Sun, May 16, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Indianapolis 500 qualifying can be as exciting as race

AP , INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA

There is nothing in the world of auto racing quite like qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.

The first of three days of time trials for the May 30 race is scheduled for today, with drivers set to go for the pole position.

To make it into the field for the 88th running of the historic race, drivers will run four-lap, 16km sprints on the 4km oval.

Nowhere else in the sport does qualifying require such an extended period of concentration and precision to make the lineup.

"I don't know of four more pressure-packed laps in racing than these," said 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal, now a team owner with three cars entered here. "I always felt there was a lot more pressure for qualifying than there was for the race."

Dario Franchitti, one of only 28 drivers listed for 52 cars in the qualifying draw on Friday, said Indy qualifying is the biggest challenge in oval racing.

"To get a four-lap average, you have to not only get it right for each lap, you have to be spot-on for four laps," he said. "If the wind comes up, or the sun is coming in and out of the clouds, each lap can be different. It's tough."

Bryan Herta, Franchitti's Andretti Green Racing teammate, agreed it's hard to run four consistent laps.

"The car can go off from one lap to the next," he said. "And it usually does."

Adding to the uncertainty this year are a new engine with reduced horsepower and a new aerodynamics package. The combination has slowed the cars by about 16kph and made the balance more difficult to find and harder to keep.

Two-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves won the pole last year with an average speed of 372.845kph on a run that included laps over 373kph.

Rain washed out all but a few minutes of Friday's scheduled seven hours of practice, leaving Tony Kanaan, another Andretti Green driver, with the top speed since the track opened on Sunday. Kanaan turned a lap of 358.272kph on Wednesday.

The Brazilian driver said being fastest in practice guarantees nothing here.

"We always expect the unexpected in qualifying at Indy," Kanaan said, grinning. "The weather has been hot all week, we've had rain that washed rubber off the track and Saturday is supposed to be much cooler, in the 1970s. It's hard to know what will happen.

"And it will probably change a lot from the morning to the afternoon, so the draw could be real important."

Kanaan drew the third spot in line for Saturday, right behind rookie Ed Carpenter and Robby Gordon. It was a great draw for Gordon, scheduled to race in Richmond, Virginia, in a NASCAR race on Saturday night.

Castroneves, sixth overall in practice, said the slower speeds this year won't really make much difference in qualifying.

"Every time you drive the car it's on the edge," he said. "It's always going to be difficult."

Referring to Team Penske adviser and four-time Indy winner Rick Mears, Castroneves added, ``Like Rick says, if the car is too comfortable, that means you are too slow.''

With speeds not the top issue this year, the big question has been whether there will be enough cars to fill the field. If not, it would be the first time since 1947 that a full complement of at least 33 cars had not started the race.

Roger Penske, whose team fields cars for Castroneves and two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. and has won 13 Indy 500s, including the last three, would hate to see a short field.

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