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Published: Sunday, 5/14/2006

Rain playing havoc with Indy race teams

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Indy Racing League drivers Dan Wheldon, left, and Tony Kanaan keep things loose following an interview at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where rain has been falling for several days. Indy Racing League drivers Dan Wheldon, left, and Tony Kanaan keep things loose following an interview at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where rain has been falling for several days.
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INDIANAPOLIS - There were no boat races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway yesterday, and no elderly gentleman in a flowing robe grabbing two Hornish fans, two Unser fans, two Andrettis, and a pair of everything else, and then marching them up the gangplank into his covered craft.

But otherwise, the place had all the necessary ingredients for a nautical or biblical event. It hasn't yet been 40 days and 40 nights of constant rain - but they are adding up.

For a fifth straight year, weather impacted the Indy 500 Pole Day.

"It's the Midwest, so the weather is going to be unpredictable," said 2004 Indy 500 champ Buddy Rice, a native of Arizona. "But the rain seems to be really hanging around this year. It's testing everyone's patience."

A stalled weather system that has saturated the home of the Indy 500 for most of the past week maintained its posture yesterday and washed out what was to have been a pole-qualifying session to determine the top 11 positions for the May 28 race.

For a second straight day, not a car left the garage area. They will try it again today, with the first 22 starting positions scheduled to be in play, but the forecast is yet another soggy one.

"It's just been a strange month, with a lot of the rain interrupting everything," said Dan Wheldon, defending champion of the Indy 500 and IndyCar Series. "You expect to see some rain at some point every year, because we spend so much time here preparing for the race, but this year it's been an unusual amount. I just hope it doesn't dampen fans' spirits, because I think it's certainly going to be a very competitive race."

The relentless rains have given the drivers and race teams an inordinate amount of down time, and without the benefit of numerous practice runs to supply the data that would allow them to tweak their cars during the downpours, they are essentially stuck in an uncomfortable idle mode.

"We sit around and twiddle our thumbs, really," said Michael Andretti, co-owner of the Indy 500 winning team from last year who will be driving in the event for the first time since 2003. "It's frustrating, boring, and pretty nerve racking because you just want to get it over with. But this is all up to Mother Nature, and you can't mess with her."

Scott Dixon, the 2003 IndyCar Series points champion and an avid fitness buff and tri-athlete, used the excess down time to rest, and then increase his workouts, while still trying to figure out the constantly revamped schedule.

"I've been laying in bed watching TV," Dixon said. "The other days, I've gone training. It may be a little too wet to go cycling or running, so I may go swimming today, just to take some of the stress away. This is all a little harder on the team and their timetable for doing things. It's confusing, and for me, I don't have to be too concerned with it, but it's something the team has to deal with."

Danica Patrick, the Rahal Letterman Racing driver who finished fourth in last year's Indy 500 as a rookie, has not been as strong as she had hoped in the limited practice runs she has had so far, and needs the track time to iron out the issues with her car.

"We are struggling for sure, and each time the rain steals more time from us, it gets tougher," she said. "But the one factor we can't control here at the track is the weather. We have lost a lot of practice time due to the weather, and as frustrating as it is, you just have to be ready to drive when the opportunity presents itself."

Former Indy 500 champ Buddy Lazier, whose car has been one of the slowest ones in the group hoping to qualify for the race, said the foul weather is his main opponent right now.

"It's tough because we are struggling to find some things we need to find, and the rain is really hurting us," Lazier said. "We're working to have all of our ducks in a row."

Veteran Eddie Cheever Jr., who won the 1998 Indy 500, brushed it off as the nature of the beast.

"When you come to Indy, you've got to be ready for everything," Cheever said. "It's just one of the things that happens. It's Indiana, and the weather can change in two minutes. "I think it's tougher on the mechanics than it is on the drivers. They've got to get the car ready and then change it for the weather. They're always fiddling with the wings and the springs and the shock absorbers, so it's just part of the deal."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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