For a day at least, Al Unser Jr., in one of the Penske-Mercedes, is the fastest qualifier for the 78th Indianapolis 500.
Unser drove four laps Saturday at 228.011 m.p.h., but morning and afternoon showers that drenched Indianapolis Motor Speedway prevented the full field from receiving a qualifying attempt.
Defending 500 champion Emerson Fittipaldi, Unser's teammate and the pre-qualifying favorite for the pole, was left sitting on pit row when the gun sounded at 6 p.m. to end the first day of time trials.
Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Jimmy Vasser, Stefan Johansson and four other drivers will receive their chance at the pole when trials resume today. The pole winner is not decided until every driver has an opportunity to drive his four laps.
"I am happy that Al Jr. did a very strong run today," Fittipaldi said. "I was looking forward to going out because the car was fantastic in morning practice, but the weather didn't cooperate.
"I am not really nervous or anxious about having to wait a day, but I think it will be very difficult to beat Al Jr. I just hope the track conditions are the same as today."
Unser had an unusual lap pattern, starting off with 225.722 before jumping up to 228.351, 228.525 and 229.481.
"I think on that first lap, I was still spooked from the morning practice when I was going for a 229 and ran into rain," Unser said. "It was like looking down a double-barreled shotgun.
"During qualifying, when I saw the (first-lap) 225, I thought, 'Oh, man, I need to get going.' There weren't any radio communications, but I knew what Roger (Penske) would have said. I knew it was time to run as fast as I possibly could."
Paul Tracy, the third Penske driver who suffered a concussion when he crashed during practice Friday, might make a qualifying attempt today, but he is not eligible for the pole because he was unable to answer the call Saturday when his car's number was called. Tracy was released from the hospital and was at the track, but could not get a release to drive from Dr. Henry Bock, track medical director.
Twenty-one drivers, including seven rookies, posted qualifying speeds. Five of the 21, headed by second fastest Raul Boesel at 227.618, were from car owner Dick Simon's stable.
The two biggest surprises were the performances of rookie Jacques Villeneuve, who put his Reynard in the front row with a 226.259 m.p.h. run, and Lyn St. James, whose 224.154 put her in the middle of the second row--ahead of PPG Cup Indy car champion Nigel Mansell.
"It's really something to out-qualify Nigel," she said. "I know he's going to get razzed, but he has a great sense of humor."
St. James shattered her own four-lap record of 220.150 and one-lap record of 221.119. Her fastest single lap of 224.282 was her fourth as she picked up speed on every lap. By starting fifth, she also erases Janet Guthrie's 14th starting position in 1979 as the highest by a woman driver.
Villeneuve shattered the rookie record of 222.313 set two years ago by Vasser.
"I did not expect to be this fast," the Canadian rookie said. Villeneuve is the son of the late Gilles Villeneuve, Canada's legendary Formula One driver. "Some things are retained from your parents. I hopefully retained the good things."
John Andretti made his first step toward an Indy 500-Coca Cola 600 double on May 29 when he qualified at 223.263, good enough for the middle of the third row. Andretti, who practiced here Thursday, flew to Sonoma, Calif., on Friday to qualify 38th for today's SaveMart 300 at Sears Point Raceway. After qualifying at Sears Point, he returned to Indianapolis for Saturday's effort and then turned around and returned to California.
"There were some anxious moments today thinking about what if we don't qualify, but we were fortunate," Andretti said before heading for the airport. "There are times when you look at it and you wonder if you can see the end of the road."
Andretti's plan is to drive in the Indy 500, then fly to Charlotte, N.C., to drive in a 600-mile Winston Cup race that night.
It was a disappointing day for Robby Gordon, Scott Brayton and Teo Fabi, all of whom had practiced at 226 m.p.h. or faster but could not find enough speed to qualify when it counted.
Although Honda drivers Bobby Rahal and Mike Groff both made the 33-car field--at least temporarily--both were also disappointed. Rahal, at 220.178, and Groff, at 218.808, are the two slowest qualified cars and are in danger of being bumped from the field in next weekend's qualifying.
Rahal knows that feeling. Last year, as the reigning Indy car champion, he was bumped from the race on the final day of qualifying.