As the speeds go up, so does the severity of the crashes.
Less than 24 hours after Rick Mears, the defending Indianapolis 500 champion, destroyed last year's winning car in a terrifying crash, former Formula One champion Nelson Piquet smashed head-on Thursday into the concrete barrier that surrounds the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Piquet suffered multiple fractures of both lower legs and feet as well as a concussion.
The Brazilian, driving here for the first time after winning three Grand Prix titles, had been the fastest rookie most of the week and had posted his fastest lap, 228.571 m.p.h., just before he lost control of his Lola-Buick. The car did a complete spin as it slid 400 feet before slamming into the wall coming out of the fourth turn.
It was the fifth-fastest lap of the day at the time and had made Piquet a solid candidate for the pole when time trials begin Saturday. His speed was well above the official track record of 225.575 set in 1990 by Emerson Fittipaldi, another former Brazilian world champion.
The accident not only knocked Piquet out of the race May 24 but also dashed his hopes of returning to the Formula One circuit later this year.
Replays of the accident indicated that something either fell off Piquet's car or that he ran over something going down the back straightaway. After going through the third turn without incident, the car suddenly lost traction and Piquet became merely a passenger. The car hit with such impact that the rear end lifted before it spun away from the wall and skidded another 760 feet before coasting to a stop near the entrance to the pits.
Piquet was airlifted to Methodist Hospital, where Terry Trammell, the official Indy car orthopedic surgeon who has pieced together broken legs and feet for Mears, Scott Pruett, Shirley Muldowney, Danny Ongais and numerous others, began surgery immediately.
Piquet went into the operating room between 4:30 and 5, and hospital officials said they expected him to remain in surgery until after midnight.
Fittipaldi, a close friend of Piquet who was instrumental in getting him to try Indy car racing, accompanied his countryman to the hospital.
"I kept telling him he was in good hands with Dr. Trammell, that he is the best in the world," Fittipaldi said. "It's a very tough situation. Nelson was doing so well at his first Indy. He was very excited about racing here."
Earlier in the day, Piquet had talked about his first experiences here.
"The difference between here and Formula One racing is the wall," he said. "When I first saw the track, it was intimidating, but after a few laps I began to get comfortable and the more I drove the more I was looking forward to the race."
Piquet's car sustained heavy front-end damage.
Ironically, the yellow caution light had come on shortly before Piquet's crash, but not soon enough to help him.
"Piquet ran over a small piece of aluminum, but it doesn't seem to have any bearing on the accident," said Mike Devin, United States Auto Club technical director. "We found a piece that came off another car and that's why the yellow came on. Immediately as the yellow came on, Piquet ran over the part on the back straight."
Mears, who crashed Wednesday, remained in his hotel room Thursday, but expects to be cleared to drive today and hopes to qualify for the race Saturday.
"I'm awful sore all over," the Bakersfield veteran said as he sat in bed with his left foot elevated, in a cast. He plans to have the cast removed this morning and hopes to get clearance from Henry Bock, the track doctor, to return to the track. He has a "minor fracture" of the foot and a sprained right wrist.
If he is cleared, he will be in his No. 1 car, a 1992 Penske-Chevrolet. Also hoping to be cleared is rookie Kenji Momota of Japan, who spun his 1991 Lola-Chevy into the wall late Wednesday. Momota was hospitalized overnight but was released Thursday morning.
Roberto Guerrero, in one of Kenny Bernstein's Buick-powered Lolas, had the fastest lap of a busy day Thursday when he ran a 232.624-m.p.h. lap and then ran three more at a 232 average. The official four-lap record, made during time trials, is 225.301 by Fittipaldi in 1990.
Jim Crawford, Guerrero's Buick teammate, has the fastest lap during this week's practice. He ran 233.432 last Monday.
Arie Luyendyk, the 1990 winner, became the fifth driver to exceed 230 in practice when he ran 230.084 in one of Chip Ganassi's Lola-Fords.