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Race cars today, from endurance racers to Indy-type roundy-rounders, depend to some extent on ground effects to keep the machines on the track through high-speed corners. The bottoms of the cars are sculpted like inverted airplane wings to generate downforce. Up to this season, that suction had been enhanced by the addition of skirts flanking the undersides and keeping the flow of air relatively smooth and unbroken. This year's rule significantly shortened the skirts. In addition, the cars' rear wings were moved forward seven inches to further reduce downforce.
At first it seemed to work. Early lap speeds were off by more than five miles an hour. But then the smarter mechanics began trimming their cars more carefully. Often the adjustments of wing angle, tire balance and suspension came down to thousandths of an inch—the difference between zoom and doom. Mario Andretti for one, driving a Cosworth-powered Lola, never quite found it. "This Lola is just a gal that we don't really understand yet," he quipped wryly after qualifying just behind Johncock at 199.404. Whatever Lola wanted, she didn't get it.
Another Indy vet who failed to find his balance was AI Unser. Once the baby of the racing Unser family, Al has added Sr. to his name now that his 21-year-old son, Al Jr., who resembles a turbo-charged Huck Finn, is racing at Indy. Indeed, Junior beat out Senior on the starting grid—with a speed of 202.146, sixth fastest of the day, to his dad's 201.954—thus putting together the first-ever father-son combo in Speedway history.
Foyt, Indy's only four-time champ, qualifying for a record 26th time at the Speedway, never had a shot at the pole. Foyt had been preoccupied all month: His father, Tony, was gravely ill in Houston with lung cancer—he would die Saturday night—and A.J., an intense family man, could not devote his full attention to the business of speed. Then he and 14 others were yanked out of the qualifying lineup when their side skirts proved too long—a scant sixteenth of an inch in the case of A.J.'s Valvoline-Gilmore machine. He ended up toward the back of the pack with a 199.557 clocking, on the same row as Cogan, the man who had ruined the start last year by veering into Foyt and thus initiating an accident that took four cars out of the race. Cogan qualified at 201.528. Just ahead of them was tough Danny Ongais, who ran a 202.320 average—clear danger for the leaders come race day.
But the qualifying glory belonged to the 5'4", 140-pound Signor Fabi. Wearing the bewildered look of a man just named outstanding graduate of a barbers college, he did not know what to make of all the hullabaloo. "It's fantastic," he said mildly, "and it's very easy to drive like this." You could hear the gnashing of Indy Establishment teeth clear down to Terre Haute. "I like very much to be in pole, and I hope to start in pole for the race. It's much more important to be in pole for the race than win the race."
The "Terror of the Tracks," as his press releases dub him, started Alpine skiing at six, and though he won a spot on the Italian B team as a teen-ager, he was too short to be a champion, so he switched to go-karts, in which he excelled. In 1978 he was offered a Formula I ride as James Hunt's sidekick. But Fabi was working for his aeronautical engineering degree at the University of Milan and said, "Grazie, grazie, no grazie."
However, the young bachelor never really got away from driving, and soon he was racking up wins in F-3 and F-2 cars—the traditional route to the top in European racing. Two years ago he was very quick in a Lola with Paul Newman's Can-Am team here. His Formula I career was less spectacular, his best finish being a 10th at San Marino last year, when he also teamed with Riccardo Patrese and Michele Alboreto to capture the 1,000-kilometer sports car enduro at the N�rburgring. Fabi's transition to bigger, truly powerful cars is now complete: It is a rite of passage that many young drivers fail for lack of bravado, but the Bandit, as he quickly became known in Hoosierland, was ready for Indy.