Drivers speeding to the brink at Indy Cars keep going faster despite wake-up call


INDIANAPOLIS -- The eyes inside the helmet look out from the sleek Indy car, and stare down the long front straightaway into the first turn of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"It's like running down your hallway at home at 240 miles an hour and turning left into a closet," said defending Indianapolis 500 champion Rick Mears. "You don't have a lot of room for error."

Today, 32 men and one woman will line up for the 76th Indianapolis 500. Among their number are seven rookies, five of whom have never run on a super speedway or an oval.

They will hear "Taps" played as a Memorial Day tribute, and then they will hear the call to start their engines.

The race is scheduled to take the green flag at noon.

This year, perhaps more than any other in the past decade, apprehension will ride with these drivers who play games with speeds.

During the past 10 years, there has been an uneasy peacefulness at Indy, where 38 drivers and 27 crewmen and fans have died in racing accidents.

The drivers have been lulled into a sense of security. Until two weeks ago, no driver had paid for the love of this race with his life since 1982, when Gordon Smiley crashed during qualifying.

This May, as speeds jumped an average of 4.889 mph, there were 17 crashes -- almost one per practice day. Three were serious. One resulted in the death of rookie Jovy Marcelo.

It has been a monthlong wake-up call.

Some men like Mario Andretti, who starts on the outside of the front row today with pole sitter Roberto Guerrero and middleman Eddie Cheever, perhaps didn't need it.

Andretti and some of the other older drivers in the field -- there are five over 50 -- remember the old days, when men knew death as an inevitable companion of this sport.

"Hey, Bettenhausen, if you're not killed Sunday, you want to play golf Monday?" Bill Vukovich once was heard to ask his pal, Gary Bettenhausen, before a race in the 1960s.

L In those days, a crash, as likely as not, resulted in death.

"You have to have a lot of respect for the track and the speeds you're running," said Andretti. "I've never lost that. This place doesn't forgive."

The new breed of Indianapolis race car drivers is different. What registers most strongly with them is the thrill of going fast.

"Speeds here have always touched the brink," said John Andretti, Mario's nephew. "You'll never find me complaining about how fast we're going. When you drive into the corner and come out the other side, you get a grin on your face, because the sensation has been good and the car feels good.

"In the old days, if you made an error, you were talking about a fatality. Now, you're talking about injury. You still don't want to get hurt, but to drive it to the maximum, it's nice to break new thresholds and be part of it."

Racing is technology and technology keeps on going, says the racing soul in them all.

"I'm not intimidated by the speeds," said driver Jim Vasser, who at 222.313 mph was the fastest rookie to qualify.

But Mears, who will start his 15th Indy today, would like to see the corner speeds cut back.

"I think it would be good if we could slow the cars down so that 200 mph meant something again," he said.

"Right now, it's a little like Russian roulette out there," said Bobby Rahal, a veteran of 10 Indys. "If something breaks, there is a pretty good chance something bad is going to happen. I

think a driver should get a second chance."

But as the drivers in this field press the fuel pedals, turning their race cars into ribbon-like blurs of color, there is a tendency among them to believe speed is not the villain.

They have been insulated from disaster. Car designs have been so improved that when a race car hits the wall, even at 230 mph, there is a good chance, as John Andretti said, the car will absorb the impact and dissipate it away from the driver through disintegrating car-body parts.

But this month, Marcelo died. Veteran Nelson Piquet's career ended when his left foot and ankle were crushed. And second-year competitor Hiro Matsushita is sidelined for the year with a fractured thigh bone.

The drivers in the Indianapolis 500 point out none of those accidents occurred at top speed. Each was below 215 mph. At least two of the severe ones occurred when cars developed a fluid leak.

They say it wasn't the speed, it was bad luck or a loose strap or a slow reflex.

"Speed is not what kills you," said A. J. Foyt, who will be starting his 37th Indy 500 today. "Look at Rick Mears' accident. He was at top speed and survived it. Look at Jovy. He was just coming out of the pits, coming up to speed, but he hit his head. Tracks are made to run faster.

This track is safer now at 220 mph than it ever was at 150. It's according to how you hit in the car. I've had a lot of friends killed who I thought were all right, and I've had a lot of friends survive who [I thought] should have been dead."

Others refuse to acknowledge disaster at all.

"You don't go look at where it happened," said Scott Goodyear, who starts 33rd today. "You don't watch the films of it on television. You don't deal with it. You pretend it never happened."

The Speedway operation itself encourages this approach. As soon as the track closes the day of an accident, a crew heads out to paint over the spot where the car hit the wall.

Through the years, a driver has never been pronounced dead at the racetrack. A trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Racing Museum, located inside the 2.5-mile oval, has no memorial to the 40 drivers who have lost their lives here. Nowhere is there even a mention.

There is no life after death at Indy.

The Speedway is all about history, but here, as in the mind of Goodyear, tragedy never happened.

As nearly half a million spectators gather to watch today's race, the drivers and crews will hope and pray for a safe race. But none of them will willingly lift a foot from the throttle.

"Ten years of Formula One didn't prepare me for Indianapolis," said Eddie Cheever, who is starting his third 500. "There's nothing that comes remotely close to Turn 1 at 240 mph. . . . You can get hypnotized by the speed, and that can make you cocky. And that's when it gets dangerous."

Mears' eyes narrowed more as he continued to look down the straight to that worrisome first turn.

"When we drive down there," he said, "everyone better have a refined feel in the seat of his pants, because your only chance to avoid disaster is to be able to know what is going to happen, before it does."

Indy 500 speeds

Winners of the past 10 Indianapolis 500s and their average speeds:

1982--Gordon Johncock, 162.029 mph.

1983--Tom Sneva, 162.117 mph

1984--Rick Mears, 163.612 mph.

1985--Danny Sullivan, 152.982 mph.

1986--Bobby Rahal, 170.722 mph.

1987--Al Unser, 162.175 mph.

1988--Rick Mears, 144.809 mph.

1989--Emerson Fittipalds, 167.581.

1990--Arie Luyendyk, 185.981 mph.

1991--Rick Mears, 176.457 mph.

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