When you look realistically at what it takes to win the Indianapolis 500, holding the pole position is not what it's blown up to be. It means prize money, of course—$10,000—and it means steady publicity for the pole car's sponsors for two media-intense weeks, and it means satisfaction and possibly a psychological edge for the driver in knowing that his car is the fastest. But when it gets down to the checkered flag after 500 miles, the pole position means no more than the No. 2 slot—each has produced 10 winners. The physical advantage over the next car at the start is about 10 feet. Sideways.
Nevertheless, the race for the pole has always been an event that is important in its own right, and it would be hard to find anyone within 50 miles of the Speedway who would dare suggest that the struggle isn't worth that 10 feet, sideways or not.
Curious things happen during qualifying week—besides the dreams that are fulfilled by drivers making the field and the hearts broken among those who miss out. Dashing rookies blow the doors off old pros. Drivers whip their cars into the wall, learning hard lessons about limits. Heroes return. Dull engineers unveil spectacular creations. A.J. Foyt finds another colorful route to the center of whatever the week's stir may be.
The first weekend of qualifying this year will be remembered for the Yellow Submarine, an eye-widening Chaparral with Captain John Rutherford at the controls. After a week of being the class of the Brickyard, last Saturday it torpedoed the opposition to win the pole position at a speed of 192.256 mph.
Not that it was easy for Rutherford, a two-time Indy winner. He had to better a game 191.012-mph bid by the hero returned, Mario Andretti, the Indy champion way back in 1969. For Andretti, who skipped last year's 500 to race in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix, second-best was a boost for his spirit. Although he was the world champion in 1978, his Grand Prix cars haven't been competitive for more than a year, and times have been frustrating, depressing and even confidence-shaking for him. "I want this race," he said of Indy. "I need this race. I miss this race." And the crowd of 150,000 wanted him. When he was on pit row, adults cheered and kids hung on to the fence, shouting, "Mario! Mario! My hero! Mario!" Andretti walked over and signed autographs for them, obviously enjoying the limelight in a dark season.
The Chaparral Rutherford drove was the same model three-time Indy winner Al Unser had last year. It was running away with the race until an oil seal popped at 260 miles. Despite that mishap, it was clearly in the vanguard of a generation of ground-effect cars, racers whose aerodynamic design below the driver creates a vacuum that holds the cars to the road. Ground-effects were a black art last year; now they are a very dark gray art. Geoff Ferris, the designer of Andretti's Penske PC-9, expressed it best last week. "We just don't know how much we don't know," he said.
To build a ground-effect car is to try to catch the wind—literally. No one has yet caught it on the first try, so tricky is the art. The other outright 1980 ground-effect cars—the PC-9s of Andretti, Bobby Unser and Rick Mears; Al Unser's Longhorn, Gordon Johncock's Wildcat—all went through periods of development during which it appeared they might be untamable. Last week many of the mysteries remained.
It's still a mystery to Johncock why he hit the wall in practice on Thursday. Actually, he had a theory, though it was not his alone. Many drivers believed that air might be whooshing unpredictably under the cars at inopportune moments, for example in the middle of a turn, squeezing under the skirts at the sides and causing the cars to lose suction and break traction. Johncock's was not the only sudden skirmish with the wall last week.
Johncock, the 1973 Indy champ, discussed this theory while lying on his back on a workbench in his garage, his left foot in a cast. He sat up with interest when a photographer brought him 17 sequential shots of his crash. He saw himself sliding backward toward the wall at 170 mph in the first photo; making contact in the second; bouncing three feet high in the third. He flipped directly to the 17th photo like someone peeking at the last page of a mystery novel, and saw himself being carried away on a stretcher. On Sunday, after some modifications to his clutch pedal to accommodate his cast, he qualified at 186.075 mph in another car, another mystery.
The combination of ground-effect cars and a new Speedway rule has completely changed the complexion of Indy-style driving in just one year. The rule limits turbocharger boost pressure to 48 pounds per square inch of mercury, which considerably reduces horsepower and, therefore, speed. The result of more traction and less power is that cars are driven flat-out all the way around the oval. Before, a driver would accelerate on the straights and slow for the turns. Top speeds have dropped from 225 to 195 mph; corner speeds have increased from 180 to 190 or so.
"In my whole racing career, I've never driven so close to the line all the time," said Andretti. "You just hold your foot down and steer. I used to love that feeling of power, but there's no acceleration anymore." Asked if this same-speed driving is more or less challenging than that of the old days of acceleration and braking, Andretti thought a second and said, "More dangerous. There used to be room for error. With the new limit you don't ever want to back off because you lose so much momentum, and it takes forever to get the ground back. As a result you have to take more chances, especially in traffic."
One thing remains constant, Rutherford pointed out: "Under any set of circumstances, the name of the game is still to take the car as far as you can take it. But I haven't talked to one guy yet who says he likes it better the way it is now." Rutherford said this moments before his qualifying run. Moments before double-Indy winner Bobby Unser would qualify third fastest to join his Penske teammate Andretti and Rutherford on the front row, he said the same thing in his own fashion: "You just squeeze in your testicles, suck in your stomach, strap yourself down good and tight, puff out your chest like a bullfrog, hold your breath and white-knuckle it."
Had it not been for ground-effect problems, there might have been a newcomer on the front row. Rookie Tim Richmond, 24, had been driving smoothly and rapidly all week. By the end of practice he had the fastest lap—better than 193 mph, faster even than Rutherford's best. Dashing, charismatic and charming, it seemed everyone thought Richmond was terrific, including Roger Penske. Penske had told Richmond, "If one of my guys gets hurt, you're on my team." A promise like that by Penske to a rookie is a virtual anointment.
None of this seemed to go to Richmond's head, although he did admit to getting up early and running out for the papers to read about himself. But in the final warmup Saturday, moments before qualifying was to begin, he "lost it" in Turn 1 and hit the wall, bending the chassis of his PC-7 and blowing his chance to qualify that day.
"I wasn't trying to stand on it or be some hero," Richmond said later. "All I know is the car was feeling nice, and then it just let go. It was windy this morning, so maybe a gust got under the skirts. I haven't been in this game too long, so I can't tell you what happened."
Actually, the Chaparral crew hadn't felt threatened by Richmond's quick practice lap. "We felt like it was a TV run," said the car's owner, Jim Hall, meaning he believed that Richmond had bypassed the valve that limits boost in order to clock a fast practice lap and reap publicity. Hall suspected this because Richmond's top speed had been measured by a radar gun at 203 mph on the front straight, about eight mph faster than Rutherford's best, which would have been extremely unlikely without assistance from extra-legal boost pressure.
The distinction of having the tip-top fastest speed in practice had gone to A.J. Foyt, however. He had showed up overweight and uninspired, though remarkably mellow. His best practice times had been in the 186-mph range until late Friday afternoon, when suddenly he was doing 192, and his top speed soared to 207, which drew outright laughter from other crews. "I can't hum that high on 48 inches," quipped Rutherford. When it counted, Foyt went out and hit 185.500 mph. USAC officials hadn't been checking the valves for tampering during practice, but they checked them closely in qualifying—and will again before the green flag falls on May 25, when Rutherford & Co. will be out there humming before 350,000 racing fans.