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TAKE A SEAT, TERO : Only a Month Ago, Palmroth Had Driven an Indy Car Just Once; Now, He Is First Finn in the 500 Lineup

Times Assistant Sports Editor

Tero Palmroth is hoping that today’s Indianapolis 500 is a race to the Finnish.

Actually, that isn’t so much his hope as his wildest dream. But then, the way things have been going for him lately, is any dream beyond the realm?

Palmroth, 35, is from Tampere, Finland, where as a youngster, he established himself as a speed-crazy kid. At 9 or 10, to while away the long winter evenings, he and his cousin were “borrowing” Volkswagen bugs from the family shoe factory and using them for ice racing, much to the annoyance of the homeowners on the town lake.

“They didn’t like that because the lights went around and around and shined in their windows,” he said.

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Palmroth did some legitimate racing when he got older, but eventually went into the family shoe business. He never quite lost the desire to race, though, and went back to it four years ago, distinguishing himself as a pretty good local driver in sedans and Formula Fords.

He has driven the Sports Car Club of America’s Super Vee series the last two years in this country.

But as recently as a month ago, he had driven exactly once in an Indy car--one without a seat, at that.

Today, having sold himself to car owner-driver Dick Simon--no more difficult a feat than peddling your ’67 Plymouth to Cal Worthington--he is one of the 33 guys starting what he calls the greatest race in the world.

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“He doesn’t miss very many possibilities,” Simon said. “He comes across as a naive, dumb little guy, but don’t believe that. He’s very shrewd, very smart. He knows exactly what he’s doing. We found that out very quickly.”

Palmroth, in fact, sort of overwhelmed Simon. To say nothing of himself.

When he approached Simon, he was looking only for an entry-level seat on an Indy-car team. He was hoping to get a little experience, a little notice.

“I was thinking to myself that maybe next year I could do Indy,” he said. “I knew I like to drive here. That’s the dream. I really didn’t believe that it was going to be realistic already now, so soon.”

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In a show of his shrewdness, though, when a ride this year became a genuine possibility, he had more than just driving talent to offer Simon. He had Finnish sponsors. In this day and age of big-buck racing, sponsors, of any nationality, mean a lot to any car owner.

First, though, he had to show Simon that he could drive. And he had to be persistent about that.

He wangled an introduction through Bill Simpson of Palos Verdes, a former driver who now makes racing safety equipment. That was last summer at the Indy-car race in Cleveland.

“He said his goal was to race Indy cars,” Simon said. “He met me in my motor home and we had a long talk--about 45 minutes. I couldn’t get rid of him. Still can’t.”

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At the time, Simon had nothing for Palmroth but told him to stay in touch. The Finn needed no second invitation.

“Just before we tested at Phoenix this winter, he got hold of me again,” Simon said. “He asked if he could watch the test. We had Arie (Luyendyk) and Scott Pruett. As sort of a secondary thought, we pulled Scott’s (custom-fitted) seat out of the car when he was through and put Tero in it, with no seat, and told him to take two laps.

“He took two laps and enjoyed it very much. The car wasn’t set up for him, and I was just trying to satisfy myself that he could drive.”

Satisfied about that, Simon agreed to test Palmroth further in late April at Indianapolis Raceway Park, a multitrack facility just west of here in Clermont, Ind. That’s where Simon began to realize he was onto a natural.

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“He ran real quick,” Simon said. “Faster than Scott Pruett tested. I got excited about it. He was running in the 119s. When we tested Arie out there, Arie was running in the 119s, and that’s pretty fast at IRP.

“I was very impressed and the team was kind of shocked because they thought he was just going to be another . . . guy who’s trying to race and not really knowing what he’s doing.”

Palmroth, meanwhile, was thinking what a snap this Indy-car driving was.

“We were testing on Monday and Tuesday,” he said. “On Monday I drive a few laps, and on Tuesday I passed my CART license test. But I didn’t know that I passed it.

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“Dick came to tell me that, ‘You passed your test,’ and I said, ‘What test?’ They just told me to drive 10 laps as fast as I can.”

Said Simon: “We set up the test at IRP with the sole intention of running a couple of days, and if he looked all right, we’d set up some kind of second test to get him his CART license. But he looked so good the first day.”

Simon said he called Wally Dallenbach, director of competition for Championship Auto Racing Teams, and said: “This kid’s a lot better than I realized he was going to be. Can we test him now?”

Permission granted.

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“I never even told him,” Simon said. “I just told him to go out and drive 10 laps as if he was in a race.”

That led to the next step, Palmroth’s rookie orientation test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Simon had said that if Palmroth did well in the IRP testing, they would consider a rookie orientation test, with 1989 in mind.

“So in his mind, he was going to do the rookie orientation test,” Simon said. “Of course, I was trying to slide by that. He wouldn’t let me slide by.”

So that test was arranged.

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“We came here with the sole idea of giving him his rookie orientation test for ’89,” Simon said. “When we took the pace car out, I noticed that he adapted to the line almost immediately. It was like it was built in himself. He was driving the pace car and I would just have to say something once. Then in the next corner, he was doing what I had suggested.

“I noticed that his learning curve was superior and a lot of that comes from having that built in. Some drivers have to work hard to get it, some it’s just inside them.

“I told him, ‘There’s no use continuing in the pace car. You’ve got the line down. If you run like that in a race car, you’ll be quick, right out of the box.’

“Then he got into the race car and was the fastest rookie the first day. In fact, we had to slow him down.”

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Again, Palmroth was slightly amazed at his success.

“I told Dick that I really like the race track,” he said. “ ‘It’s easy and I like it so much. And why don’t we go in the race?’ ”

When Palmroth reminded Simon of the sponsors, Simon couldn’t think of a good reason not to, which is why his is a three-car team this time around--a car for Luyendyk, one for himself and one for a persuasive 35-year-old rookie from Finland.

“I still can’t believe how much he’s talked me into,” Simon said. “I’m kind of anxious to see what’s next.”

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So is Palmroth, the first Finn to qualify for the 500. He also is kind of wondering how to explain to his family just exactly what he’s doing here, although he figures they have a pretty good idea.

“They know I’m not selling shoes,” he said, “because they don’t get any orders.”


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