Indy adds exercises caution to make for safer pit stops

May 21, 1992|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- When the caution lights come on during Sunday's Indianapolis 500, there will be no mad -- into the pits for fuel and tires.

In a move designed for safety, the United States Auto Club, which sanctions this race, has added a rule prohibiting drivers from making pit stops during caution periods until the pace car locates the race leader and the remainder of the field is allowed to close up from behind.

The rule has set off a debate among drivers and crews over whether it will increase safety or make things worse.

"It's going to be, it could be mayhem," said Michael Andretti, who joined the other 32 qualified drivers on the track today for Carburetion Day and the final shakedown of their cars. "With 33 cars, well, all won't pit at once, but you might have 25 pit at one time. I mean, it's not going to be any fun."

USAC steward Art Meyers said the rule has been under discussion since the 1980s. Meyers said the rule will make scoring the race easier and make pit road safer by slowing the cars.

"This way, they will slow down, because they'll want to get behind the pace car and form a pack, so they can come into the pits and get back out," he said. "So that makes it a matter of safety."

But driver Bobby Rahal said that, without a speed limit on pit road, chaos could be the result.

"If all it is is a way to improve the show, to put more drama in it, come out and say it," Rahal said. "Don't sit there and couch it in terms of this is for safety, because it isn't.

"I think if they are worried about safety in the pits, there's all kinds of ways we can solve that problem. But having 33 cars coming down the pit lane at once is not one of them. You can still improve your position in the pits, you can still pass, but, now, with 33 cars on top of one another, there is going to be more passing than ever going on."

USAC officials have enforced a 100 mph speed limit on pit road all month, but Meyers said an announcement on a race-day speed limit would be made today after a closed drivers meeting.

"From my point of view, it takes a lot of pressure off the crews in the pits," said Barry Green, team manager for the Galmer racing teams of Al Unser Jr. and Danny Sullivan. "Always before in this race, we've had to make split-second decisions: Should we bring him in on this lap or the next lap? That pressure will be gone.

"But there will be other pressures. For instance, we like to bring the car in when the fuel tank is empty. Now, we'll have to watch the fuel situation closely, because if its empty when a caution comes out, we won't make it around the track to get to the pits."

Green said, however, he's in favor of any rule that will make his men in the pits safer.

"If this slows the cars coming down pit road, then I'm all for it," he said. "But if they don't put a speed limit on pit road, I don't think it makes much sense."

The rule pleased driver John Andretti. While unsure about the safety factor, he said he was sure about the benefits to scoring.

Last year, he lost two laps during the 500 on questionable calls by USAC officials after caution periods, when they apparently failed to pick up the proper lead car.

"I don't want to get into that," Andretti said. "I don't want to blame anyone, but the bottom line is it won't happen again with this rule, because there won't be any confusion over who to pick up. They'll pick up the leader, and then everyone will close up with him."

"It's pretty easy to lose the person who stays out on the racetrack if they [the pace car] pick up the wrong one [leader]," said Meyer. "Somebody can get down a lap, and somebody can get up one. It's my personal opinion that this rule keeps people on the right lap, and that's good for the spectators."

A rule similar to the new one here is used in NASCAR racing. The rule evolved after a crewman was killed at Atlanta two years ago. It has become a practical solution to a dangerous situation with the addition of a pit road speed limit and a limitation on who can pit on which caution laps.

But even pointing the success of the NASCAR rule out to a veteran driver such as Mario Andretti draws an attack.

"You can't compare NASCAR with our cars," he said. "As violent as our cars can be, like on a burnout [burning tire rubber on takeoff from the pits] . . . when we blast out, it's almost totally out of control, like a bullet coming out of a gun."

A rule similar to USAC's new one was used during the 1978 season, but not at Indianapolis.

"I thought it was a good idea at the time, and I thought they should have kept it," said Tom Sneva, the 1983 Indianapolis 500 winner. "I was actually the first guy to get penalized by it [in 1978]. We were leading in Texas and cut a tire and had to come into the pits. It hurt us, but I still think it's the way to go."

USAC Rule No. 2-H

When the caution light comes on during the Indianapolis 500, no driver will be allowed to make a pit stop, until the pace car locates the race leader and the remainder of the field is allowed to close up from behind.

The exception is if a car is "irrevocably committed" to the pit entrance at the commencement of a yellow light. The driver then may pass through the pits without stopping to avoid the penalty.

The panalty: a stop-and-go under the green light.

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