Indy Drivers Are Given a Yellow Light : USAC Officials Allow a 120-M.P.H. Practice

Times Staff Writer

After a three-day enforced vacation, drivers and crews of the 33 cars in the Indianapolis 500 will go back to work today--but not very hard.

For 30 minutes early this morning, the 200-m.p.h. race cars will be permitted to cruise around Indianapolis Motor Speedway at up to 120 m.p.h. under the watchful eye of chief steward Tom Binford.

This will be the only test of the high-strung machinery before Saturday’s twice-postponed 500-mile race.

An official United States Auto Club announcement said that any eager driver who exceeds 120 m.p.h. will be called in, sent to his garage and fined an unannounced sum.

The last time drivers and cars were on the track was last Thursday during a two-hour practice session that was cut short by a four-car accident. The pileup, triggered by a broken brake rotor in Dennis Firestone’s car, knocked him out of the race and sent veteran George Snider and rookie Roberto Moreno to the rear of the field in backup cars.


The accident also moved 52-year-old Dick Simon into the field as the first alternate replacement for Firestone. Simon will be the oldest driver in the history of the 500.

Fear of a similar accident apparently prompted USAC officials to restrict today’s short practice to running under caution-light conditions. If any car were to be sidelined today, there is no alternate for Saturday’s race.

The decision to practice only at caution-light speeds caused a variety of comments from drivers. Few were favorable.

Pole-sitter Rick Mears, who qualified at a record 216.828 m.p.h., doesn’t like the idea.

“Who needs it?” asked the Bakersfield off-road veteran who has twice won the 500. “What’s it going to prove? We were ready to run last Sunday, and nothing’s changed. If we could run 200, at least we could lay some rubber down on the track.”

Mario Andretti, a former winner who must start in a backup car from the 10th row because of an earlier accident, had mixed emotions.

“Having a practice session is an excellent idea,” he said. “We need one, especially the guys like myself who are in backup cars, but it won’t help much running only 120. You can’t learn anything at that speed. About all you can do is check for oil leaks.”

Outspoken Tom Sneva, the 1983 winner, was predictably upset.

“It’ll be like Russian Roulette with all those cars out there together for only a half-hour,” Sneva said. “We ought to go out in smaller groups and we ought to be able to run hard.”

Only A. J. Foyt, the 500’s sole four-time winner, came out solidly in favor of the idea.

“We lost a car (Snider’s) out there running fast last Thursday and we don’t need any more of that,” Foyt said. “All the guys need is to sit in the car and get the feel of things. That’s all that’s necessary. We’ll get it Friday.”

The four drivers the session may help most are Snider and Moreno, in their backup cars; Josele Garza, whose car was battered in the Firestone accident but repaired in time for the race, and Simon, who got into the race on a pass after Firestone’s car was withdrawn.

Simon, however, was critical of the speed restriction and the short practice period.

“It can be dangerous,” he said. “Some guys will go flat-out in the corners and slow down on the straightaways to keep their average down. Having the practice is a great idea, but not the way USAC has gone about it.”

No spectators will be allowed inside the Speedway today as cleanup crews continue to spruce up the 75-year-old facility for Saturday’s anticipated 250,000 spectators. That figure is about 100,000 less than were here in the rain last Sunday. Track officials estimate that about 100,000 left town after the two days of rain and will be unable to return.

A major problem for those who do return is a lack of parking. Many of the huge fields surrounding the track look more like garbage dumps than parking lots--and more rain Wednesday night kept them so soggy and muddy that they may not be usable Saturday.

“Parking is a definite concern,” speedway director Jack O’Neal said. “The biggest thing is that traffic will be backing up while people look for a place to park. There just won’t be enough to go around, and there are going to be a lot of cars going nowhere.”

The postponement is expected to cost the Indianapolis Police Dept. more than $72,000 in overtime for traffic control. The Marion County sheriff’s office is also prepared for a substantial overtime expense.

None of the traffic control or security costs are reimbursed by Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“They just tell us they’re going to have a race and we can come if we want to,” a police department official said. “We weren’t even consulted when they made the postponement to Saturday.”

All three of the off days between the deluge on Memorial Day and today’s practice have been ideal for racing. The 500 miles could have been run without interruption on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, but nearly everyone involved agrees that waiting until Saturday was the proper decision.

If it doesn’t rain, that is.

The fear of rain around Indianapolis is always in the air at race time, and TV viewers recall the report last Saturday that “there isn’t the slightest chance of rain for Sunday.”

Tell that to the folks who can’t make it back.