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Supporting Cast Heads Indy Only Three Former Winners In Field For Today’s Indianapolis 500

The sights and sounds will be the same.

About 400,000 people will be wedged into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway today, as usual.

Jim Nabors will croon “Back Home Again in Indiana,” as usual.

And, as usual, the 11 rows of three race cars each will roar to life as Indianapolis matriarch Mary Fendrich Hulman delivers the familiar command, “Gentlemen and lady, start your engines!”

But this is no ordinary Indy 500.

There’s speed all right. The fastest field in history - and one of the most inexperienced.

There’s no Little Al and Emmo. Roger Penske won’t roam the pits with his headphones.

Mario Andretti isn’t here. Neither are A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears.

How can this be an Indy 500 without those guys?

Team Penske wasn’t able to qualify drivers Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi for the 33-car field, and Mario, A.J., Lone Star J.R., Big Al and Rocket Rick, with 16 Indy wins among them from 1961 through 1991, have officially retired from driving. It’s been a strange month of May at the speedway, and it could get even stranger in the 79th running of the Memorial Day weekend classic.

What next? Lyn St. James becoming the first woman to win the world’s richest and most prestigious race? Bryan Herta becoming the first winner from the last starting spot? How about Japan’s Hideshi Matsuda, who used to be a Buddhist monk?

Hey, why not. Anybody’s likely to come out on top after this bizarre month.

Maybe favorite Michael Andretti will finally manage a win for the family that has been shut out at Indy since his father Mario took the checkered flag in 1969.

“Everything seems so different this year,” Michael Andretti said. “Maybe that means I’ll win. Or maybe it just means something new will keep me from winning. It should be one of the best races in years because so many guys could win it.”

Up on the front row are three drivers who don’t even have regular rides in the IndyCar series.

Pole-winner Scott Brayton leads everyone in the lineup with 13 previous Indy starts and never has finished better than sixth in the race.

Arie Luyendyk, who won the fastest Indy 500 in history at 185.981 mph in 1990 and has three top-five finishes in the past five years, is generally overlooked when favorites are chosen.

Both are on the front row thanks in great part to their affiliation with team owner John Menard, who took a chance - and spent a lot of money - developing a stock block V6 turbocharged engine that has given them a horsepower advantage over the rest of the field.

Each qualified at more than 231 mph to be part of the fastest racing field ever, an average of 226.912 mph. The big question is: Will either finish the race? The reliability of the Menard engine remains a big question.

Menard, whose budget for the only race his team runs reportedly is about $6.5 million, points out that several drivers have finished this race in cars powered by the V6 powerplant, including the elder Unser, third in 1992.

“Is it as reliable as a (Ford) Cosworth or an (Mercedes) Ilmor? Probably not,” Menard said. “Is it better than it was a year ago? Yeah. Is it better than it was three years ago? Probably. So we’ll just have to wait until race day and see. We’re real hopeful.”

Speaking of question marks, there’s Scott Goodyear, who finished second to Little Al in 1992 in the closest Indy finish ever - a difference of .043 seconds. Goodyear made it onto the outside of the front row with a car rolling on unproven Firestone tires - how’s that for bizarre? - and powered by a Honda engine untested over 500 miles.

Barry Green, manager of the team fielding a car for 1994 runner-up and 1995 favorite Jacques Villeneuve expects a wide-open race, but doesn’t think the Menardpowered cars are going to be a factor.

“I think there’s eight, nine very strong contenders out there,” Green said. “Michael Andretti is well overdue. His teammate Paul Tracy didn’t qualify so well, but has run well all month. Robby Gordon has been strong. Teo Fabi been very very strong… . Then we have the Hondas and Scott Goodyear at the front… . The fact the Penskes are not there will not make our job any easier.”

As for the Menard drivers, Green said, “I don’t know whether they got a lot of race distance on this engine or not. They certainly have been very, very fast when they are running; but they didn’t appear to do any long runs here during the month. I would be very surprised if they get the same sort of fuel mileage we will get. And I believe fuel mileage will be big factor during the race.

“I’m not counting them out, but I don’t think they are strong contenders at this point,” he added.

Firestone is making its comeback to Indianapolis, where it won 48 races before walking away in the face of escalating costs in 1974, leaving the venue to Goodyear.

The new tire war, so far cool and friendly, is expected to heat up substantially today when 25 cars start on Goodyear Eagles and eight on Firestone Firehawks.

A year ago, the Honda engine was so underpowered that former winner Bobby Rahal had to borrow a car from Penske to make the race - and finish third.

This year, it was Rahal and co-owner Carl Hogan loaning Penske a pair of new Lolas to try, without success, to get Unser and Fittipaldi into the race.

“I really feel for Al and Emerson,” said Rahal, who was bumped out of the 1993 race. “I know how it feels to go through that last-day (qualifying) rush… . It shows there are no guarantees at this place.

“It was a terrible feeling watching the race from the suite,” he added.

A VIP suite is exactly where Penske and his two drivers are expected to spend this afternoon.

With all those recent retirements and the failure of the Penske cars to make it into the race, only three former champions are among this year’s starters, the smallest number since Foyt, the elder Andretti and Bobby Unser, Al Sr.’s brother, were the only former winners in the 1970 field.

Joining Luyendyk in this year’s lineup are 1985 winner Danny Sullivan, 18th, and 1986 winner Rahal, 21st.

It’s also the first time since the 1969 race that there are no family connections - no brothers, half-brothers, fathers and sons or uncles and nephews - among the starters.

This is also the least-experienced field in years, with a total of 129 years of Indy 500 racing. In 1992, the lineup totaled a record-tying 260 race-years.

There are six rookies, all foreign-born, in this race. Andre Ribeiro, one of five Brazilians in the race, was the fastest first-year driver and will start 12th, on the outside of the fourth row. Scattered behind him are countrymen Gil de Ferran and Christian Fittipaldi - Emerson’s nephew - as well as Alessandro Zampedri of Italy, Eliseo Salazar of Chile, the slowest qualifier at 225.023 mph, and Carlos Guerrero of Mexico.

“This ought to be one of the greatest Indy 500s ever,” Luyendyk said. “I really believe there’s 12, 13, 14 guys who have a legitimate chance to win it. I think the fans are really going to like this one.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ON TV The Indy 500 telecast will start at 8 a.m. on ABC (channel 4).

This sidebar appeared with the story: ON TV The Indy 500 telecast will start at 8 a.m. on ABC (channel 4).

 
Tags: auto racing

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