The Price

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rae 78th Indianapolis 500 was a strange race in most ways that matter, fitting conclusion to a month of May which bordered on the bizarre.

In contrast to expectations, the cauldron of rumour, innuendo and speculation that annually serves as the backdrop to the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" was quiet; eerily so, given Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George's March 10 announcement that IMS and the United States Auto Club would soon be revealing plans for their own IndyCar series.

Ironically, instead of stock blocks, oval tracks and grassroots drivers, the hot topic of conversation was. . .food.

In a move that irritated team owners, led to rampant indigestion and left many observers pondering the sincerity of the entreaties for reduced costs emanating from Georgetown and 16th, the Speedway decreed all hot food served by the teams at the Brickyard had to be prepared by an officially licensed caterer. Not only did teams face food bills four and five times more than in the past, but the fare itself was generally suited to a mess hall.

But it wasn't just the food that had people up in arms. The United States Auto Club introduced a new pop-off valve designed to eliminate the inconsistencies associated with the old valves. But the valves were no discernible improvement over their predecessors and, in the case of the 55 in settings for the Mercedes-Benz engines, proved intractable at times. What's more, the teams were forced to lease one valve per entry for $1500 non-refundable of course for the month. Small change perhaps, but enough to raise more questions about reduced costs.

Then there was the deafening silence from George and USAC regarding their new series. Was it because Tony and USAC have become Penske-like in their abilities to keep a secret? Or was it, as many are beginning to suspect, there was little planning done before that fateful announcement in March. Meanwhile, Andrew Craig and CART were hard at work on long-term sanctioning agreements with the tracks on the current schedule. Indeed, the week before the Detroit Grand Prix II of the 16 tracks on the 1995 schedule (all but Indianapolis, Phoenix, Long Beach, New Hampshire and Laguna Seca) plusnew venues at Miami and California reached agreements with CART lasting up to the year 2000. With Laguna Seca expected to join ranks shortly and New Hampshire leaning in that direction, these agreements particularly with the Penske Speedways have, at the very least, put CART in a powerful bargaining position with

Tony, and quite possibly pre-empted his series altogether.

Back to the Brickyard, where practice and qualifying went off with less than the usual sense of urgency. Perhaps this was because most observers conceded the front row if not the race itself to the Mercedes-Benz powered Penskes. The only question seemed to be whether or not the Penskes were "sandbagging" in order to avoid the possibility of draconian measures slapped on them by USAC at the 11th hour. Certainly their straightline trap speeds of 245 mph six to 10 mph faster then the quickest Fords (coupled with overall lap speeds little better than the rest) supported that speculation. On the other hand, the fact that Paul Tracy deposited his Penske-Merc in the wall suggested the Marlboro cars were on the ragged edge like everyone else.

Besides renewing speculation that his days with Penske are limited, Tracy's shunt opened the door to a spot on the front row which Raul Boesel was only too happy to walk through, thanks in part to a favourable draw that saw him qualify in the cool of Saturday morning. As has been the case in recent years, the rest of the grid was something of a lottery based on the weather. Given the contemporary Indy chassis's fantastic sensitivity to minute mechanical and aerodynamic adjustments at 225 mph, it should come as no surprise that a 10 or 15 (Fahrenheit) degree shift in temperature can make a tremendous difference in speeds.

In the end, Al Unser Inr qualified under relatively favourable conditions, as did Lyn St James and Hideshi Matsuda, while Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Jimmy Vasser didn't as reflected by their speeds.

A couple of entertaining sideshows developed in the form of the lacklustre performance of the Honda-powered Rahal/ Hogan machines and the terrible showing of the Budweiser/King team. For more than a year the Rahal/Hogan people have been telling Honda that its engines are short on power, and for more than a year Honda has promised gradual gains. The stopwatch and trap speeds at Indianapolis told the true tale. While Fittipaldi and Boesel each topped 230 mph in lap speeds. neither Bobby Rahal or Mike Groff broke 227 in top speed. And so after struggling at 220 (Rahal) and 218 (Groff), Rahal/Hogan had little choice but to switch to an alternative plan, in this case, '93 Penske-Ilmors Which they duly qualified comfortably. The performance of Budweiser/King was embarrassing, both to Lola (Bud/King is, after all, the official "development team") and team owner Kenny Bernstein. After

turning a 222 in pre-May testing, Scott Goodyear spent the first week struggling to top 220, waved off a high 221 on Saturday, then crashed while trying to get back to 220 that afternoon. The following week saw a steady regression to 2 14 before Davy Jones was brought in for a fresh perspective and duly lapped at 214. The team then began working on getting not one but two cars in the show with Goodyear eventually taking a 220 and getting bumped, while Davy turned a sizzling 224 in the cool of the day and then had to yield his seat to Scott. By Detroit, a new management structure was in place with veteran team manager/engineer John Dick replacing sportsman John Dengler at the helm.

