Firsts to make 75th running a winner


INDIANAPOLIS -- The nearly 500,000 fans who squeeze their way inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway today will see sights never seen before or, possibly, ever again.

There in the front row is storied A. J. Foyt, said to be running his last 500 after 34 straight years.

And there, in rows 1 through 4, are the Andrettis -- Mario, Michael, Jeff and John. No family has had four members of its clan in the 500 at the same time.

In Row 8, Hiro Matsushita, the first Japanese driver to race here, can't wait to hear "Gentlemen, start your engines!"

And no one can miss Willy T. Ribbs in Row 10. Historians will recall his name as the first black to start the Indianapolis 500.

It is a fitting 33-car field for the 75th annual Indianapolis 500, which is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. (channels 13 and 7), barring rain.

"I've never seen such a wide-open field," Al Unser Jr. said. "I think more people have a chance at winning than ever before."

It is a fact that opens up Pandora's box. The speeds are up. The talent is primed. And the first turn looms hazardously at the end of the front straight.

"When you're heading toward the first turn on the first lap," said Danny Sullivan, who is starting on the outside of Row 3, "it's like driving into a dark closet. It can be very frightening -- even for an old dog."

Mario Andretti, who has gone into turn one on the first lap 27 times through the years, shrugs at the prospect.

He is starting beside Foyt and six-time pole-setter Rick Mears. It is a great front row, but how it will shake out is iffy.

Someone asked Mears whether he would move over to allow Foyt, in his last race, to lead the field into the turn.

"If I move over, it will be to block A. J., not to give him the lead," said Mears.

Foyt, of course, is saying nothing.

As for Andretti, he is aware of the circumstances.

"It's as dangerous as we want to make it," he said. "It's very simple. There's the racetrack. There's the first turn. There's how wide it is. It's up to us how safe we want to make it. If we all try to squeeze in there at once, well, we just won't fit."

Four rows back, rookie Jeff Andretti will be sitting in front of a power keg.

The overall fastest qualifying row in the race is Row 5.

Gary Bettenhausen (224.468 mph), defending 500 winner Arie Luyendyk (224.468) and Emerson Fittipaldi (223.064), forced to start five rows deep because they didn't get their cars on the track until the second day of qualifying, are ready to bolt to the front.

"I'm just going to try and hold a steady line," Jeff Andretti said. "The rest will have to take care of itself."

Fittipaldi, a former world driving champion and Indy Car champion, said: "The problem is going to be how to deal with very high turbulence in the pack. When you're behind only one car, it is acceptable. But when you're behind three or four cars, you really lose [control] front and rear. I am a veteran, but I am not used to being back here. I am going to be somewhat intimidated by that for sure."

Way in the back, Matsushita and Ribbs will be looking down the length of track called the "front chute" for the first time.

At a rookie drivers' meeting Friday, they were warned about the experience.

"The veterans told us that while the track may have seemed wide enough to us during practice and qualifying, it would seem shrunken on the first lap, because of all the fans crowding along the walls and because 33 cars will be headed into the same space," Ribbs said. "They were very carefully preparing us for a massive event."

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