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The Indianapolis 500: Drivers Looking Up and Hoping for the Best

Times Staff Writer

Thirty-three race car drivers, as many owners and sponsors, plus crewmen, reporters, race officials and concessionaires will pull back the curtains when they wake up this morning and peek outside.

If it’s raining, they’ll cry. Or jump off the 16th Street bridge into the White River.

If the sun is shining, they will cross their fingers and hope the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is still dry at 9 a.m. PDT.

If it is, the longest-running race in the world, the 70th Indianapolis 500, will finally get under way.

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Most of them have been here since Saturday, May 3. Since then there have been 14 days of practice, four days of qualifying, two days of rain postponements and eight days of sitting around doing nothing.

All that for a 500-mile race that will last slightly more than three hours.

Nothing much has changed since the race was originally scheduled last Sunday--before it was twice washed out. The field of 33 cars is still the fastest in history, averaging 210.280 m.p.h., an increase of more than two miles from last year’s record.

Rick Mears, in Roger Penske’s sleek, yellow March-Cosworth, is the solid favorite after running a record 216.828 m.p.h. in qualifying and dominating the Speedway most of the month.

Mears and one of his Penske teammates, Al Unser, didn’t even bother to suit up Friday when cars were permitted to practice driving around the 2-mile rectangular oval at 120 m.p.h.

Defending champion Danny Sullivan, the third Penske driver, was out only because his car will carry a TV camera today and the ABC-TV crews wanted to check out the reception. Sullivan will start alongside teammate Mears on the front row today.

“Every mile is another mile on the car, and that’s another mile less for the race, " Penske said as he watched the cars going around at yellow caution-light speeds. “I don’t know why some of these guys are out there.

“The only ones who need this session are the ones who wrecked last Thursday. They need to check out the oil lines, the gears and brakes and see if all the fittings are secure, things like that.”

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Penske cars have won five Indianapolis 500s, including the last two.

Nine drivers, including Mears and Unser, did not take to the track in the special slowdown session permitted by the United States Auto Club. Others not practicing were three-time winner Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Rahal, Arie Luyendyk, Johnny Parsons, Rich Vogler, rookie Randy Lanier and Chip Ganassi, who was the first driver on the track back on May 3.

“We were ready last Sunday to run 500 miles, so there was nothing for us to check out today,” Mears said. “I’m glad they decided to give us a break and have the race Saturday, but other than getting a little rest, it won’t make a difference once the race starts.

“As soon as I sit in the car, and I’m sure most of the other guys feel the same way, I’ll be ready to race.”

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Mears said he hoped to bring the field down to the starting line today between 120 and 130 m.p.h., but by the time they reach the second turn they should be at racing speed--somewhere between 205 and 208.

Mears, still walking with a slight limp from an accident in Canada two years ago that mangled his feet, stood alongside the pit wall, watching the cars as he spoke.

“This is pretty boring, isn’t it?” he said. “It doesn’t mean much, either.”

Michael Andretti, the other front-row qualifier in a Kraco March, was the first car on the track, but when he came in he wasn’t sure why.

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“I felt like I was crawling,” said Andretti, who at 23 is the youngest driver in the race. “You can’t learn anything this way.”

The last time 120-m.p.h. speeds meant anything here was 1927, when Perfect Circle teammates Peter DePaolo and Frank Lockhart broke the 120-m.p.h. barrier in a pair of Miller Specials.

Race officials indicated the decision to run at a slow pace Friday was to prevent an occurrence of the May 22 practice session in which four cars crashed, putting three of them out of the race.

While most of the teams welcomed the three days off after speedway officials postponed the race from Monday until Saturday, the Penske team stayed in high gear.

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Wednesday, Mears was at nearby Indianapolis Raceway Park testing the new Chevrolet-powered Penske PC-15 on the drag strip.

“We were just going through the gears, checking them out,” Mears said.

Thursday, satisfied with the gearing, Penske took the new car to Milwaukee, where Mears and Sullivan tested it for next Sunday’s Rex Mays 200 at the Wisconsin State Fair Park.

The Penske chassis and the Ilmor Chevrolet engine, both built in England, are the newest project in a continuing effort to maintain what the late Mark Donohue called Penske’s “unfair advantage” over the competition. While Sullivan was still taking bows as last year’s winner in a store-bought March, Penske announced that he would be back in 1986 with a new car of his own design, powered by a Chevrolet engine.

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He kept his promise. That car will be driven today by Unser, and although it is not listed among the pre-race favorites, it may be the most closely watched of all the cars by other owners and sponsors.

“It could be the sleeper,” said Pat Patrick, who owns the cars driven by former world champion Emerson Fittipaldi of Brazil and Kevin Cogan. “Big Al (Unser) is the perfect driver for a new car like that. If it keeps running, you know he’ll have it up front.”

Sullivan, who may drive one of the PC-15s next week at Milwaukee, has been impressed with the new project, but he has one reservation for today’s 500.

“The engine has never run a 500-mile test,” he said. “Until then, you can’t be sure how long it will last.”

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The longest run Penske has put on the Chevy is 375 miles while testing tires here at Indianapolis.

In the season opener at Phoenix, the Penske was delivered from England barely in time for Unser to test it, but he qualified seventh. A bad battery kept the car in the pits for the first three laps, but once started, it ran well for 100 miles. A broken wing sent Unser into the wall and out of the race at that point.

“I don’t remember ever feeling so comfortable with a new car,” the three-time Indy winner said.

