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Motor Sports
Ed Hinton
June 01, 1998
Fortunate 500
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June 01, 1998

Motor Sports

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FAST FACTS

Rookies, as a group, had their best day ever at Indy on Sunday when six of the eight first-time 500 drivers finished in the top 12, including two in the top 5. Here are the five most successful rookie classes over the past 15 years, and the first-timers who were among the leading dozen.

YEAR

ROOKIES IN TOP 12

HIGH FINISHERS

1998

6 of 8

Steve Knapp (3), Robby Unser (5), Andy Michner (8), J.J. Yeley (9), Jimmy Kite (11), Jack Hewitt (12)

1989

3 of 4

Bernard Jourdain (9), Scott Pruett (10), John Jones (11)

1984

3 of 5

Roberto Guerrero (2), Al Holbert (4), Michael Andretti (5)

1995

3 of 6

Christian Fittipaldi (2), Eliseo Salazar (4), Alessandro Zampedri (11)

1987

3 of 6

Fabrizio Barbazza (3), Stan Fox (7), Jeff MacPherson (8)

Fortunate 500

Another makeshift Indianapolis 500 is over, won by a man who was winless in nine years on the Formula One circuit and 0 for 6 seasons on the CART tour, and whose previous best finish at Indy had been fourth in 1992. I'm glad that I've finally done something in my career that will stick," Eddie Cheever said after Sunday's race. "My father told me, 'If you're going to win one race in your life, win Indy' "

But even Cheever realizes he won a race that is three years removed from being a world-class event. The guys he never could beat don't show up at Indianapolis Motor Speedway anymore, and the motley crew there on Sunday made this 500 reminiscent of the Dust Bowl migration to California, what with so many stalled vehicles along the way. Five of the 12 caution flags were for cars that had neither wrecked nor blown engines, but had suffered some lesser mechanical breakdown.

Defending IRL points champ Tony Stewart blew his engine just seconds after taking the lead on Lap 21. Pole starter Billy Boat, driving for Indy legend A.J. Foyt's team, battled mechanical problems all day and left the race after 111 laps. Foyt's other driver, Swedish upstart Kenny Brack, led 23 of 88 laps before running out of fuel, which prompted Foyt to yell at his fuel-mileage specialist and smash the guy's laptop. Defending champ Arie Luyendyk lost first gear early and then blew his clutch on Lap 150. Plus, in a break with Indy tradition, cars that had been taken to the garage area for repairs were allowed to return to the race. In the 81 previous runnings of Indy, once a car was taken behind the pit wall, it was history.

What there was of actual racing was pretty good: 23 lead changes, including three passes under the green flag for the lead. But then there are some pretty good races on the short tracks of Indiana, where several of this year's 500 competitors had moonlighted during the two weeks leading up to Sunday's race—yet another sign that the Indy field was not populated by the elite.

Cheever, 40, is known around racing more for his glibness and dashing persona than for his driving achievements. He's an American who was raised in Italy, where his father, Eddie Sr., operated fitness centers. Cheever drifted toward Formula One, but after going nowhere on road courses and street circuits he moved to CART in 1990. "The first time I came to this place [Indy's high-speed, 2.5-mile oval], it terrorized me," Cheever says. "I wanted to go home." To this day, he admits, "I am still learning ovals."

Which is the current nature of Indy. It is a place of learning, of replacement players.

Safety Measure
Indy Tests a Padded Wall

First came helmets, then seat belts, then roll bars. In the evolution of driver protection, now there's the "ultimate safety device," as IRL driver Arie Luyendyk calls the latest innovation for padding concrete retaining walls. The Polyethylene Energy Dissipating System (PEDS), unveiled by the IRL at Indianapolis last week, consists of energy-absorbing, hollow plastic cylinders set side by side, covered with sheets of polyethylene and attached to concrete walls with steel cables. Upon impact, the 16-inch-diameter cylinders compress and then return to their original shape, while the polyethylene facing prevents cars from burrowing into them. PEDS appears to be a giant step beyond CART's ongoing experimentation with tightly-banded stacks of tires (SI, April 27) and promises to considerably reduce serious injuries to drivers.

"In our testing the design has reduced the force of impact by as much as 50 G's," says IRL executive director Leo Mehl.

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