French rookie Gregoire shows he's a fast learner AUTO RACING

May 26, 1993|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Green, green, green. Stephan Gregoire is perhaps the greenest rookie the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has ever seen.

He had never been to the United States or seen an oval race track until this month.

After four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears had driven him around the 2.5-mile speedway, pointing out some of its quirks, Gregoire got out of the car smiled, shook Mears hand and thanked him.

Moments later, Gregoire turned to Emmanuel Lupe, who is acting as the Frenchman's translator, and asked: "Who was that man?"

Tomorrow, when the cars go out for their final practice laps before Sunday's 77th Indianapolis 500, Gregoire will get his first experience in traffic on ovals.

Gregoire, with only four top-speed practice laps prior to qualifying, is this race's fastest rookie. He'll start his first 500 on the outside of the fifth row, the place he earned with an all-out, heart-in-the-throat run with 40 seconds left on the second day of qualifying. He clocked 220.851 mph.

Gregoire speaks the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's language. Speed.

On the race track he is fast. And everyone here understands that. What they may not understand is how he can be so fast.

"The secret for me is to be quiet within myself," said Gregoire, a former French Formula Three driver. "I am learning step by step. The speed, in rookie laps, came slowly. The race? I do not know yet about the race, but I am not ready to do something fantastic. Not yet."

His 220.851 mph already is fantastic. It is faster than world Formula One champion Nigel Mansell. Faster than former world Formula One champion Nelson Piquet.

Both are rookies here. Both have state-of-the-art cars. Both are -- slower. Mansell by a half-mile-an-hour, Piquet by 3 mph.

Gregoire is driving a year-old Lo- la/Buick with enough sponsornames on it to choke any announcer:The Formula Project-Maalox-GSF-Safeway France Info Lola Buick it is called. Car No. 36.

The car is owned by Dick Simon, who has put five cars in Sunday's lineup.

This is Simon's best year here -- so far -- as a car owner. He has driver Raul Boesel on the front row. He has Scott Brayton in row four; Jimmy Vasser and Lyn St. James in row seven; and Gregoire in row five.

"Vasser and Stephan are in last year's cars, but I tell you what, Stephan has as good a chance at winning Sunday as anyone out there," said Simon, a 59-year-old who drove his last IndyCar race at Indianapolis in 1988 and finished ninth. "The car he is in ran second in last year's race until it had problems. If the engine doesn't blow up, I'd be very surprised if he's not top 5."

Gregoire, 24, won the hearts of his audience when he collected the American Dairy Association's Fastest Rookie award yesterday. "I grow up the son of a butcher in the village of Vittel, France," he said. "I know farmers -- and I like them."

There have been French rookies here before. Two of them have won at Indy in their first try.

Jules Goux won in 1913, despite taking a five-minute break for lunch and a glass of champagne. He averaged 75.9 mph. The next year, Frenchman Rene Thomas won in 82.4 mph.

"They were both rookies and they both won," said Lupe. "Now, just 80 years later, we plan to repeat the performance."

FOREIGN AWAY

OC

Foreign drivers in the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday (r-rookie):

Raul Boesel Brazil

Geoff Brabham Australia

Jim Crawford Scotland

Teo Fabi Italy

Emerson Fittipaldi Brazil

Scott Goodyear Canada

r-Stephan Gregoire France

r-Stefan Johansson Sweden

Arie Luyendyk The Netherlands

r-Nigel Mansell England

Hiro Matsushita Japan

r-Nelson Piquet Brazil

Didier Theys Belgium

Paul Tracy Canada

FAST ROOKIES

This year's top rookie qualifier and the fastest rookies in the past 10 Indy 500s, with average speed in mph and starting and finishing positions:

Year Name .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Speed .. .. Start .. .. .Fin.

'83 Teo Fabi .. .. .. .. .. .. ..207.395 .. .. 1 .. .. .. 26

'84 Michael Andretti .. .. .. .. 207.805 .. .. 4 .. .. .. .5

'85 Raul Boesel .. .. .. .. .. ..206.498 .. .. 23 .. .. .. 18

'86 Randy Lanier .. .. .. .. .. .209.964 .. .. 13 .. .. .. 10

'87 Davy Jones.. .. .. .. .. .. .208.117 .. .. 28 .. .. .. 28

'88 Dominic Dobson .. .. .. .. ..210.096 .. .. 21 .. .. .. 18

'89 John Jones .. .. .. .. .. .. 214.028 .. .. 25 .. .. .. 11

'90 Eddie Cheever .. .. .. .. .. 217.926 .. .. 14 .. .. .. 8

'91 Mike Groff .. .. .. .. .. .. 219.015 .. .. 18 .. .. .. 24

'92 Jimmy Vasser.. .. .. .. .. ..222.313 .. .. 28 .. .. .. 21

'93 Stephan Gregoire .. .. .. .. 220.851

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