So the second weekend of qualifying was all but over on Saturday when Bud/King and Rahal/Hogan qualified, leaving a long day on Sunday that resulted in a single successful qualifying run.

The race wasn't a whole lot more exciting. The Penske-Mercs of Fittipaldi and Unser were simply the class of the field and those that might have at least kept them honest Michael and Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Eddie Cheever, Gordon and Boesel all ran (or were run into by) problems.

After Unser and Fittipaldi left Boesel in the dust of the most ragged start since 1982, Michael Andretti gave chase until a stop to replace a punctured tyre cost him a lap. Mario's final stab at a second Indy 500 win ended appropriately, if not successfully, when he retired with a broken fuel relief valve. Boesel was slowed by an overheated engine, Gordon lost time early with handling problems and Mansell and Cheever were both penalised for real or imagined infractions of the pit lane blend line.

Mansell recovered to third place but was taken out in semi-comic fashion when, during a caution period, his Lola-Ford was assaulted from behind on the warm-up lane by Dennis Vitolo. Thinking he was about to be consumed by a methanol fire, Nigel bailed out and was subsequently taken to the infield hospital where an ugly scene ensued. After some terse interviews, Mansell stormed back to his home in Clearwater, Florida.

Subsequently, Mansell launched into a tirade about the absurdity of having a driver like Vitolo who had not driven an IndyCar in a year competing in the Indy 500. It's a valid point. But it's also true that Vitolo played by the rules and made the race and hardly by the skin of his teeth. Nor was he alone in not having raced an IndyCar in some time; the same could be said about Matsuda, St James, Geoff Brabham, Stan Fox and Gary Bettenhausen. The second half of the race thus boiled

down to a battle between Fittipaldi and Unser with Jacques Villeneuve hanging on to the lead lap for dear life. As measured and brilliant a drive as Villeneuve's was, there was never much doubt that either Fittipaldi or Unser would win.

And for more most of the race, it was all Fittipaldi.

After Unse, stalled on the first pit stop, Emerson led 145 of the next 163 laps and put Al a lap down at the 450 mile mark. But a few laps later Al regained the lead lap after Emerson got bogged down in traffic. On lap 184 Emerson was poised to go up a lap again when he clipped the inside kerb in Turn Four, wiggled once in a valiant effort to save it and slid into the wall.

In defeat, he was utterly gracious.

From there it was just a case of driving it home for Unser, and with Stan Fox crashing to bring out another yellow on lap 197, he didn't even have to race to the finish. Unquestionably, Penske Racing's seventh Indy 500 win in the last 10 years and 10th overall was one of its most impressive. Not only did it dominate the race, it dominated the month. What's more, the manner in which it achieved such domination by embarking on a parallel programme to the 'standard' IndyCar effort proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that this is the most powerful team in the discipline.

But the 1994 Indy 500 was also Penske's most controversial win. Nobody with any racing sense can fault Penske for exploiting USAC's engine rules; they have been there for all to see for three years and, as Roger Penske himself noted, the physical changes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year placed a greater emphasis on torque which the Merc had in abundance.

The question is the wisdom or lack thereof of the rule that gave 209 push rod engines 10 in more boost than the "conventional" 2.8-litre overhead cam engines. Despite the results, despite cries from nearly every corner ridiculing "equivalency formulas," there is no reason to believe the 209 won't be eligible again in 1995, albeit in slightly less potent form.

"We'll have to review the whole month, not just the race," said USAC technical director Mike Devin. "That thing (the Mercedes) had periods of dominance in practice but we also have to go back and review the race itself. Emerson (Fittipaldi) was on a roll; he was going for it. But Al was just another lead pack car. . .I'm not sure just how domineering they were. I'm not so sure lithe same team had their usual Ilmor D engines the outcome wouldn't have been the same. That wasn't exactly Andy Gump out there. Its the same guys who lapped the field at Phoenix.

"If anything. we'll take a look at adjusting the boost but how much it'll be I wouldn't want to guess." lithe rule holds even in the form of a minor reduction in the boost advantage, Ford, Honda and Toyota will have little choice but to embark on their own 209 engine projects. And that's hardly an eventuality likely to reduce costs. . D P