Arie Luyendyk is a lanky, handsome and soft-spoken racing driver with flowing brown hair. He was born in Sommelsdyk in the Netherlands 36 years ago, and maybe the only reason he escaped being called the Flying Dutchman was this: There weren't many times in his seven years of racing Indy Cars in which he did much of what could be called flying. In fact, there have been moments in his heretofore winless career when he had to suffer the unwelcome and unfair tag of Arie Lightfoot. But, oh my, how little things—such as a competitive race car-can change a person's life.
And, for sure, Luyendyk's life will change. It already has, starting the moment on Sunday when he flew under the checkered flag that concluded the 74th running of the Indianapolis 500. He beat Bobby Rahal to the finish by 10.7 seconds and obliterated Rahal's 1986 record average speed of 170.722 mph with his own mark of 185.984 mph. Luyendyk's speed was a reflection of a very clean race: Only 26 laps were run under the caution flag, and the race was blemished by just two crashes.
Although Luyendyk started on the front row with the third-fastest qualifying speed, 223.304 mph, he was considered a dark horse. Very dark. He had competed in 75 Indy Car races since 1984, but had finished among the top three a mere three times. And his Indy 500 finishes of seventh, 15th, 18th, 10th and 21st places were hardly enough to cause defending Indy champ Emerson Fittipaldi or three-time Indy winner Rick Mears—Luyendyk's companions in the front row—to quake. But as anyone who understands the difference between a light foot and a lack of power can tell you, things are not always what they appear to be.
Luyendyk's trip to Victory Lane is a direct result of the turbocharged Chevrolet V-8 racing engine that came neatly wrapped in the new Lola chassis he drove on Sunday. The car belongs to Shierson Racing, the team he joined this season. Shierson Racing is owned by oilman Doug Shierson and sponsored by Domino's Pizza, whose founder, Tom Monaghan, also owns the Detroit Tigers. After finishing 10th in the PPG Indy Car points championship race last year, Luyendyk came to Indianapolis knowing he had to prove himself. "I said to myself, If you're not going to win races now, you better look at doing something else," Luyendyk said. And what a way to start winning. About all he has to look at doing now—besides getting ready for this week's race in Milwaukee—is spending his hefty share of the estimated $1.1 million that goes to the winner.
For most of the afternoon the race did not appear to be in the hands of a Flying Dutchman but under the control of that banzai-ing Brazilian, Fittipaldi, who was on the pole after a record qualifying speed of 225.301 mph. On Sunday, Fittipaldi glided up to his Penske-Chevy, which he calls his Woman in Red, just before the start. It was an expression of Fittipaldi's confidence that his face lit up with a toothy grin, and he wisecracked to Roger Penske, the anxious owner of his car, "I decided to show up." Judging from the first half of the race, it appeared that Fittipaldi had also decided to show up the competition.
At the drop of the green flag, he shot to the lead. For everyone else, that first lap lived up to its scary reputation. Said Dean Hall, a former ski racer who was starting his first Indy 500, in the 24th spot, "There was so much smoke and dust I couldn't see a thing. It looked like L.A. at five o'clock." Even Luyendyk is still awed at that initial charge into Turn 1: "It's amazing what you can do with your eyes. You're looking behind you, you're looking ahead of you, and you're looking beside you all at the same time."
All 33 cars got away cleanly, and after 10 laps Fittipaldi was leading Bobby Rahal's Lola-Chevy by about 500 yards, with Luyendyk hanging back in third and Al Unser Jr., Mario Andretti and Mears in fourth, fifth and sixth. But Andretti's infamous Indy snake would not wait long to bite again; he blew his engine on Lap 60. This was Mario's 25th appearance at the Speedway, but he has won only once, in 1969. Since then, he has endured the trials of an automotive Job: moments such as the breakdown he suffered while holding a comfortable lead (1987); seeing Danny Sullivan spin when trying to pass him, only to recover and take the lead on the way to a two-second victory (1985); being crashed into before reaching the starting line (1982); and being declared the winner of the race on the basis of a rules infraction by Bobby Unser only to have the decision reversed five months later (1981). Now there is fear that Mario's Brickyard bad luck is striking his family. On Sunday his son Michael had a failed wheel bearing and a flash fire in his pit before retiring on Lap 146; his nephew John spun entering Turn 1 on Lap 135.
Meanwhile, Mears had his hands full with an ill-handling machine that defied all attempts by him and his pit crew to tame it. He would eventually finish fifth, two laps down, after a 500-mile ride that was more like a 500-mile slide. It was a stunning disappointment to Mears, who had fine-tuned his chassis in the final practice on Thursday, then had confidently buttoned up his car under lock and key. Near the end of the race he was heard to moan, over the radio, to team owner Penske, "How could the car be so perfect on carburetion day [Thursday] and so bad today?"
