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Moran’s Lot: Quick Start but Slow Car

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rocky Moran has qualified for the last three Indianapolis 500s, but this is the first time he has had the luxury of attempting to qualify on the first day.

That is because he had never been to the Speedway with a team behind him when the track opened. Consequently, his times were so slow that he was bumped from the field in 1987 and qualified 28th in both ’88 and ’89.

This year, the situation is different for the biggest driver in Indy cars. Instead of arriving for the second week of practice, helmet in hand, looking for a ride, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Moran was here on opening day as the No. 1 driver for the Gohr Racing Team of Indianapolis.

“I’ve been waiting 20 years for a year like this,” Moran said. “For the first time since 1970, when I drove in Canada, I feel like a full-time race driver. I have a full schedule with Dan (Gurney) in one of his IMSA Toyotas, and I’m here in Indianapolis practicing for the 500 in the first week.”

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The downside is that the car Moran is driving here, a year-old Lola Cosworth, is not competitive. The fastest he managed Friday was 207.584 m.p.h. Al Unser Jr. ran 228.502, the fastest lap in the track’s history, one hour before the end of practice.

Only speeds posted during time trials are official, however. The record of 224.254 was set by Rick Mears last year. Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mears, Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal and Arie Luyendyk bettered the official mark Friday.

Thirty-seven cars have been faster than Moran’s, but at least four of them wrecked and are not expected to be ready for qualifying attempts this weekend.

Jim Crawford, Jeff Andretti and Jeff Wood hit the wall Friday, severely damaging their equipment. Crawford had the worst accident, smacking the outside wall and bouncing at least 10 feet into the air as he ricocheted across the track.

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Johnny Rutherford and Billy Vukovich III crashed earlier in the week.

“If we could keep Rocky’s head from buffeting around in the wind, we could pick up another couple of miles,” team owner Dick Hammond said. “The faster he goes, the worse the turbulence. If we can fix that, we’ll look a lot better for qualifying.”

This has already been an eventful year for Moran, 40. He moved from Arcadia, where he attended high school, to a new home in Coto de Caza in Orange County, and his wife, Kayla, gave birth to their third child Jan. 24.

“I’m feeling younger every day,” Rocky Moran said, grinning. “A new baby, a new team for the full year and a new team at Indy. I guess life really does begin at 40.”

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Qualifying--weather permitting--for up-front positions in the May 27 race will begin today. Each driver will get four laps and his qualifying speed will be the 10-mile average. He may choose to wave off the attempt before completion and the speed will not count against him.

Weather forecasts call for a 100% chance of rain today, however.

“I understand our problem fully, and I know we have no chance to challenge the Penskes or the other Chevy-powered cars, but just being here is a great thrill for me,” Moran said. “It’s something I have dreamed about since I was 10 years old. It’s a place you have to drive to understand.

“There is no way to learn how to drive into Turn One at 220 (m.p.h.). The only training ground is right here, and that’s where I am. And don’t forget, if we make the field Saturday, even with a slow time, it’s better than going faster next week.”

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All cars that qualify this weekend will start ahead of second-week qualifiers, no matter their speed. However, after 33 have qualified, the slowest can be bumped from the field by faster cars regardless of the day the car qualified.

That happened to Moran in 1987, his first year at Indy, when he was driving for George Walther of Dayton, Ohio.

“He had one car and one engine, and he was afraid to do much practicing because he wanted to save the engine,” Moran recalled. “I made the race in the last hour and was never so high in my life. Then, at the last minute, George Snider got in one of A. J.'s (Foyt) cars and bumped me.

“We knew we were marginal when we took our speed (of 199.157), but our car just wouldn’t go any faster. Still, when Snider bumped us, it was the most depressing letdown I ever felt.”

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Curiously, Foyt gave Moran a chance in 1988 and ’89, both times in the middle of the second week.

“Both times, I came back (here) without a ride and spent most of my time knocking on garage doors, hoping. Both times, it was A.J. who came through for me, for which I’ll be eternally grateful. But it is a different feeling being here with a team from opening day.”

Moran finished 16th in 1988 after dropping out with a failing engine, then was 14th last year after losing nine laps at the start while the crew replaced a dead battery.

Gohr Racing, which is headquartered about 10 miles west of the Speedway, is primarily a sprint car and dirt car operation, with Danny Smith racing sprints in the World of Outlaws and the All-Stars, and Wally Pankratz driving the dirt car. Among their former 500 drivers are Steve Chassey and Gary Bettenhausen.

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Moran’s racing plans during Indy 500 week will make him one of the busiest drivers in the country.

On Monday, May 21, he will fly his twin-engine Beechcraft to Lime Rock, Conn., to practice in Gurney’s Toyota for the International Motor Sports Assn. GTP race that will be run on May 28. That Wednesday, he will fly back to Indianapolis for carburetion day Thursday, then return to Lime Rock for practice Friday.

Saturday, it’s back to Indianapolis for a drivers’ meeting and parade, while Juan Fangio II will qualify the Toyota at Lime Rock. After driving 500 miles Sunday--he hopes--Moran will fly back to Connecticut to take over for the final two hours after Fangio starts Monday’s three-hour race.

When the Lime Rock GTP race ends, Moran will return to Indianapolis for the awards banquet that night. “It’s going to be a taxing week, but if I can make a good showing here and Juan and I can win at Lime Rock, it will make the whole deal enjoyable. Juan showed how well the Toyota can run last week at Topeka, so I’m anxious to get in it, too.”

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Fangio, nephew of Juan Fangio, the five-time world champion from Argentina, scored Toyota’s first GTP victory in a 300-kilometer race last Sunday at Heartland Park in Topeka, Kan. Moran was there to share driving duties, but when time came to change drivers, Fangio had a lead and team manager Gurney decided to leave Fangio in for the full race.

“Dan estimated it would cost us about 10 extra seconds to change drivers, and he didn’t want to lose the time,” Moran said. “It turned out he was right. We needed those 10 seconds to beat Geoff Brabham and the Nissan.”

Fangio’s winning margin was 1.314 seconds.

Indy Notes

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Al Unser’s dramatic 228.502-m.p.h. lap at Indianapolis at 5:09 p.m. CDT Friday caught onlookers by surprise. They had been witnessing a duel between two of Roger Penske’s drivers, Rick Mears and defending 500 champion Emerson Fittipaldi. Mears ran 226.390 m.p.h., and then Fittipaldi topped it with 227.181. Mears went out after Unser’s run but was thwarted by a yellow flag caused when Jim Crawford crashed. . . . Fittipaldi drew the first qualifying position today, Unser the 48th.


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