Indy 500 Field Filled Despite Rain

Monday, May 20th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ After two weeks of frustration, Team Kool Green placed all three of its cars into the Indianapolis 500 field as rain disrupted the last day of qualifying.

Two-time winner Arie Luyendyk and two of A.J. Foyt's drivers found the speed they had been lacking all month. And Billy Boat squeaked in for the second straight year Sunday when the final nine spots in the starting grid were filled.

``Last week, I scratched my head, and I think we all did,'' said Michael Andretti, one of the three teammates who drive for Barry Green. ``We were like, `Where did the speed go?'''

On a cool afternoon, ideal conditions for quick qualifying laps, the speed was back. So was the rain, which forced the qualifying to end 65 minutes early.

For much of the afternoon, though, drivers who had spent so much time searching for answers finally found them as the 33-car field for the May 26 race set an average qualifying record of 228.648 mph.

Before it rained, the big-name drivers who hadn't yet qualified for next Sunday's race made their move.

Luyendyk, a three-time pole-winner, was the fastest. His speed of 228.848 put him on the outside of the eighth row.

``Once you come flying around a corner, you wake up and say, 'We better do it today or we're going home,' `` Luyendyk said.

Nobody was ready for that, least of all Team Kool Green and A.J. Foyt.

Entering Sunday, Team Kool Green's non-qualified drivers, Paul Tracy and Dario Franchitti, and A.J. Foyt's three drivers _ Airton Dare, Greg Ray and Donnie Beechler _ all were pondering what had gone wrong.

The solution was a fast track.

Dare and Ray, a former pole-winner, will start 30th and 31st after reaching 227.760 and 227.155. Beechler never got an opportunity to qualify.

Tracy and Franchitti also improved dramatically. After not being able to exceed 226 mph on the first of three qualifying days last weekend, they earned the 27th and 28th starting spots after hitting 228.177 and 228.006.

Team Kool Green also pulled the day's surprising move _ withdrawing Andretti's already-qualified car so he could re-qualify in a backup car and eliminate the danger of being bumped.

The move allowed Billy Roe, who had been bumped out of the tentative field by George Mack, to be put back in the field briefly. Andretti, who re-qualified at 228.713, 2 mph faster than his Pole Day speed, then bumped Roe again.

Roe became the first Indy driver since 1971 to be bumped twice in the same car.

``We wanted to get it over with,'' said Andretti, son of 1969 Indy winner Mario Andretti. ``I have too many gray hairs from days like this. My opinion was to go now because the conditions were the same and we knew we could do it.''

Andretti, though, did lose two starting spots and will now start from the inside of the ninth row instead of the middle of the eighth row.

The only first-day qualifier with a slower speed than Andretti was Boat, who spent most of the afternoon hoping for rain after crashing his backup car during the morning practice. Boat's 226.589 held up _ barely.

Roe gambled that rain would keep him in the field with a 212.283, more than 14 mph slower than anybody else.

But Mack, who was recovering from vertigo and an upset stomach, knocked Roe from the field with a 227.150 and became only the second black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Willy T. Ribbs started the race in 1991 and 1993.

``I'm going to get a filet mignon and probably some sleep,'' Mack said, describing how he would celebrate his first Indy start.

Then Boat, who survived 48 minutes and 12 attempts to knock him out of the race in qualifying last year, was back on the bubble.

``We were guessing 226.5 or so would be the bump speed,'' team co-owner Cary Agajanian said.

``Next year I'm guessing a little higher,'' said Boat, who became the fourth driver to have the slowest qualifying speed in back-to-back years and the first since 1968.

Sunday, however, was dominated by the speed many drivers _ including Luyendyk, Tracy and Franchitti _ suddenly found.

``The first week, we were running around in circles,'' said Tracy, who will start his fifth Indy. ``It wasn't till we had a couple of days off that we knew what to do. Now that we're in the race, I think we've got as good a chance as anybody to win it.''