For the first time since 1983, the first day of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 was rained out Saturday.
Intermittent rains that tantalized an estimated 200,000 spectators kept starting and stopping until United States Auto Club officials decided at 2:45 p.m. that there was insufficient time remaining to give the drivers practice time and still open the track up for qualifications.
The only things moving on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were trucks, vans and jet blowers. On several occasions it appeared that the asphalt was about dry enough to accept the 200-m.p.h. cars, but before they could be moved to pit row the drizzles resumed.
The 10-mile time trials, which will set the 33-car field for the May 28 race, will begin today at noon--weather permitting. The forecast is for a partly cloudy day with temperatures between 65 and 70 degrees.
The biggest hand of the day went up for the noisy jet blowers brought in to dry the track, but only slightly more than the one for Lt. Col. Ollie North, who paraded through Gasoline Alley with stock car legend Richard Petty as guests of Chip Ganassi, the Patrick Racing Team vice president.
Rick Mears, the odds-on favorite to win a record fifth pole in his Penske PC-18, said he expected no problems from the delay.
“For the competitors, it’s the same for everybody,” the three-time winner from Bakersfield said. “But for the spectators, it was a shame. They came to see a show and didn’t get it.
“The rains won’t affect the speeds. They’ll just be the same on a different day. You can’t get nervous or upset about it. Instead of a work day, it became a day for me to enjoy and spend some time with my family.”
Here from Bakersfield to watch their favorite citizen were Mears’ wife Chris, father Bill, mother Skip, brother Roger and sister Robin.
Mears, who shares the pole record of four with Rex Mays and A. J. Foyt, had the fastest practice lap of the month, 226.231 m.p.h.
Mears’ Penske teammate, national champion Danny Sullivan, remained in Methodist Hospital recuperating from arm and head injuries sustained in an accident last Thursday. Sullivan, who had surgery on his right forearm, is under the care of orthopedic surgeon Dr. Terry Trammell and Dr. Henry Feuer, a neurosurgeon.
Sullivan hopes to be released in time to practice for next weekend’s time trials in a Penske backup car, but doctors said his participation will be evaluated on a day-to-day basis.
Michael Andretti, who is a threat for the pole after lapping at 224.382 in a Lola-Chevy prepared by Carl Haas, said the rain could actually help increase speeds today.
“The rain washed some of the rubber off the track and that could give us a better grip if it didn’t wash too much off,” the younger Andretti said.
The toughest thing, said Mario Andretti, Michael’s father, is to get mentally prepared a second time.
“You have to collect your thoughts and get rid of all the distractions you get sitting around all day,” the 1969 winner said. “One thing I don’t enjoy on the morning of qualifying is listening to jokes and small talk, and that’s about all we did today. Now I’ve got to clear my mind for tomorrow morning.
“There’s nothing you can do but just deal with it. If it’s dry in the morning, we go back to work.”
Al Unser Jr., who came here with high hopes after winning the Long Beach Grand Prix in his Lola-Chevy, welcomed the delay because it gave his crew an extra day to work on the car.
“We quite drastically changed the car from practice on Friday,” Unser Jr. said. “I would like to have as much time to practice as possible to test the changes. I think the changes were right, but we need time in the morning to balance out the car.
“When you’re qualifying at Indy, or anywhere else for that matter, you go out planning to drive the car beyond its limits and you can’t go out and do that cold. You can’t just jump in a car and qualify.”
The last time a qualifying round was rained out was the final day in 1984. In 1983 the entire first weekend was washed out and the entire field qualified in the second weekend.
If today’s time trials are rained out, or all 68 cars do not have an opportunity to qualify, the pole position will not be determined until next Saturday.