Mears takes pole position for sixth time Foyt on front row with record 34th run

May 12, 1991|By Dave Caldwell | Dave Caldwell,Knight-Ridder News Service

INDIANAPOLIS -- He can put little weight on his bruised right foot, but Rick Mears stomped harder on the gas pedal at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway than anyone else yesterday.

Less than 24 hours after his car thumped the wall in turn one on Friday -- his first accident in 15 years at Indy -- Mears piloted his backup car to the pole position for the 75th Indianapolis 500 on May 26.

Mears averaged 224.113 mph in his four-lap, 10-mile qualifying run, more than one full mph off the record of 225.301 mph Emerson Fittipaldi set last year.

He will be joined on the front row by four-time winner A.J. Foyt, who made it a record 34 times he's qualified for the event, and Mario Andretti, who was quite unhappy with his racer's performance.

Mears knocked Foyt off the pole with searing laps of 223.447, 224.221, 224.344 and 224.344 mph. And the soft-spoken Californian won a considerable gamble on a steamy, chaotic Indiana day.

Because the heat and humidity created a slick, speed-scrubbing race track after qualifying started at 11 a.m., only nine teams chose to qualify on the first pass through the order, opting to wait until the track cooled late in the day.

By 3:30 p.m., however, thick, black thunderheads had huddled around the racetrack, causing flags to flutter and intermittent rain to fall. At 5:45 p.m., officials closed the track for the day, and all but 12 teams were forced to postpone their official attempts until the three days designated as qualifying days -- today, Saturday and next Sunday.

And no one had ousted Mears -- auto racing's Rocket Man -- from his unprecedented sixth Indy 500 pole. Mears, a three-time Indy 500 winner, also started first in 1979, '82, '86, '88 and '89.

"We've worked for what we've got, and now we're ready to put the show on the road," Mears said. "We've had enough excitement. We just figured, 'Let's get it over with.' "

In the hours between his crash and his qualifying attempt, Mears TTC doubted his ability to win the pole just once -- when he sat in his backup car and found the throttle too hard to push with his foot. But after an adjustment, no one pushed the throttle better than the 39-year-old veteran, who steered his Penske-Chevrolet to a qualifying time of 2 minutes, 40.633 seconds.

"I thought if I kept my foot down all the way, with the wind blowing the way it was, I would not think about it," Mears said of his injury.

The day also belonged to Foyt, the feisty, profane 56-year-old Texan who drives almost as hard as he chews his gum. Less than eight months after he suffered multiple leg and foot injuries in a crash that threatened to end his career, Foyt took the track at 11 a.m. sharp and coaxed a qualifying time of 222.443 mph out of his black Lola-Chevrolet.

"I'm not looking at it as my last race," Foyt said. "I'm looking at this as another race."

It was Foyt's best qualifying time in 34 attempts at the Brickyard. To give an idea of how long A.J. Foyt has been hanging around, Foyt's qualifying speed for his first Indy 500 was 143.130 mph in 1958 -- and he was wearing a white T-shirt and a helmet without a face mask. He was the last driver to win at Indy when the track was still paved with 3.2 million bricks. That was 30 years ago.

The seven drivers who took qualifying attempts between Foyt and Mears were slowed considerably by the heat, a stiffening wind and a slick track with little grip. After charging to a practice lap of 226.080 mph on Wednesday, Bobby Rahal managed a qualifying time of 221.401 mph.

Both Mario and Michael Andretti were slowed yesterday by the same mechanical problem -- hyperactive pop-off valves, which limit a car's horsepower. The pop-off valves are assigned and maintained daily by the U.S. Auto Club, the sanctioning body for the race, and both Andrettis thought it was a little peculiar that their nearly identical Lola-Chevrolets that managed 225 mph during practice could not hit 222 mph yesterday.

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