Fri, May 09, 2003 - Page 23 News List

Indy racers fight for position in lead up to America's race

AP , INDIANAPOLIS

One of the most important moments at the Indianapolis 500 is on the first day of qualifications, when pole position is decided and the list of race favorites is shortened to an elite few.

Any mistake, a slight wobble or an untimely gust of wind can send a potential front-row starter back to the middle of the pack. That's why qualifications often are as dramatic as the race.

"It's important to be consistent through the week. You want to be fast against your peers every day, but I saw a lot of guys busting their times drafting off people, and we did the same," said Scott Sharp, the 2001 Indy pole winner and IRL points leader this season. "You won't know what you can run on your own until much later in the week."

Running on your own -- that's the key.

Qualifying is the only time all month when a driver is alone on the track. No traffic to slow him, no drafting to help him, and certainly no time for a quick trip to the pits for an aerodynamic tweak of the chassis or a change of tires.

It's four laps around the 4km oval, with the average speed determining a driver's starting spot.

"Qualifying for a team is really a simple exercise of how much you're willing to risk," 1998 Indy winner Eddie Cheever said. "How much power you have, how long a driver can hold his breath. We're trying to make him hold his breath for five minutes, but he's turning blue at around three."

Saturday is the first of three days of qualifications for the May 25 race. Each car gets three attempts, but if it completes a four-lap run to qualify, it has to be withdrawn or bumped once the lineup is full to make another attempt for more speed.

Only those cars in the original qualifying order are eligible for the pole.

Last year produced a record 367.895kph (228.648mph) average in qualifications for the 33-car field, and the past two years produced the two closest starting fields in Indy history. The total four-lap time was 3.2422 seconds between Sharp and slow qualifier Billy Boat in 2001 and 3.2646 seconds between pole-winner Bruno Junqueira and Boat last year.

That's what produces the tension, Cheever said.

"In a race, you can have a bad pit stop, you can have a bad set of tires, and still catch up under the yellow," Cheever said.

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