Unser takes early pole position INDIANAPOLIS 500

May 15, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Anyone watching the camera crews lined up in front of Al Unser Jr.'s garage here in Gasoline Alley would think he had just won the pole for the May 29 Indianapolis 500.

And when the sun set yesterday, Unser, in his Penske/Mercedes Benz V8, was on the pole, with a four-lap average speed of 228.011. But the position is likely temporary.

Eight other drivers had not completed qualifying because of rainy conditions.

Those drivers, including Mario Andretti, who will be qualifying for his last 500, and Unser's teammate Emerson Fittipaldi, the favorite to win the pole, will attempt to qualify today, weather permitting.

"It will be tough for me to keep the pole," said Unser. "If I'd had a high 228 or a 229, it might have put some pressure on Emerson. But a 228.0, I think he can get that pretty easily. I'm 90 percent sure Emmo will grab the pole."

If Unser had his doubts about his starting position, he had none about his feelings for the performance of driver Lyn St. James.

St. James, driving a Lola/Ford Cosworth XB, surprised everyone with a solid 224.154, to claim the middle position on the second row between Michael Andretti (226.205) and Nigel Mansell (224.041).

"I just parked the enthusiasm in the pits and just felt the race

car," she said. "I tried to make the race car grow. The emotion came back at the end of the run when I drove down pit lane."

Her second lap of 224.282 mph was a single-lap closed-course record and her four-lap average was the fastest lap ever by a woman here.

Driver Jacques Villeneuve, in his Reynard/Ford Cosworth XB, set a rookie qualifying record of 226.259 to momentarily claim the outside of Row One, beside St. James' teammate, Raul Boesel (227.618).

"Lyn bumped Nigel," said Unser, with a big smile, referring to the defending PPG Indy Car Champion. "Isn't that great!"

Mansell, who made the field with a 224.041 mph, irritated many of his fellow competitors two days ago, when he said they provided him with little competition and "only one or two" were as good as the Formula-One drivers he has competed against in the past.

"That's pretty good," said St. James' car owner, Dick Simmon. "Only one or two can compete with him and a girl beats him."

St. James said, "Right now, I'm number five on the starting grid and I'm not picking on anybody. I know Nigel has a great sense of humor and in this situation, I'm sure he'll get razzed."

Since practice began this month, it has been the Penske team of Unser, Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy who have been favored to sweep the front row in their Penske/Mercedes.

But Tracy was knocked out of yesterday's pole run because he was knocked out in his car during an accident Friday, that put him in the hospital overnight with a concussion and a bruised left foot.

His absence opened a spot for some other team to start up front.

When Unser turned in a lap of 225.722 on his first of four qualifying laps, the 150,000 fans who paid $5 each to watch, were abuzz.

Would car owner Roger Penske decide to wipe off Unser's run and pull him from the track?

The next time around, Unser clocked 228.351 and followed it up with 228.525 and 229.481 to momentarily squash any doubts.

"I scared the you-know-what out of myself in morning practice," said Unser. "And then, on my second warm up lap a bird hit my tire and I was worried whether the tire would keep holding air.

"When I saw 225, I said 'Oh, boy.' I didn't get any radio communication, but I know what they'd have been. I felt the vibes from Roger any how."

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