At Long Beach, Mears took it over but didn’t show much as he lost his oil pressure early in the race and pulled in.

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“We were pleased by the way it tested in Milwaukee,” Penske said. “We expect to have one for all three drivers later in the season.”

The PC-15 that went to Milwaukee, of course, is not the same one that Unser will drive today. It has been sitting in Gasoline Alley since May 22, when the cars had their last practice session.

Several drivers found Friday’s brief running valuable.

Leader Card mechanic Phil Krueger, who patched together a year-old tub from a March wrecked last year by A. J. Foyt and parts from another car wrecked here last year by Herm Johnson to make the field for the first time, got a much-needed shakedown. Krueger was the only driver who did not practice at speed May 22.

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“We needed to break in the rear end after we rebuilt it, so this was perfect for us,” Krueger said. “Because we weren’t ready to run last Thursday, the rear end had never been run since the rebuilding. This really helped.”

Gary Bettenhausen, who will be starting his 15th 500 after an absence of four years, found out that his radio didn’t work.

“It was something I’d have hated to find out tomorrow,” he said. “So, I guess the session was worthwhile for us.”

Josele Garza, whose car was rebuilt after the May 22 four-car crash, readied the gears on his Machinists Union March and said everything worked the way it did before his car was damaged. Garza was sitting in the pits, the car up on jacks, when an out-of-control Roberto Moreno came sliding into him. Moreno was sent skidding when he was hit by Dennis Firestone, whose car was impaled on the pit wall entrance after his left rear wheel disintegrated.

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The accident knocked Firestone out of the race and made a trivia answer out of Dick Simon. He will become--at age 52--the oldest driver in Indy car history.

The switch from Firestone’s Lola to Simon’s Lola didn’t change another historic statistic: This is the first time in 70 Indy 500s that all 33 cars are English-made.

INDIANAPOLIS 500 LINEUP

FIRST ROW

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No. Driver (Hometown), Car-Engine Speed 4 Rick Mears (Bakersfield), March-Cosworth 216.828 1 Danny Sullivan (Louisville), March-Cosworth 215.382 18 Michael Andretti (Nazareth, Pa.), March-Cosworth 214.522

SECOND ROW

No. Driver (Hometown), Car-Engine Speed 3 Bobby Rahal (Dublin, Ohio), March-Cosworth 213.550 11 Al Unser (Albuquerque, N.M.), Penske-Chevy 212.295 7 Kevin Cogan (Redondo Beach), March-Cosworth 211.922

THIRD ROW

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No. Driver (Hometown), Car-Engine Speed 33 Tom Sneva (Paradise Valley, Ariz.), March-Cosworth 211.878 5 Roberto Guerrero (Colombia), March Cosworth 211.576 30 Al Unser Jr. (Albuquerque, N.M.), Lola-Cosworth 211.533

FOURTH ROW

No. Driver (Hometown), Car-Engine Speed 66 Ed Pimm (Dublin, Ohio), March-Cosworth 210.874 20 Emerson Fittipaldi (Brazil), March-Cosworth 210.237 21 Johnny Rutherford (Fort Worth), March-Cosworth 210.220

FIFTH ROW

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No. Driver (Hometown), Car-Engine Speed 12 *Randy Lanier (Davie, Fla.), March-Cosworth 209.964 15 Pancho Carter (Brownsburg, Ind.), Lola-Cosworth 209.635 81 *Jacques Villeneuve (Canada), March-Cosworth 209.397

SIXTH ROW

No. Driver (Hometown), Car-Engine Speed 25 Danny Ongais (Santa Ana), March-Buick 209.158 55 Josele Garza (Mexico), March-Cosworth 208.939 16 Tony Bettenhausen (Indianapolis), March-Cosworth 208.933

SEVENTH ROW

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No. Driver (Hometown), Car-Engine Speed 61 Arie Luyendyk (Netherlands), Lola-Cosworth 207.811 8 Geoff Brabham (Noblesville, Ind.), Lola-Cosworth 207.082 14 A.J. Foyt (Houston), March-Cosworth 213.212

EIGHTH ROW

No. Driver (Hometown), Car-Engine Speed 22 Raul Boesel (Brazil), Lola-Cosworth 211.202 71 Scott Brayton(Coldwater, Mich.) March-Buick 208. 079 42 *Phil Krueger (Indianapolis), March-Cosworth 207.948

NINTH ROW

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No. Driver (Hometown), Car-Engine Speed 59 Chip Ganassi (Pittsburgh), March-Cosworth 207.590 31 Jim Crawford (Scotland), March-Buick 208.911 6 Rich Vogler (Indianapolis), March-Cosworth 208.089

TENTH ROW

No. Driver (Hometown), Car-Engine Speed 95 Johnny Parsons (Indianapolis), March-Cosworth 207.894 24 Gary Bettenhausen (Monrovia, Ind.), March-Cosworth 209.756 2 xMario Andretti (Nazareth, Pa.), Lola-Cosworth No speed

ELEVENTH ROW

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No. Driver (Hometown), Car-Engine Speed 84 xGeorge Snider (Bakersfield), March-Cosworth No speed 9 *xRoberto Moreno (Brazil), Lola-Cosworth No speed 23 yDick Simon (San Juan Capistrano), Lola-Cosworth 204.978

*-Rookie driver.

x--To compete in backup car.

y--Added to field as alternate after withdrawal of Dennis Firestone.

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