis Firestone in 1986, Kevin Cogan in 1989 and Mark Dismore in 1991. It is a rounded concrete barrier at the end of the two north turn pit walls. It is covered by a form-fitting material similar to that fitted inside of a driver's helmet. It was recommended by safety expert Bill Simpson because it is superior to and less flammable than standard Styrofoam, according to Forbes.

While safety crews were picking up debris from Boat's car, and another attenuator -- seven feet wide and 15 feet long -- was installed, rain hit the speedway.

Shortly before the accident, cool temperatures contributed to this year's fastest speeds. Robby Gordon reached 232.959 in an Andretti Green Racing Dallara-Honda and five others bettered 230, but Dixon held on to the year's fastest lap.

"Obviously, the weather conditions this morning when we first went out were [excellent], which is probably why we picked up the speed," said Dixon, a former CART driver in his first Indy Racing League season with Target Chip Ganassi. He was driving a Toyota-powered Panoz G Force.

Dixon, 22, also admitted to picking up a tow from "one of the Penske cars that brought the numbers up."

*

Helio Castroneves, who is hoping to become the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 three years in a row, celebrated his 28th birthday with an unusual TV appearance.

While appearing on ABC Sports with fellow Brazilians Gil de Ferran and Tony Kanaan, he was presented a birthday cake. Kanaan grabbed the cake and planted it in Castroneves' face on live television.

Castroneves, his face coated with frosting and cake, smiled at TV announcer Gary Gerould and said, "Can we go to a commercial?"

Later, watching rain douse the speedway, he said, "It's my birthday, so I'm disappointed because I was hoping for a special present. Maybe it's best this way, because now I can try to earn the pole for my mom on Mother's Day."

*

Another two-time winner, Arie Luyendyk, who suffered back and shoulder pain after crashing his G Force-Toyota on Friday, was cleared to drive and took one lap of practice.

"I'm stiff, I have a stiff neck, and I am really sore in between my shoulder blades," said Luyendyk, at 49 the oldest driver entered in the 500. "I was hoping to go out today and basically put the car in the show and get it over with and then rest, but I guess I'll have to do that tomorrow.

"I hear a lot about my experience, but I don't think it really matters what your experience is. What really matters is feeling comfortable with your car. You see guys like Kanaan and [Dan] Wheldon and the Penske guys, they get on the track, they're up to speed immediately, and you know that they feel comfortable in their cars. That's what's important."

*

Robbie Buhl is scheduled to be the first car out to qualify today in a Chevrolet-powered Dallara, but his "pole speed" is not expected to last long.

This has not been a good year for the bow-tie cars, which dominated IRL competition last year. The fastest Dallara-Chevy driver, two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr., is 19th on the year's speed chart. His best lap of 229.050 was run Saturday.

"What do I think of qualifying being postponed?" he said. "It does affect us -- it means I'm probably not going to get to go home now for a couple of days. But most of the family is down here anyway, so we're just enjoying the day being able to talk to each other and hang out since I don't have to do the race car thing."

Hornish, who has been rumored to be moving to the Winston Cup circuit next year, lives in Defiance, Ohio.

*

The Penske pair, Castroneves and De Ferran, have been the busiest drivers on the track. In eight days of practice, Castroneves has logged 483 laps in three cars -- more than two complete races, and De Ferran is next with 391 laps.

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