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Weather a big qualifying factor

5/15/2004

INDIANAPOLIS -- There is nothing in the world of auto racing
quite like qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.

The first of three days of time trials for the May 30 race is
scheduled Saturday, with drivers set to go for the pole position.

To make it into the field for the 88th running of the historic
race, drivers will run four-lap, 10-mile sprints on the 2½-mile
oval.

Nowhere else in the sport does qualifying require such an
extended period of concentration and precision to make the lineup.

"I don't know of four more pressure-packed laps in racing than
these,'' said 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal, now a team owner with
three cars entered here. "I always felt there was a lot more
pressure for qualifying than there was for the race.''

Dario Franchitti, one of only 28 drivers listed for 52 cars in
the qualifying draw on Friday, said Indy qualifying is the biggest
challenge in oval racing.

"To get a four-lap average, you have to not only get it right
for each lap, you have to be spot-on for four laps,'' he said. "If
the wind comes up, or the sun is coming in and out of the clouds,
each lap can be different. It's tough.''

Bryan Herta, Franchitti's Andretti Green Racing teammate, agreed
it's hard to run four consistent laps.

"The car can go off from one lap to the next,'' he said. "And
it usually does.''

Adding to the uncertainty this year are a new engine with
reduced horsepower and a new aerodynamics package. The combination
has slowed the cars by about 10 mph and made the balance more
difficult to find and harder to keep.

Two-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves won the pole last year
with an average of 231.725 mph on a run that included laps over
232.

Rain washed out all but a few minutes of Friday's scheduled
seven hours of practice, leaving Tony Kanaan, another Andretti
Green driver, with the top speed since the track opened Sunday.
Kanaan turned a lap of 222.668 on Wednesday.

The Brazilian driver said being fastest in practice guarantees
nothing here.

"We always expect the unexpected in qualifying at Indy,''
Kanaan said, grinning. "The weather has been hot all week, we've
had rain that washed rubber off the track and Saturday is supposed
to be much cooler, in the 70's. It's hard to know what will happen.

"And it will probably change a lot from the morning to the
afternoon, so the draw could be real important.''

Kanaan drew the third spot in line for Saturday, right behind
rookie Ed Carpenter and Robby Gordon. It was a great draw for
Gordon, scheduled to race in Richmond, Va., in a NASCAR Busch event
Friday night and a Nextel Cup race Saturday night.

Castroneves, sixth overall in practice at 221.156, said the
slower speeds this year won't really make much difference in
qualifying.

"Every time you drive the car it's on the edge, whether it's
217 or 232,'' he said. "It's always going to be difficult.''

Referring to Team Penske adviser and four-time Indy winner Rick
Mears, Castroneves added, "Like Rick says, if the car is too
comfortable, that means you are too slow.''

With speeds not the top issue this year, the big question has
been whether there will be enough cars to fill the field. If not,
it would be the first time since 1947 that a full complement of at
least 33 cars had not started the race.

Roger Penske, whose team fields cars for Castroneves and
two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. and has won 13 Indy 500s,
including the last three, would hate to see a short field.

"I'd like to see 33 cars,'' Penske said. "I hope that doesn't
become a hot topic.''

Penske predicted more car-driver combinations will pop up after
most of the top drivers qualify on Saturday, making backup cars
available.