In name of fame, Luyendyk seeks Indy 500 repeat win Back-to-back victories elusive since 1970-71

May 08, 1991|By Robert Markus | Robert Markus,Chicago Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS -- His name is Arie Luyendyk and he is the defending champion of the Indianapolis 500. But you can just call him Arie. In fact, he wishes you would. After all, they called the great sculptor simply "Michelangelo," didn't they? And didn't they just call the painter "Leonardo"?

"When [racing] people say 'Mario,' " says Luyendyk, whose quest will begin Saturday with the first of four days of qualifications, "you know they mean Mario Andretti. Even when they say 'Michael' you know they're talking about Michael Andretti. My name is not familiar with Americans. I want to be known as Arie."

If he wins the May 26 Indianapolis 500 for the second year in a row,he just might, at 37, become a one-word household name. No one has done it since Al Unser in 1970-71.

And, unlike last year, when he seemingly came out of nowhere towin the biggest auto race in the world, it would not come as a total shock if he were to do it.

"Winning last year's race was an enormous moment," he says. "Now, I want to win it even more. Realistically, we can win this race. I don't have to fight myself or the equipment or my team. Now, the competition is my biggest enemy.

"Last year, I had to go out and prove I could go fast. Those barriers were still there."

Those barriers, erected over a period of 75 races when he was winless, started to crumble when he won the race here, but there still was one more wall to break down. After winning the Indy he did not come close to winning another race for the rest of the year. On more than one occasion, he was called to task for driving indiscretions. Was he just a one-race wonder?

The answer came two weeks ago in Phoenix when, in only his third race for the RCA Uno-Granatelli team, Luyendyk won again in dominating fashion.

"I really needed that," he says. "I needed it almost worse than I needed this one [the Indy 500]. I finally got the monkey off my back by winning that second race, and it couldn't have come at a more appropriate time than now, when we're coming back to Indianapolis."

Not, of course, that Luyendyk didn't need that victory badly here last May. There were valid reasons, he knew, for his having not won in an Indy car in a career that began in earnest with the 1985 season.

He never had been in really competitive equipment, although when he drove for Dick Simon for two years "we were competitive, but just not competitive enough."

Simon would hand Arie a new car every year, but he could not hand him the state-of-the-art Chevy engine. Still, "I was leading at Phoenix in '88 until we had a pit fire and in '89 at Portland I finished second after the third gear broke," Luyendyk said.

But by the time he arrived here last year, knowing that for the first time now he had the hot combination of Lola chassis and Chevy engine, he was to the point where, "you say to yourself: 'I really need a break. I just wish I could be running third and the two cars in front of me would break down so I could finally get that first win.'

"Winning races is not unfamiliar to me because I won in Super Vees [Volkswagen cars] and I won races in Europe. I know what winning is so if I'm in that position I know how to take care of it."

He concedes, however, he didn't quite know how to react after winning the Indy 500. "I knew I'd be very much in demand," he says, "but to be honest it wasn't as much of a madhouse as I thought it would be."

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