MOTOR RACING : Old Cars, Older Drivers Trying to Qualify at Indy

What has already been one of the wackiest Indianapolis 500 qualifying periods in history may reach new heights this weekend when officials seek to complete the 33-car field for the 75th renewal on May 26.

There were even scare stories, after only 22 cars qualified on the first weekend, that the field might not be filled for the first time since 1947, when a prerace strike by a group of drivers reduced the starters to 30. Although 88 cars were entered this year, only 58 were actually in the garages at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Only 34 drivers had been on the track, and that number included Mark Dismore and Dominic Dobson, both of whom were injured in crashes during practice.

This week has produced some others drivers--in old cars--and the prospects of having 33 starters are much brighter. Out of the woodwork have come two-time winner Gordon Johncock, two-time runner-up Roberto Guerrero, former pole-sitter Pancho Carter and his half-brother, Johnny Parsons, who has driven in 11 Indy 500s.

Johncock, who was called in off his tractor while plowing a field in Coldwater, Mich., to be told he has a ride in the Hemmelgarn-Byrd Lola-Cosworth, has not driven a race car in two years and has been in only six races since he announced his retirement in 1985.

"I made a decision I wish I hadn't made," he said. "Things weren't going well at the time, and I just chucked it. It was too soon, and I've regreted it."

Johncock, 54, won the 500 in 1973 and '82.

Parsons, 46, is another retread who has not raced an Indy car since 1987 while campaigning midgets and sprint cars. His best 500 finishes were fifths in 1977 and '85.

Guerrero, dropped by Pat Patrick last year when Danny Sullivan became available for the Alfa Romeo team, has rejoined Patrick as a one-race teammate of Sullivan's. Guerrero did all the early development work on the Alfa engine after it made its debut during the 1989 season.

Still not qualified are Scott Pruett, No. 1 driver on the Truesports team; John Paul Jr.; Tero Palmroth; Salt Walther; Dean Hall, and two closely watched rookies, Willy T. Ribbs and Hiro Matsushita.

On the sidelines, still looking and hoping for a sponsor to buy a ride, are four-time winner Al Unser, three-time winner Johnny Rutherford and 1983 winner Tom Sneva.

Each is hoping to drive one of the spare Chevrolet-powered backup cars owned by nine teams, but Chevrolet has a clause in each contract that its engines cannot be used for backup drivers without permission. There is a rumor in Indianapolis that Unser, the first driver in a Chevy-powered car in 1986, will get one of them, but nothing has happened yet.

Chevrolet contracted to provide engines for 12 drivers on nine teams for the CART season. All of them have already qualified for the 500.

Only three times since 1947 has the race started with fewer than 33 cars. Each time an accident during the parade and pace laps knocked someone out of the field--Tom Sneva in 1986 and Jim Malloy in 1970 with mechanical breakdowns, and Elmer George and Eddie Russo in 1957, when George ran into Russo.

Several highly ranked racing personalities were thankful when Roger Penske pulled the plug on Emerson Fittipaldi's qualifying run last Saturday--a run that could have put him on the front row. It's not that they have anything against the popular Brazilian or the Captain.

What they didn't want was an all-tobacco-sponsored front row of Rick Mears (Marlboro), A. J. Foyt (Copenhagen) and Fittipaldi (Marlboro) appearing on TV and the front pages of newspapers all week long. There is a growing concern in the racing fraternity that the tobacco largess may end soon.

STOCK CARS--Mesa Marin Speedway in Bakersfield has scheduled an ambitious three-day weekend that includes a NASCAR Southwest Tour race Saturday night and the California 400, a Winston West championship race Sunday. Jon Paques will be after a record-equaling third consecutived Southwest Tour victory, and Bakersfield driver Mike Chase will be trying for his sixth in a row on his home track Saturday night. Dan Press, who holds the record Paques seeks to equal, is a close adviser to the Albuquerque, N. M., driver. Highland's Randy Becker is coming out of a three-year retirement to drive in the Winston West race. The defending champion is Bill Sedgwick of Granada Hills. Sedgwick, Chase, Ron Hornaday Jr. and Gary Collins will drive in both events. Also on the Mesa Marin schedule are a United States Auto Club midget program Friday night and a super modified main event Sunday morning.

Winston Racing Series competition will continue Saturday night at Saugus Speedway and Cajon Speedway. Gary Sigman and Keith Spangler are waging a tight battle for sportsman division supremacy at Saugus. . . . Orange Show Speedway will conduct a destruction derby and train race Saturday night, with its regular NASCAR sportsman races Sunday evening as part of the National Orange Show. . . . A 250-lap factory stock enduro is scheduled Saturday night at Santa Maria Speedway.

MIDGETS--Page Jones will try to win his second USAC Western States main event in as many weeks Friday night at Mesa Marin Speedway after defeating Sleepy Tripp and Robby Flock last week at Orange Show Speedway.

DRAG RACING--Engine builder Keith Black, who died Monday of cancer in Long Beach, was a pioneer in building nitro motors and was the originator of the aluminum block used in top fuel and funny car dragsters and drag boats. He became involved in drag racing as part-owner of the Greer-Black top fueler that launched Don (Snake) Prudhomme's career in the early 1960s. . . . The Nostalgia Drag Racing Assn. will conduct a meet Saturday and Sunday at the L.A. County Raceway in Palmdale.

MOTORCYCLES--British Speedway League riders Rick Miller and Sam Ermolenko will return to Southland tracks for one week, starting with Friday night's races at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. . . . The White Bros. 4-stroke world TT scrambles and motocross championships will be held at Goat Brecker's Perris Raceway Saturday and Sunday. Greg Zitterkoph and Gary Davis are defending champions. . . . The American Road Racing Assn. monthly Grand Prix series will be held Saturday and Sunday at Willow Springs Raceway.

DRAG BOATS--World top fuel hydro champion Ron Braaksma of Downey will be after his third victory this season in International Hot Boat Assn. competition this weekend at Castaic Lake. Braaksma, in "Madness," won the year's first two events but will face a difficult task in defeating defending Chief Auto Parts Nationals winner Kyle Walker, who was the first driver to better six seconds since the IHBA inaugurated a standing start. Walker's "Spirit of America" has former NFL star Dan Pastorini as chief tuner. Qualifying for 15 classes is Saturday with eliminations Sunday.

INDY--Former driver Lloyd Ruby and engine builder Dale Drake will be inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in ceremonies Friday night. Ruby never won the 500 but led in five of his 18 starts. Drake, who will be honored posthumously, helped develop the Meyer-Drake Offenhauer engine that won every Indy race from 1947 through '64.

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