A museum relic turned back into a race car Monday as Team Penske began in earnest the hard work of finding a way to qualify drivers Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi for the May 28 Indianapolis 500.
The Penske team, shut out in the first weekend of qualifications for the only time since it began coming to here in 1969, has been struggling to get its new PenskeMercedes cars to run fast enough to make the field for the biggest race of the season.
Team owner Roger Penske has always said dire problems require dire solutions.
Penske had the car in which Unser won the pole and race last year at Indianapolis shipped in from Downey, Calif., where it was on display in a small museum that is part of one of Penske’s car dealerships.
“The car got here (Sunday) morning and we could have put it through inspection by late afternoon if the USAC tech people weren’t busy with qualifying,” said Penske crewman Vince Kramer as Fittipaldi zoomed past the pits on the nearby 2 1/2-mile oval.
Unser took the day off while the team began the search for speed with Fittipaldi at the wheel, trying a variety of chassis setups and wings, including some from ‘93.
The mood in the pits was serious as Fittipaldi, the Indy winner in 1989 and 1993, got on to the track with 3 hours remaining in the day’s practice session. Under the watchful eye of Penske, he ran 58 laps with a top speed of 220.745 mph, making frequent stops in the pits for adjustments to the car.
That’s considerably slower than the top laps he and Unser have managed in the new cars. Unser hit 227.261 and Fittipaldi 225.011 last week in practice.
But the team was happier by the end of the day.
“We’re going to make progress,” Kramer said. “We’re not really searching for speed right now. We’re searching for feel. You have to get the driver comfortable.”
Asked if it will be hard to take what the team learns from the 1994 car and transfer it to the new cars, Kramer said, “Not really. The cars are really very similar.”
The team has retained ownership of all but one of its record 10 Indy winners and keeps them either in California or at Penske’s Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich.
The 1994 Penske chassis had to be fitted with a 1995 Mercedes engine because the Mercedes powerplant it used a year ago, a specially built pushrod motor with a tremendous horsepower advantage, has been made obsolete by U.S. Auto Club rule changes.
“All of our museum cars are maintained, lubricated and the engines run,” Kramer said. “There really wasn’t too much that we needed to do to adapt the (new) engine to the chassis. Just throw on some ‘95 pieces.
“We have a lot of manpower and resources to call in that a lot of teams don’t have. We had two guys come in from England (where Penske builds its own cars) and two from the museum.”
Penske also has said he would not hesitate to buy new Lola or Reynard chassis if that is the only way to get his drivers in the race.
“We’ve got a little more time to make that decision,” Penske said. “But not a lot.”
Despite a sunny, warm day, only 20 cars made it onto the track Monday, with Paul Tracy, already qualified, running the top lap at 228.339. Rookie Gil de Ferran was next at 227.652 in the car he has qualified, as well as running a 226.301 in his backup.
Among the other non-qualified drivers, Eric Bachelart of Belgium was fastest, improving his best lap to 227.261; rookie Christian Fittipaldi, Emerson’s nephew, got up to 226.489; rookie Franck Freon hit 217.391; and Jim Crawford got up to 215.559.
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