SI Vault
Sam Moses
May 29, 1978
Until this year no one had ever averaged 200 mph in qualifying for the Indy 500. Now all three cars on the front row have—plus A. J. Foyt
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May 29, 1978

Showing Early Speed At Indianapolis

Until this year no one had ever averaged 200 mph in qualifying for the Indy 500. Now all three cars on the front row have—plus A. J. Foyt

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Last week, when the rains that had wiped out the first weekend of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 had finally stopped, Roger Penske found himself dealing with the kinds of problems that could confront only a Roger Penske—or maybe a Harold Robbins character. Penske's star driver, Mario Andretti, who had turned the fastest lap (203.482 mph) in Speedway history during practice, was in Belgium for a Formula I race and, it appeared, would be there through the weekend. Penske had come up with 36-year-old Mike Hiss as a stand-in driver to attempt to qualify Andretti's Penske-Cosworth V-8, but Hiss hadn't raced at Indianapolis since 1975. Then there was Penske's newest driver, Rick Mears, who, if not exactly a problem, was definitely an unknown. Despite his apparent poise and 200-mph practice laps, Mears was a rookie at the Speedway with more experience in manhandling Volkswagen-engined buggies in off-road races than in the precise art of steering the twitchy Indy cars. And finally there was Penske's USAC champion, Tom Sneva, who had been the fastest qualifier last year and had finished second to A. J. Foyt in the 500 but had yet to turn a 200-mph lap at the Speedway this year. The former junior high school principal was either sleeping or hiding a sandbag under his bucket seat.

But Penske has taken part in many an executive management seminar, and by Saturday evening he had everything under control. Andretti had won the pole—for the Belgian Grand Prix—and Hiss, obeying instructions to cool it, had gotten Andretti's car into the 500 with a neat but uneventful four-lap run at an average speed of 194.647 mph. Despite the fact that Hiss' time was the 10th fastest, Andretti will have to start Sunday's 500 last in the 33-car field because he didn't qualify the car himself. Rules are rules. Hiss' job finished and done well, he faded back into obscurity, hoping his solid performance in a pinch would remind other car owners that he is still around.

Earlier in the day, Mears had ticked off four consistent qualifying laps for an average of 200.078 mph and the third starting spot, to become the first rookie to be on the front row in 21 years. Stepping out of the car as poised as he was when he got in, Mears smiled a handsome, clean-cut smile, kissed his pretty, wholesome wife, said all the right things ("With a super car like the Cam2 Motor Oil Special we made it this year, the crew gave me good help...") and sent people away saying Roger Penske sure does know how to pick 'em.

Doesn't he just. Earlier in the month, when asked why he wasn't going any faster, Sneva had been answering questions with a smile that suggested he wasn't the least bit worried. Now, responding to urgings from Penske to throw out the sandbag, he stole the pole for the second straight year, raising his officially timed one-lap record from 200.535 to 203.620 mph and his four-lap record from 198.884 to 202.156 mph. The run was not uneventful. "I don't know if I touched the wall or not," Sneva said. "I didn't look like the smooth veteran I am out there. I'm surprised I was able to get away with it, sliding as much as I was."

The favorites for the pole had been Foyt and Danny Ongais, but Ongais' attempt fell a watch tick short and Foyt's never really materialized. Ongais' troubles began Tuesday, when he wiped out his backup Parnelli-Cosworth, spinning into the wall coming out of Turn Four and sliding backward for 460 feet. Then on Friday, just 15 minutes before the end of practice, he coasted past the pits with a blown engine, one lap after he had cut a 202.931, the second fastest of the 11 laps over 200 mph recorded at the Speedway this year. That lowered the spirits of his team, for it meant that Lloyd Ruby, the popular, likable veteran who had purchased a Parnelli from Ongais' Interscope team, would have to sit this one out. Because Ongais had used up two engines in three days, there was no power plant left for Ruby, who would thus miss his first Indy in 18 years.

Ongais' qualifying attempt had come shortly after Sneva's, and when Sneva's record speed was announced on the P.A., Ongais was understandably dismayed. Nevertheless his run of 200.122 put him in the center of the first row, flanked by Sneva and Mears in their red, white and blue Penske-Cosworths, exceptional new cars designed by Geoff Ferris of England.

Ongais, who has won two of the four USAC races held thus far this season, didn't have much to say after his four laps, but then he rarely does. The story goes that last fall, before he drove in the Canadian and Watkins Glen Grands Prix, he traveled from Los Angeles to England to be fitted for his Formula I car. Arriving at the shop, Ongais stood around for a while—none of the mechanics recognized him—until the team manager finally noticed the American and led him to the car to be seated. "How do your arms fit?" Ongais was asked. "Good," he replied. "How do your legs fit?" he was asked next. "Fine," replied Ongais. Whereupon the 36-year-old former drag racer climbed out of the car, drove 100 miles back to London and flew home to Los Angeles.

Foyt wasn't talking much after his run, either. He had hit 203.666 in a Saturday morning warmup session, and rumors of a 208-mph lap late Friday afternoon floated around Gasoline Alley like exhaust fumes—and with about as much substance. On his official attempt, Foyt pulled into the pits without completing the first lap, complaining that the USAC-fitted pop-off valve, a device used to limit turbocharger boost during qualifying, was popping off improperly, or something. The same contention had resulted in A.J. getting two qualifying attempts last year. USAC technicians removed the valve and scurried off to their testing instruments while Foyt fumed and refused to talk to anybody. After about an hour, USAC announced the valve was fine and that Foyt's aborted attempt would count as his official shot at the pole.

A.J. then took another look at his Coyote-Foyt and discovered the faulty component was his own. "The wastegate was set at 19� pounds cracking pressure, and it should have been set at 25," he said, which boils down to the fact that he wasn't setting the proper turbocharger boost. "There was nothing wrong with the valve. I guess it was my screw-up. That's nothing new."

On Sunday Foyt duplicated Ongais' qualifying speed, which would have put him on the front row except that his run came on the second day of qualifying. That one-day delay means the only four-time Indy winner will start 21st, in row seven, behind the 20 cars that had qualified Saturday.

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