INDIANAPOLIS 500 : If Day Is Cool, the Cars Will Be Hot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Sneva once came in from a few practice laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and was met by a knot of reporters.

"How did you find the track today, Tom?" one asked.

"I drove out 16th Street and there it was," the 1983 Indy 500 winner replied. "No problem at all."

Sneva's flippant answer would have been appropriate Friday as drivers searched for more horsepower, more stability and more speed on the eve of pole qualifying for the 76th Indianapolis 500.

The one imponderable is how they will find the track when qualifying begins at 11 a.m. for the May 24 race.

Finding the track, or keeping up with the track, seemed to be uppermost in drivers' minds.

Will the track be hot and slippery under a blazing Indiana sun? Or will the weather be cool and cloudy enough to accommodate the heaviest of horsepower? Or perhaps windy and shadowy and unpredictable?

How the drivers and crews react to the changing conditions could determine the pole sitter.

Even the fastest were not satisfied Friday.

"Once you have the setup you want, you have to try and keep up with the track," said Roberto Guerrero, whose consistency at recording 232-m.p.h. laps makes him a prime candidate for the pole. "The track keeps changing from hour to hour, and if you don't keep up with it, you can lose it and be out of contact when it comes time to qualify."

Guerrero and Jim Crawford, both driving for drag racer Kenny Bernstein's team of Buick-powered Lolas, have consistently been fastest since the track opened for practice last Saturday. Guerrero drove 230 m.p.h. or faster five days in a row, and Crawford had the fastest lap of the week, 233.432 m.p.h., last Monday.

Mario Andretti, in one of four Ford Cosworth-powered Lolas here, went out in cool, ideal conditions late Friday and ran at 233.202, fastest of the final day of practice. The only other drivers over 230 were in two other Fords--Mario's son Michael, the defending Indy car series champion, and 1990 Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk.

When Mario Andretti first came here in 1965, the pole speed was a record 151 m.p.h.

"The only way I can compare the 1960s with today is that we were just as much on the edge back then as we are today," Andretti said. "If there is a difference, it's that the track seems about half the size. When you come down the front straightaway and have to stuff it into the corner at 240, it looks like a hairpin from the cockpit."

Rick Mears, the defending 500 winner who suffered leg and arm injuries in a spectacular crash Wednesday, returned to the track Friday and tested himself with a 220-m.p.h. lap in the new Penske-Chevy he hopes to run today. Mears could barely hobble into the interview room.

"Yesterday, I felt like a truck ran over me, but today I'm feeling fine," he said. "My feet are tender, but they made inserts for my shoes to help distribute the load. Fortunately it was my left foot instead of my right foot."

Last year, Mears crashed and injured his right foot the day before qualifying, but still came back the following day to win the pole and, two weeks later, his fourth Indy 500.

"This time we have a day more to work on getting me ready," he said. "The thing I remember most about the wreck is that I thought, 'This is going to hurt!' I didn't know the car had tipped over (on its side) until I saw sparks from the roll bar scraping on the asphalt. My head didn't hit, but my helmet has a lot of scratches on it."

Terry Trammell, the orthopedic surgeon who operated on three-time Grand Prix champion Nelson Piquet after his head-on crash with the wall on Thursday, said that Piquet's left foot was "pulverized."

"The injuries to his foot and ankle were devastating," Trammell said after the 6 1/2-hour operation. "There was so much of the foot missing that there was a significant question of whether we could put together what was damaged.

"Fortunately, we were able to reconstruct the foot and ankle. . . . He is going to have more surgery Sunday morning to make sure there is no debris floating around in the wounds and muscle."

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