Sun, May 11, 2003 - Page 23 News List

`Spider-man' seeks his third Indy 500 win in three years


Helio Castroneves figured out right away how to win the Indianapolis 500. Qualifying hasn't been so easy, though.

The Brazilian driver, nicknamed "Spider-man" because of his wall-climbing antics after every victory, will have the chance May 25 to become the first driver to win three straight Indy 500s.

The first order of business, though, will be a run at the pole on Saturday, the first of three days of qualifying to fill the 33-car field. Being fast in practice doesn't mean a thing.

"Last year, we were right up there at the top of the chart all month, and all of a sudden we disappear," Castroneves said.

Despite going 2-for-2 in the race, Castroneves was no factor in qualifying. He started 13th last May after going from the 11th spot as a rookie.

Indy's unique qualifying format -- taking the average speed from four consecutive laps -- is one of the most difficult jobs in auto racing.

"Anyone can make the car faster for one lap, but to keep the car under you for four laps is what makes qualifying at Indy so hard," said Gil de Ferran, Castroneves' Penske Racing teammate.

The biggest problem in running four fast, consistent laps around the speedway's 4km oval is ever-changing track conditions.

During the approximately 2 1/2 minutes it takes to finish a qualifying run, a gust of wind, the sun suddenly peeking out of the clouds, or going behind a cloud, a cold track surface or a hot surface affect the handling of the car during the run.

"It the most mentally challenging thing you can possibly do in motor racing," said 1999 Indy winner Kenny Brack.

Rick Mears, a four-time Indy winner, was a master qualifier here, winning a record six poles before retiring to become a consultant for Roger Penske's team.

To get the needed consistency, Mears said a driver must become an on-board engineer after he takes the green flag.

"You can't come back into the pit to make a change, and you're limited on how many changes you can make in the car with adjustments," he said. "So, you have to exhaust those options and then you have to adjust your pattern -- the way you get through the corners."

All of this is done while traveling at speeds as high as 378kph (235mph) on the two long straightaways. Bruno Junqueira, who did not return this year, won the pole in 2002 with a four-lap average of 372.229kph. That was slightly more that two-tenths of a second and 0.500kph faster than Robbie Buhl. The slowest speed to make the field was 364.582kph by Billy Boat.

Even with all new cars and engines in the IRL this year, the qualifying speeds are expected to be similar to last year.

Since practice opened Sunday, 12 drivers in 15 cars have gone above 230, led by rookie Dan Wheldon at 232.202. Robby Gordon led Friday's final full day of practice with a lap of 372.261kph, his best of the week.

"We're chasing hundredths of a second," Brack said.

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