Teams waiting to see about 33
INDIANAPOLIS -- There are plenty of cars at the track and several drivers looking for jobs. Still, the Indianapolis 500 might not have a full field for the first time since 1947.
Just three days before qualifying begins, only 28 driver-car combinations are listed on the entry sheet. A full field for the race May 30 would be 33.
"I don't know where we're at now,'' said John Barnes, a partner in Panther Racing. "I've heard there's 27 to 30, but if you have another engine lease available it would be stupid to keep it in your garage.''
The last time the race started with a short field was 57 years ago, when there were 30 cars.
It nearly happened last year, when two drivers were hired 48 hours before the last of three qualifying days. The race started with a full field although no cars were left out.
The problem was money. A new chassis design made it more expensive for cash-strapped drivers to race because used parts were not available.
This year could be an instant replay.
IRL officials approved midseason changes to the engine and aerodynamics package, to be used for the first time in the Indianapolis 500. The cost of leasing a new engine is about $350,000 -- a price that has forced out Indy regulars such as PDM Racing and Hemelgarn Racing.
After three days of practice, no teams have added drivers and most appear content to wait until after Saturday's pole qualifying -- the first of three qualifying days -- before making any decisions.
"Our primary consideration is Scott Dixon and Darren Manning,'' said Mike Hull, team managing director for Chip Ganassi Racing. "We want them to be in this race and to be in this race with the full support from our team.''
The most ominous sign is that there were 31 driver combinations entered on Pole Day last year -- three more than there are now.
Some of the bigger teams, such as Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Rahal and Andretti Green Racing already have multiple drivers entered and it's uncertain if they'd be willing to add more.
Ganassi's team, which ran four cars in 2001, has four cars available but has not yet decided whether to give IRL champion Dixon and rookie Manning another teammate.
One helpful owner might be A.J. Foyt. He's entered son Larry and grandson A.J. IV, and has typically added drivers during the second week of qualifications.
But the two biggest issues, as usual, will be money and personnel.
"It costs you money and you've got to deal with it and everything else that goes with it -- like people,'' Barnes said.
Barnes already has two drivers, Tomas Scheckter and rookie Mark Taylor.
So far, he said, nobody from the IRL has asked him to add a car.
Just getting to 33, however, will not guarantee a full field. Accidents or injuries could create additional problems, but Hull believes that if the IRL asks owners to help, they'll respond.
"I think everybody will pull together in the IRL,'' Hull said. "I think any team that's here in the paddocks that is asked with financial support will think about it.''
Barnes would be among those listening.
"It's important to me to have 33 cars start,'' he said. "I'm an Indianapolis resident, and I know what it means to this community.''
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press