CHANGING TIMES : Sunday’s Indy Car Race at Laguna Seca Pits Several Teams in a State of Flux

Times Staff Writer

In most sports, when player changes are made in mid-season, they are in effect immediately. John Tudor is traded to the Dodgers and he is in Los Angeles the next day. Pedro Guerrero goes to St. Louis at the same time.

Not so in auto racing.

Five races remained in the CART Indy car season when national champion Bobby Rahal of the Truesports team signed a contract with Maury Kraines to drive for Kraco Enterprises in 1989.

The opportunity arose when Michael Andretti, the Kraco driver, told Kraines that he had other plans for next season.


Yet, for the remainder of the 1988 season, Rahal and Andretti stayed put and are driving for their old teams. Not surprisingly, perhaps, neither has won a race since.

Rahal was leading in points when the announcement was made after his victory at Pocono on Aug. 21. Today, three races later, he trails Danny Sullivan by 25 points, and a Sullivan victory in Sunday’s Champion Spark Plug 300-kilometer race at Laguna Seca would clinch the championship for Roger Penske’s driver and end Rahal’s 2-year reign.

Sullivan, however, will be without his season-long crew chief, Derrick Walker, for Sunday’s race and the season finale Nov. 6 in Miami.

The change didn’t seem to bother Sullivan in Friday’s first day of qualifying as he posted the fastest speed--107.283 m.p.h.--well ahead of Mario Andretti’s 105.849 and Rahal’s 105.746. A second session today will determine the field for Sunday’s 185-mile race.


“It was nice to be a second quicker than anyone else, but 2 seconds would be even nicer,” Sullivan said.

Walker, who resigned last week as general manager of the Penske racing team and race-day crew chief for Sullivan’s Penske PC-17, will take over the Porsche Indy car racing team for the late Al Holbert, who had directed the Porsche Indy car program since its inception. He was killed in a plane crash Sept. 30 near Columbus, Ohio.

As a tribute to Holbert, the Porsche will have a 3-inch black No. 14 on its nose plate in Sunday’s race. Fourteen was Holbert’s car number in the IMSA Camel GT series, in which he won a record 49 races and 5 championships. The Porsche, driven by Teo Fabi, is No. 8.

The team will remain in Warrington, Pa., in Holbert’s shop.

Walker, 43, had been with Penske for 8 years, during which the team’s cars won 5 Indianapolis 500s and 4 CART championships. He had been the man in the pits for Sullivan since 1985.

Nigel Bennett, who designed the latest Penske cars, will take over Walker’s duties in Sullivan’s pit Sunday.

“This will be Nigel’s first time running the pits for an Indy car race,” Sullivan said. “Fortunately for us, pit work is not as critical for a road race as it is for an oval, so we don’t anticipate any problems. Next year, before our first oval race, we’ll assess the situation.”

Why were the changes made before the end of the season?


Michael Andretti wanted a Chevrolet Ilmor engine for his car, and his team was committed to the aging Cosworth power plant. Although Cosworth engines won 82 Indy car races in the last 6 years, they have not won this season. Chevrolet-powered cars have won 12 of 13 races this year. The other was scored by Rahal with a John Judd engine.

With a new breed of Cosworth in his car, Michael Andretti was the fourth-fastest qualifier at 105.616. He debuted the latest in Cosworth development at Nazareth, where he finished second behind Sullivan and just ahead of his father, Mario.

An announcement is expected between now and the Miami race that Michael is joining Mario on the Paul Newman-Carl Haas team for 1989. Their cars are Lolas with Chevy engines.

“We still have to work out some of the little details,” the younger Andretti said Friday.

Mario Ilien, one of the founders of the Ilmor engine, has said that his company can build engines for only one new car in 1989. This, apparently, will be Michael’s. Currently, Chevy engines are used by Mario, the Penske team of Sullivan and Rick Mears, the Patrick team of Emerson Fittipaldi and the Galles team of Al Unser Jr., and each of them has won at least one race.

Rahal--who had been with Truesports his entire 7 years in Indy car racing, during which he won two national championships and the 1986 Indianapolis 500--made the change for money and security. He reportedly will receive more than $1 million a year from the Compton-based Kraco Enterprises, substantially more than his Truesports contract.

“Obviously, it’s not going to be easy to catch Danny, but lots of funny things can happen in a race. A DNF (did not finish) by Danny and a strong finish by us makes it a whole new ballgame going to Miami,” he said.

“It’s good, too, knowing that Laguna Seca has been a good track for us. We’ve won four in a row here, and everyone on the Truesports team is gunning to make it five. That’s why we’re here.”


Another benefactor of the early driver switching is young Scott Pruett, who will join Truesports next year for an opportunity to show his talent in an Indy car. Pruett, 28, won the IMSA Camel GTO title for the second time this season and also won the final International Race of Champions at Riverside in June.

“I feel like I just won the Florida lottery for $53 million,” Pruett said after being selected over Geoff Brabham and Didier Theys for the Truesports ride. Pruett, who has driven in only three Indy car races and has never finished, does not have a ride here but plans to be an attentive observer.