Fame having trouble keeping up with Indy's fastest rookie

May 22, 1991|By Sandra McKee

INDIANAPOLIS -- The situation isn't exactly what rookie Mike Groff expected, but he isn't complaining either.

When a rookie driver outqualifies everyone else in his rookie class, he usually becomes the best known among his peers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But that's not the way it is here, as preparations continue for this Sunday's 75th Indianapolis 500.

Groff is indeed the fastest rookie, but he is probably the least known in the rookie class.

He drove his Euromotorsport-Fendi Lola/Cosworth 219.015 mph to claim the 18th starting position. It is the fastest speed ever by a rookie, beating Eddie Cheever's 217.738 of last year by nearly 2 mph.

Yesterday, he picked up a $2,500 check from the American Dairy Association, which has sponsored the Fastest Rookie award for the last 17 years.

So Groff knows that, at least for the moment, he is first among his peers.

But he and car owner Antonio Ferrari are among few who do.

Groff's four rookie challengers have been stealing the show.

Hiro Matsushita is the first Japanese driver in a 500 field; Jeff Andretti is the fourth member of the Andretti clan to make the field; and Buddy Lazier is one of the smoothest talkers around.

And then, of course, there is Willy T. Ribbs, the first black in the Indy field.

No matter.

"Just being here sends chills up my spine," Groff said yesterday after a luncheon in his honor. "There is so much tradition, so many stories this place could tell. It really doesn't bother me that all the other rookies are getting attention.

"It's just the name of the game. Competition. That's what thirace at this track is all about. If you don't thrive on competition, then you're probably not in the right sport."

He says his fellow rookies have gotten their share of ink, but he has gotten his share as well. And given Groff's brief history at the Speedway, he perhaps, more than the others, appreciates it.

A year ago, Groff and Ferrari teamed up late, only shortly before May. They arrived at Indy with old equipment and not much else and it showed.

"I got through the rookie test, but, well, it wasn't that we didn't have any confidence in each other," recalled Groff, 29. "It was just that I couldn't get enough speed out of the car. It was the last day and we got bumped. It was real heart-breaking.

"In racing, you work just as hard or harder when things aren't going right. It takes a lot of energy and attention and, when you don't make it, there is a big letdown. Racing is always very good or very bad and the bad times sometimes seem tougher than tough."

And the good times? Well, this time his team has been together more than a year, has a 1991 car and new confidence. It shows in the garage, where chief mechanic Andreas Leberle has everything, right down to the paperwork, in order.

And it shows in the enthusiasm of Ferrari, the team owner.

"We drink the gasoline, it is in our blood," said Ferrari of his love of this team and American motor sports. "My family has always given everything to racing. And they are excited about our racing here at Indianapolis. They are excited about the talent of Mike. I believe he can be a great driver and will show his potential Sunday. For some reason, my family thinks we can win."

Ferrari is the grandnephew of Enzio Ferrari, the great Italian racer and designer who created the sports cars that bear his family's name.

At age 35, he is the youngest owner of an Indy car team. Thatcoupled with Groff being a rookie, and the fact that everyone in the world knows the name Ferrari has contributed to the only real problem this team has: raising money.

Ferrari's team has Hawaiian Tropic as a sponsor, but it is not a top-of-the-line package.

"My last name is a great name, but over here, really, it makes everything much more difficult," Ferrari said. "I go to look for sponsors and they say, 'What for, you already have money.' But I don't have any money. From the economical side, it is not so good."

"Given the circumstances, it's hard to raise money," said Groff, a native of California who trains by riding a bike and enjoys restoring old cars and old houses in his free time. "Sponsors don't want to put money on someone who hasn't won."

In these economic times, sponsors don't want to put money on winners either. Former Indy 500 champions Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser and Tom Sneva are on the sidelines because no one came up with a competitive car for them to drive.

And yet for a rookie, this field is packed with competition.

"I think it is going to be very tough," Groff said. "I would like to think we can make it to the finish. I'm not concerned with being realistic. All I want is to get the most out of the car that I can. I think the one thing we have going for us is that while we might be down on power, the Cosworth engine is very reliable and if you're around at the finish, chances are it will be a good finish."

Maybe then, everyone will know who Mike Groff is.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.