POLE POLL : Winning It Is Very Big --to Sponsors

Times Staff Writer

Ozzie Olson, the steering-wheel and toilet-seat tycoon who owned the cars that Dan Gurney built and Bobby Unser drove more than a decade ago, used to say that, from a sponsor's viewpoint, winning the pole for the Indianapolis 500 was more important than winning the race.

"For two weeks, your car is on the front page of every sports section in the country, on all the TV shows, and your driver is interviewed by every writer in the business," Olson said. "When you win the race, it's great, no doubt about it, but after one day, all the publicity is gone.

"And if there's a big wreck, you might not even get a picture of your winning car in the papers."

Of course, drivers don't see winning the pole in quite the same light.

"I don't think the pole means that much," said A. J. Foyt, who will be trying to qualify for a record 31st consecutive race when time trials begin today. The fastest 33 cars will run May 29 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"I've won the pole more than anyone else (tied with Rex Mays at four) but I've never won the race from the pole," Foyt continued. "Don't get me wrong. It's nice but if it comes between the pole and the race, I'll take the race. No question."

Car owner Roger Penske, whose drivers and cars have won the pole five times and the race six times since 1972--although both only twice in the same year--considers qualifying a significant part of the total Indy 500 scene.

"Being on the pole is very important to us," Penske said. "The publicity it generates for two weeks is tremendous for the sponsors, and it also gives the driver and the team a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Everyone works very hard preparing for qualifying day and the race, and anything that bolsters your confidence is important."

Rick Mears, one of Penske's three drivers, is among the strong contenders to win the pole in today's four-lap qualifying runs. He will drive a Chevrolet-powered Penske PC-17, as will teammates Danny Sullivan and defending champion Al Unser. Mears has been on the pole three times, and his lap last Wednesday at 220.048 m.p.h. was the first at better than 220 in Indianapolis history.

"It was a real honor to be the first driver over 220 here, but to tell the truth, I would like to see the speeds reduced and make this place slower," Mears said. "I believe it can be done without losing any of the thrills for the spectators. No one can tell the difference, really, looking at a 200-m.p.h. lap, or a 220."

Mario Andretti boosted the unofficial record for the 2 1/2-mile rectangular oval to 221.565 the following day. Speedway records are considered official only when they occur during an official qualifying run, or during the race.

Curiously, Andretti and Mears ran identical laps of 221.456 Friday during their final preparations for today's test.

The impressive thing about both was that they were run in the heat of the day, under conditions comparable to those anticipated today in the first few hours after the 11 a.m. start. The earlier fast laps by Mears and Andretti were done late in the day, during what drivers call the happy hour, when the weather and the track are cooler.

Mears holds the official Indy records of 217.581 m.p.h. for one lap and 216.828 m. p.h. for four laps, which he set in 1986. Mears also ran the fastest official qualifying lap in Indy car history, 223.401 m.p.h. at Michigan International Speedway two years ago.

"The way I look at it, Indy is two races, not one," Mears said. "Qualifying here is just like a race because it pays like a race, and the winner gets just as much attention, maybe more."

Winning the pole today is actually more lucrative financially than winning some CART Indy car races.

Mario Andretti collected $38,460 for winning the Phoenix 200 and Al Unser Jr. got $91,655 for winning the Long Beach Grand Prix. Depending on the accessory money--which is tied in with the stickers on his car and the patches on his uniform--today's pole winner will collect between $70,000 and $95,000.

"Between pole qualifying day and the 500 there are two weeks of intensive hype building up to race day when the pole winner is king," Mears said. "For that reason, the Penske team is concentrating on winning that first race, the one Saturday on pole day."

Second generation driver Michael Andretti is another who looks on qualifying as a separate event from the 500 mile race.

"Winning the pole at Indy is nothing like winning the 500, but it's better than winning some races somewhere else," he said. "I work hard to prepare for pole day because it means a lot to me personally, but as far as having anything to do with the race, I don't think it makes much difference if you start 33rd or first--expect for the first lap. It's a lot safer if you start up front so you can stay out of potential trouble until the field stretches out.

