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Some Like It Hot
Sam Moses
May 20, 1991
While others tried to play it cool, Rick Mears and A.J. Foyt qualified one-two in a fiery midday sun at Indy
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May 20, 1991

Some Like It Hot

While others tried to play it cool, Rick Mears and A.J. Foyt qualified one-two in a fiery midday sun at Indy

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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 weather.

Fittipaldi had 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 torture."

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 place.

Foyt's appearance 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 means alone.

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