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Published: Monday, 5/17/2004

Indy 500 notebook: Talk focuses on field size

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — With less than two weeks to go before the running of the 88th Indianapolis 500, the buzz around the track is centered more on the size of the field than its strength, and that talk has irritated a few of the drivers who are in the show.

“Everyone seems to be fixated on the size of the field,” driver Dario Franchitti, who will start in the third position on the outside of the front row, said yesterday as qualifying continued and the field was at 26, seven less than the 33 cars needed to make it a full starting grid.

“I think there's too much emphasis on that — on the number,” he said. “No matter what it is, no matter how many cars are out there to start the race, I think it will be a very strong field and a great race.”

Only 22 cars officially made the race field on Saturday, the first day of qualifications. Buddy Rice won the pole with a four-lap average speed of 222.024 miles per hour, and he echoed Franchitti's preference for quality over quantity come race day.

“Just look at that board up there — all of the big teams are here,” Rice said. “And there are a bunch of them with a real legitimate shot at winning the race. This is going to be a highly competitive race, without a doubt. If you see eight or 10 cars lined up and running close, the first guy who makes a mistake is going to be in the back of the line, right then.”

Team owner and racing veteran Roger Penske said he thinks the cost of fielding racing teams has escalated to the point where it has become too expensive for all but a tiny group of deep-pocketed investors. The fact that there are two open-wheeled series out there — the Indy Racing League and CART — has further dispersed what financing there is.

“I'd like to see 33 cars out there, but we'll have to wait and see,” Penske said. “There's always a lot of action the week after qualifying starts, but we have to have consistency too. Certainly the cost of motor racing and the availability of sponsors are big factors, and we need to have one racing division, not two.”

Alex Barron, who crashed during his qualifying run on Saturday, returned to the track yesterday and put his Red Bull Cheever Racing Chevy-powered backup car in the field for the May 30 race.

“Ultimately, when it's race day you want 33 great cars out there that can run about the same speed,” Barron said. “But if it's 25 or 28 good cars, then that's fine too.”

Bryan Herta, another crash casualty from Saturday, also posted a qualifying speed yesterday, as did Felipe Giaffone and Tora Takagi.

“It's still a big deal to be in this race,” Herta said. “The fact that it's not 50 cars out there doesn't matter. You get as many as you can, as many that can make the speed and start the race, and we'll see another great Indianapolis 500. The number does not mean that much.”

This has been a 33-car race for the most part historically, with 35 cars starting in 1997 when a rules change left a couple of cars that would have been bumped under the old guidelines in the field. Several teams that already have qualified their primary car for the race are expected to put a second car through the paces later this week, and possibly make a run at qualifying it as well, then recruiting a driver.

PULLING BACK THE REINS: When 25-year-old British driver Dan Wheldon was the second-fastest qualifier for this year's Indy 500, putting his Andretti-Green Racing team in the middle of the front row, he graciously accepted all of the congratulatory handshakes and pats on the back. But Wheldon, the 2003 Rookie of the Year in the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series, tried to keep it all in perspective, as well. “It is nice to be up front for the start, but it is certainly nothing to get too excited about,” Wheldon said. “You can't get ahead of yourself. There are at least 10 or 15 guys who can win this race, and there's still 500 miles to go.”

THE MONTH OF INDY: Dario Franchitti, who was the third-fastest qualifier for this year's Indy 500, missed last year's race after injuring his back in a motorcycle accident in his native Scotland 13 months ago. He competed in just three races last year before surgery to repair his back sidelined him for the remainder of the season.

Franchitti said he is trying to pace himself at Indianapolis this year, and not place too much emphasis on any one day of the month-long preparation for the biggest race of the season.

“This race is too hard to win to have it come down to what you do on just one day of the long preparation,” Franchitti said. “You can't afford to take a day off, but everything here comes about with long and detailed preparation. There is no quick fix or magic part that will win this race for you.”



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