"Realistically we won't be going for the pole this year. I would think the middle of the field would be more what we can expect. It hasn't been a good week. There are still some aerodynamic problems . . . that we just haven't got sorted out yet."

Bobby Rahal, the 1986 winner and two-time national driving champion, was more succinct.

"It's insignificant," Rahal said of the pole. "It means that you have the fastest car that day, and that's about it. As for the race, its bearing is inconsequential.

"It's great for the reporters to have 220-m.p.h. laps to write about, and it makes great publicity for their teams," Rahal said. "But if you can run 205 on race day, you'll run away and hide from everyone else."

Steve Horne, president of the TrueSports team that owns Rahal's Judd-powered Lola, said the most important thing about winning the pole is what it does for the driver's ego.

"The objective when we come here is to win the race and we try not to lose sight of that while we're here," Horne said. "Sure, winning the pole puffs up the driver's ego and gives the team an emotional lift, but the business at hand is preparing the car for 500 miles. If we do that properly, then it follows that it will qualify respectably."

Al Unser Jr., whose father won last year's race from the 20th starting position, played down the importance of qualifying.

"Being on the pole doesn't mean that much to me," he said. "All it shows is that you were the fastest on that day. What's important here at Indy is 500 miles, and it's also important not to lose your perspective or get discouraged during the early practice sessions if you're not the fastest car."

Pancho Carter, who won the 1985 pole in a Buick-powered Hawk, knows how fleeting pole-sitting glory can be.

"The pole gives you the best psychological advantage on race day," Carter said. "Unfortunately, most of that goes away when they drop the flag."

Carter was the first car out of the race that year, completing only 6 laps before his oil pump quit.

Veteran Johnny Rutherford, who won from the pole in both 1976 and 1980 and also won from the 25th position in 1974, sees the No. 1 starting position as a psychological edge, but adds: "It's not where you start, but where you finish."

Rutherford and Tom Sneva, another former pole sitter and 500 winner, are making their first starts this season in rather non-competitive cars. Rutherford is in a Lola-Buick and Sneva in a Lola-Judd.

Neither has been competitive in the week's practice leading to today's time trials. Rutherford's best was 208.643 Friday. Sneva's best is 209.107.

"It's all kind of relative, isn't it?" Rutherford said. "Here, we're not happy with 209 and in the three years I won the pole my best was 198."

Sneva, when he was part of the Penske team in the late '70s, became the first driver to exceed 200 m.p.h. here. He claims that the sensation of going 210 is little different that 200.

"There is no method of telling how fast you are going or how fast is too fast," he said. "On super-speedways, like Indy, you could run 500 m.p.h. on the straightaways if you had the car. It's in the turns where the driving is done. It becomes a seat-of-the-pants thing to find the ragged edge and not go over it.

"I know it sounds dramatic, but it's true, there is a fine line between control and non-control. Some drivers draw that line with a crayon and some others draw it with a sharp-pointed pencil. There are some guys who need more of a cushion when you get towards that fine line. The real fast guys, like Mears and Andretti, can draw a line and run right on the edge."

When Mears ran his 221-m.p.h. lap the radar gun showed that he was going about 228 on the straightaway.

"That means I must have been doing 215 or more in the first and third turns, maybe slightly less in the others," Mears said. "In the last eight years, we have increased the speeds in the corners about 40 m.p.h. We're going through them flat out, without lifting (foot from accelerator).

"It's in the corners where most of the accidents happen. You seldom hear about anybody crashing on the straightaway.

"The turns are becoming shorter and the straightaways so tight that they seem like tunnels," Mears said. "The experience is so intense, I can describe it in minute detail, but it takes me more than three minutes to tell the crew what happened in a little more than 30 seconds."

Weather reports for today are for 75 degrees, clear skies and slight winds.

"That sounds pretty good, if the winds are really slight," Mario Andretti said. "With the ground effects we're using, windy conditions will magnify any problems we have with the aerodynamic setup of the car."

Mears, after hearing the weather report, predicted a fast lap of 221.400 and a four-lap average of 218.900.

The field should have something to shoot at early. Mario Andretti drew the first starting position for today's trials.

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