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An Unqualified Success At The Qualifying
Sam Moses
May 24, 1982
With Rick Mears on the pole and Kevin Cogan next to him, team Penske is sitting pretty for the 500
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May 24, 1982

An Unqualified Success At The Qualifying

With Rick Mears on the pole and Kevin Cogan next to him, team Penske is sitting pretty for the 500

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At 1:15 on Friday, when the air temperature was a horsepower-robbing 88°, Cogan turned in his own scorcher: 207.8. Mears couldn't beat it in the heat of the afternoon, but at 5:30 p.m. he turned a ferocious 208.7. But even as the crowd roared with the announcement of the speed, Penske, ever the perfectionist, wasn't smiling. He was dissatisfied because Mears's speed on the front straight, as measured by radar, was three mph slower than Cogan's: 210 vs. 213. That indicated Mears's engine was weak. Too slow! "We've got to change the engine tonight, put in a better one," Penske grumbled. Derrick Walker, Penske's Scottish race manager, chuckled. "Getting greedy, aren't we?" he said. "We want to get off the speed conversion chart [which calculates miles per hour from lap times and ends at 209.3]. We want to see those suckers print a new one."

Saturday the rivalry for the pole ended in the warmup session when Cogan's engine seized and he had to switch to the backup car. And with his new engine Mears did "only" 207, and didn't get off the chart. But each had a comment on the intensity of qualifying.

Cogan: "You're definitely white-knuckling it. I don't look forward to doing too many laps in a row. Four laps at 206 or so and you'll be able to wheel me away for a couple hours."

Mears: "In the race you do what the car wants you to do for 500 miles, which is relatively easy. In qualifying you try to get the car to do what you want it to for four laps."

The car rarely cooperates. Sometimes it turns vicious. Sometimes it kills you, as it did Gordon Smiley. One hour after Mears and Cogan had made their record runs, Smiley, 33, a Texan in his third Indy appearance, began to slide out in Turn 3 as he tried to get a flying start for the first of his four qualifying laps. When Smiley corrected, his March-Cosworth shot head-on into the wall at about 190 mph. The car disintegrated into little pieces of metal and big balls of fire, and with it went the life of a man who was doing what he wanted to do.

Danny Ongais could tell you about that. Ongais crashed in 1981 against almost the same spot, but his car had hit at an angle and slid along the wall. The chassis of his car withstood the impact; the fireball stayed behind him. Among other injuries, his right leg was shattered. During his eight months of rehabilitation, Ongais says that quitting never entered his mind. This year he qualified ninth, at 199.148 mph, still limping.

Mears could also tell you about wanting to race so much that little else matters. "I'm so lucky to be racing that sometimes it scares me," he says. Last year at Indy his car caught fire during a refueling stop. The invisible flames of burning methanol licked inside his helmet and played on his face. Five weeks later, with an unhealed nose, he drove again and won two 125-mile races in one day at Atlanta. He went on to win four more—and the CART championship. He has had plastic surgery done on the nose and needs more. The reason Mears hasn't had another operation is that he has been too busy doing what he most wants to do.

Mears and Ongais and Smiley all had that in common. Mears and Ongais were fortunate enough to have lived to prove how much they want to race. Smiley paid for it, but he was getting his money's worth when it happened.

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