At 3:52 last
Saturday afternoon, Emerson Fittipaldi guided his Penske 91 down pit road and
into Turn 1 to begin his attempt to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Last year
he averaged 225.301 mph to become the fastest qualifier in the race's history.
In all probability, Fittipaldi would gain the 1991 pole position if he could
surpass the day's best four-lap run of 224.113 mph, which had been turned in by
his teammate, Rick Mears, three hours earlier. When Mears had qualified, during
the hottest part of an unexpectedly hot day, the 82� temperaturee had made the
track slippery and robbed his engine of gobs of horsepower.
Now, with rain
threatening and the temperature lower, the wail from Fittipaldi's Chevy V-8
rose to a sustained peak as his red-and-white car plunged into the first lap of
its four-lap qualifying run. About 40 seconds later he had completed the
2.5-mile circuit with an average speed of 222.409 mph. Then came Lap 2 in
222.899, Lap 3 in 223.369 and Lap 4 in.... Fittipaldi pulled out while rounding
the final turn and headed into the pits.
Team owner Roger
Penske had decided not to let Fittipaldi take the checkered flag. Doing so
would have made his run official and, in all likelihood, would have put
Fittipaldi next to Mears in the middle of the front for the 500 on May 26.
Penske didn't want to settle for second place for Fittipaldi, because that
would render him unable to regain the pole for Penske Racing if one of the
other drivers still waiting to run on this first day of Indy qualifying—the
only day on which the pole could be won—went faster than Mears. Penske was
especially worried about three drivers yet to qualify: Kevin Cogan, who had hit
238 mph down the back straight in practice with his Lola-Buick, 4 mph faster
than either of Penske's drivers; Gary Bettenhausen, who was in a car that was
virtually identical to Cogan's; and last year's Indy champion, Arie Luyendyk,
who was in a Lola-Chevy.
Penske was so
convinced that it would take at least 225 mph to hold the pole that he had
called off another run by Fittipaldi earlier in the day. Fittipaldi, the 1989
Indy 500 winner, had originally been scheduled to qualify right after Mears,
but because of the midday heat, Penske had not even let Fittipaldi take to the
track. Now, for a second time, Penske had decided to wait for cooler
gotten his orders over the radio during the final lap. Was he surprised to be
called in? To be sure. Was he upset? Well, had his race car been
air-conditioned, this would have been a good time to turn it up full blast.
"I was just driving the car," said Fittipaldi as he awaited the slim
chance for another shot at the pole. "It was the team's decision."
One more driver,
John Andretti, qualified before the skies opened. As Cogan waited for the rain
to stop and the track to dry, he expressed sympathy for Fittipaldi. "That
had to be hard on Emmo," he said. "You know, these are the scariest
three minutes in sports. He had to get himself all pumped up, then he did the
job, then to get waved off.... This day has been like psychological
Maybe for those
waiting on line, but for most of the more than 200,000 spectators at the
Brickyard, this day of qualifying had already been one of the most satisfying
in the Speedway's history. That morning, A.J. Foyt, 56, made the field for the
34th straight year. Made the field? He damn near won the pole. By the luck of
the draw, Foyt was the first driver to qualify, and he whipped his Lola-Chevy
to an average speed of 222.443 mph, which held the pole from 11 a.m. until
Mears figuratively whizzed by him at 12:51. Foyt will start the 500 in second
on the front row, like the man himself, is extraordinary. Last year, on Sept.
23, after his brakes failed on the front straight at the Road America circuit
in Elkhart Lake, Wis., he plowed up and over a dirt embankment. Both of Foyt's
legs were smashed, and he had to be dug out of the dirt by hand. Fortunately
the man in charge of the delicate excavation work was Dr. Terry Trammell, one
of CART's two directors of medical services. Trammell is an orthopedic
specialist who has saved the careers of several injured drivers, including
Mears and Cogan. As Trammell scooped dirt away, Foyt was in so much pain that
at one point he screamed, "Just hit me with a hammer." Later he would
say, "It's one of the few times I've been in an accident when I haven't
been unconscious that I should have been."
Foyt's left tibia
was snapped in two; it is now held together by a plate and 12 screws. His right
leg was lacerated down to the bone, his right foot was dislocated, and his
right heel was crushed. "If this had been just any 55-year-old guy, he'd
probably never have walked again," Trammell said recently. But this is A.J.
Foyt, the first man to ever win the Indianapolis 500 four times. By November he
was undergoing therapy at home in Houston with Steve Watterson, the NFL Oilers'
strength and rehab coach. "Never have I met anyone tougher," says
Watterson of Foyt.
"There are so
many people I owe so much thanks to," Foyt kept saying last weekend.
Following his remarkable qualifying run, Foyt's eyes were misty. He was by no