Blame it on that old devil sun. For one of the few times this May, it shone steady and bright in Indianapolis. But because the drivers had not been able to practice on a warm track, the heat threw off the chassis setups. Most of the teams had to guess the setup that would give the best handling, and naturally some guessed better than others. And some may have guessed too well—Fittipaldi's team, for instance. The Woman in Red was purring, and he appeared to be running away with the race, leading 128 of the first 135 laps (Luyendyk led two laps; Rahal, five), some of them at a 220-mph pace. But his pace was literally blistering. His sliding tires overheated and chunked, and what with making pit stops to change them and slowing down to prevent more blistering, he dropped back, eventually finishing third, 41.7 seconds behind Luyendyk. "The Woman in Red was beautiful today," Fittipaldi said afterward. "She just needed a new pair of shoes."
Penske, Fittipaldi's boss, was having a bad day. How could a month that had started out so promising turn so sour? On Lap 20, Sullivan, running in eighth place in the third Penske car, radioed that he was feeling a vibration. Suddenly an axle broke and he walloped the wall in Turn 1. It had been a difficult month for Sullivan, despite the company of his new son, Daniel, born in March, on his father's 40th birthday.
Al Unser Jr., Fittipaldi's memorable breakdance partner at last year's 500, suffered the same blistering fate as the speed-loving Brazilian. He stayed within striking distance for 150 laps but lost a lap when he changed his tires, then backed off, for the sake of survival, and finished fourth, one lap back. "If I had run as hard as I had been, I would have put the car into the wall," Unser said. "Have you ever been sideways between turns three and four at 200 mph?"
There's nothing comparable to the way a modern Indy Car driver is squeezed and strapped into his vehicle, a fit so tight that all he can move are his ankles and wrists. The buffeting from turbulence on the backstraight literally throws a car off its intended line. As the car screams toward Turn 3 at 230 miles an hour, the track appears to taper, and when the driver reaches the middle of that turn, a force of 65 G's tries to rip him from his protective cocoon of carbon fiber. No wonder tires grow blisters in protest.
After Fittipaldi's blisters did him in, Rahal took command of the race from Lap 136 to Lap 167. Luyendyk was lurking about a quarter mile back, but not for long. When Rahal came up on a pack of four cars, Luyendyk reduced the gap between the two leaders to zero, drafting and darting and weaving and dodging, skillfully positioning the nose of his Lola against Rahal's tailbone. They picked off the four slower cars—what a show those drivers must have gotten!—and then Luyendyk flashed past Rahal and into the lead in Turn 1. After the race Rahal would admit that he had not worried about the Flying Dutchman until it was too late. "I was concentrating on Emerson and Al Jr., and all of a sudden I saw this red car coming," Rahal said. "I really hadn't seen him much. But, obviously, as he went by, he was going like a bat out of hell."
In fact, Luyendyk turned a 222-mph lap while grabbing the lead—and his tires were just fine. "All month the engineers had been telling us our tires were beautiful," he would say. "So whatever we were doing with the chassis must have been right."
Rahal made his final pit stop on Lap 171. Having gotten wind of the trouble other cars were having with chunking tires, he and his crew decided to put on a set of tires they had used earlier in the race rather than chance trying four new tires that might blister. Meanwhile, Luyendyk stayed out on the track, leaving his crew badly worried. For two laps members of the team implored their driver to come in for a pit stop. "You need fuel! Pit! Pit now!" they screamed over the radio. In return, they heard Luyendyk say, "What? I can't hear you." Luyendyk's earplugs had fallen out, and the noise of his 750-horsepower engine was effectively drowning out radio communication. He finally came in on Lap 173, to the great relief of his crew, and went back out just ahead of Rahal. It appeared that the race might become a two-car shoot-out, as it had last year, but Rahal faded as his worn tires progressively lost traction. At the end, Luyendyk was pulling away.
Although Luyendyk, if judged by the numbers, lost for the past five years on the Indy Car circuit, he has been no loser. "Sometimes you've just got to be patient and wait until it's your turn to get good equipment," he explained, retelling an old story. He was the European Formula Ford champion in 1975 and SuperVee champ in '77, traveling and teaming with his racing dad. "He's like the A.J. Foyt of Holland," says Arie. "He's 68 and is faster than the driver he has working for him now, who's 21." The 55-year-old Foyt, a four-time winner at the Speedway, underscored Luyendyk's analogy by finishing sixth this year in his 33rd Indy start.
In 1981, the younger Luyendyk came to check out America and found a patron in Aat Groenvelt, a fellow Dutchman who owned the Provimi Veal Company in Wisconsin. Luyendyk won the Sports Car Club of America SuperVee championship in 1984, and Groenvelt put him in an Indy Car late that season.
"I had a few years without a win, and I know what it's like," Luyendyk said. "So this one is going to last me a long, long time." But now that Arie has broken the ice and has the right equipment, he may find that winning becomes a habit.