Engines Are Iffy For Indy Motors Being Used Have Never Raced 500 Miles

SUNDAY, MAY 25, 1997

With 25 laps to go in the Indianapolis 500, the last of the 35 engines that started the race nearly 3 hours earlier gives out with a loud bang, belches a puff of black smoke and goes silent.

The cheering of more than 400,000 spectators also is stilled. Is the race over?

There’s no checkered flag. No victory lap. The winning car rolls to Victory Lane behind a tow truck.

Improbable, yes. But certainly possible, considering the 4-liter, non-turbocharged engines being used today have never raced for 500 miles.

In fact, not one of the new engines has been put through such a test, although several have run a total of more than 500 miles this month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The short history of the Oldsmobile Aurora and Nissan Infiniti engines is full of noisy, messy failures.

“It’s a crapshoot,” said Rick Galles, who has fielded cars for the 500 every year since 1983, when he brought Al Unser Jr. to Indy.

Now he’s back with another rookie, Kenny Brack of Sweden.

“If I’m coaching a football team, I don’t worry about the ball blowing up or the goal posts falling down,” Galles said. “In racing, you’ve always got the mechanical part of it. We could be the best prepared race team and have that fitting break loose and have an oil leak and that’s it. But I will say the motors have gone far beyond my expectations.”

Arie Luyendyk, one of only two former Indy champions in the lineup, will start from the pole in a G Force powered by an Aurora engine. He insists he has plenty of confidence in that combination.

“Of course, there are all kinds of unknowns over 500 miles. Maybe nobody will finish. But we’ve had no problems with our engines and, hopefully, they’ll run the distance,” Luyendyk said. “There’s no guarantee. But there never was a guarantee before, either.”

The engines growled, the tires spun and there were no puddles of oil. Robby Gordon and Jim Guthrie were finally ready for the Indianapolis 500 - with only a few hours to spare.

Gordon, Guthrie and three other drivers took the track one last time Saturday for a rare practice before today’s race. Gordon, Guthrie, and Guthrie’s Team Blueprint Racing teammates, Sam Schmidt and Claude Bourbonnais, all ran a few laps to test their newly rebuilt engines.

Paul Durant ran one lap to make sure the gearbox on his Aurora G Force didn’t stick.

“I feel a lot more comfortable knowing we don’t have an oil leak,” Gordon said Saturday. “Now, we cross our fingers tomorrow.”

Drivers may have to cross their fingers for something else, too - that it doesn’t rain.

The National Weather Service said there was an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms today, and that could cause problems for drivers.

The race is not official unless 101 laps are completed. If the race is postponed, speedway officials likely would try again Monday. And if that day is rained out, too, the race would be run on the next available date, usually the following weekend.

Of the 35 drivers in this year’s race, 13 are rookies and 10 are making just their second start at the Brickyard. Last year, 17 rookies started.

Among the rules drivers will have to remember:

- Line up in even rows at the start.

- No pitting at the start of the yellow flag.

- No standing on the gas in the warm-up lane after coming out of the pits.

- And absolutely, positively, no trying to get ahead of someone until your car rumbles over the row of bricks at the start.

Undaunted by a warehouse fire that wiped out most of the floats, thousands of people thronged downtown streets under mostly sunny skies Saturday for the Indianapolis 500 parade.

Organizers tried to make up for Wednesday’s loss by mounting flatbed trailers with computer images of the destroyed floats.

The fire destroyed 10 of 14 floats.

Tracy captures Motorola 300

Paul Tracy says confidence is a wonderful thing.

Even when he lost a lap to the leaders early in the Motorola 300 at Madison, Ill., Tracy was still thinking win.

Even while sitting in seventh place with only 35 of the 236 laps remaining, Tracy believed he could still win.

“With the way things have been going for us lately, we feel like no matter what happens, as long as you’re determined, you can come back from it,” Tracy said. “It really had helped the confidence of the whole team.”

The positive thinking paid off as he charged to the front, passing rookie Patrick Carpentier with two laps remaining to earn his third straight victory.

This time, Tracy caught and passed his fellow Canadian as the rookie tried to walk a tightrope between conserving fuel and racing to what would have been his first CART Indy-car victory.

Labonte ready for Coca-Cola

Week in and week out on the Winston Cup circuit, Jeff Gordon gets most of the attention. Terry Labonte has to settle for getting the most points.

Labonte is in a familiar position heading into today’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway: he’s atop the season driver standings.

“I feel good about our season, even though I don’t feel like we’ve done quite as well as we’d like,” said Labonte, the defending Winston Cup champion who is still looking for his first victory of 1997.

Labonte has compiled a series-leading nine top-10 finishes in the first 10 races of the year, giving him a 39-point advantage over Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, in the driver standings.

Things could get tougher for Labonte’s competitors.

“Our team always has been consistently better in the second half than in the first half,” he said. “If you run good every week and come close, you’re going to win some races. That’s our main goal right now. We want to win Sunday.”

To do that, his Chevrolet Monte Carlo will need to have enough durability to last 600 miles, the longest race on the circuit. Labonte’s crew also will have to be flexible enough to adjust his car to the changing conditions in a race that begins in sunlight and ends in darkness.

Rookie wins America 200

Rookie Tony Raines registered his first NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series victory, winning the $316,384 Western Auto Parts America 200 on Saturday in Odessa, Mo. It was Dodge’s first major NASCAR triumph in nearly 20 years.

Raines, a 33-year-old short track veteran from Laporte, Ind., led 149 of the 200 laps around the I-70 Speedway, a 0.543-mile oval, after starting from the outside front row.

Teammates get front row

Williams-Renault teammates Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen recovered from poor showings in their previous race to gain the front row in qualifying for today’s Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, Spain.

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