Motor Racing: Strange days in snake pit

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The Independent Online
THE RAINS came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway yesterday, spoiling the party in the Snake Pit.

A grassy section of the infield on the exit of the fearsome Turn One, the Pit is home to a bunch of people who look and sound less like race fans than delegates to a Grateful Dead road crew reunion. As far as the Snake Pit is concerned, if you're wearing more than a pair of cut-off Levi's, a bunch of tattoos and a woozy smile, you're overdressed.

Since a row of grandstands was built there a few years ago, the Snake Pit's reputation has declined along with its acreage. 'That was one place for a party,' a veteran gateman said fondly yesterday. 'You could get anything there, from a ripe red apple to a social disease.' But while the sun shone on Saturday's qualifying sessions for this year's Indianapolis 500, the sound of redneck rock 'n' roll rose along with barbecue smoke and beery odours from among the Confederate flags and rusting pick-up trucks.

Overnight storms persisted yesterday morning, keeping the track damp until lunchtime. Then, slowly, the afternoon sun dried it out. But on a track where aerodynamics are critical, a fresh wind eddying between the grandstands blew away the chances of any driver who had not already found a place on the grid for next Sunday's big race. This was good news for Bobby Rahal, in particular. The bespectacled Ohio car dealer, winner of the 500 in 1986 and the reigning Indycar series champion, was the slowest of the 32 men and one woman who placed their cars on the provisional grid during the first three days of trials, and thus the first in line to be bumped off it by a faster qualifier.

The overnight grid included nine drivers with grand prix experience, four of them - Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell - former world champions. The mix of nationalities in what was once an all-American sport is impressive: the 19 Americans are joined by three Brazilians, two Britons, two Canadians, a Swede, a Dutchman, an Italian, a Colombian, a Frenchman, an Australian, and the Japanese heir to the Panasonic empire. Piquet, who smashed his legs in practice here last year so badly that he has not raced since, had more bad luck on Saturday night when, driving away from the circuit, his BMW was T- boned by a woman in a Chevy Nova. 'She was definitely at fault,' said Patrolman John Moore of the Indianapolis Police Department.

Two more refugees from Formula One, Eddie Cheever and Olivier Grouillard, were among those swept away in the hectic last hour of Saturday evening, when the two cars entered by the newly retired A J Foyt finally made the grid, in the hands of Robby Gordon, a 24-year-old hotshoe from Orange, California, and John Andretti, the 30-year-old nephew of Mario, cousin of Michael and John, and godson of Foyt.

Foyt, who is 58, won the 500 four times in 35 appearances, and only decided against running a 36th time during the first weekend of qualifications this year. Instead, the legendary Texan put his godson in the car. Andretti, an experienced but underrated racer, has been finding it difficult to get a drive since being given his papers by the Pennzoil team last season. Until his godfather stepped in, he had spent the week helping get the cars of Hiro Matsushita and Willy T Ribbs up to speed and on to the grid, proving to both drivers that their machines were capable of averaging more than 220mph around the two-and-a-half- mile super-speedway. In Foyt's car, he recorded a four-lap average of 221.746mph, sixth fastest overall.

No one is about to call Foyt a fairy godfather, though. Surrounded by a pit crew resembling Elvis Presley's Memphis mafia, the leathery old champion looked completely at home wielding a spanner on Gordon's car. Later he was invited to reflect on the waves of emotion that followed the announcement of his decision to quit the cockpit. 'Some of my true friends told me they were glad I wasn't going to die with my helmet on,' he said. 'Now I'll probably get knocked down crossing the road.' The Snake Pit reckons the truck has not been born that would dare try itself against ol' AJ.

INDIANAPOLIS 500 Provisional grid (US unless stated): 1 A Luyendyk (Neth), Lola-Ford, 223.967mph; 2 M Andretti, Lola-Ford, 223.414; 3 R Boesel (Bra), Lola-Ford, 222.379; 4 S Goodyear (Can), Lola-Ford, 222.344; 5 A Unser Jr, Lola-Chevrolet, 221.773; 6 S Johansson (Swe), Penske-Chevrolet, 220.824; 7 P Tracy (Can), Penske-Chevrolet, 220.298; 8 N Mansell (GB), Lola-Ford, 220.255; 9 E Fittipaldi (Bra), Penske-Chevrolet, 220.150; 10 R Guerrero (Col), Lola-Chevrolet, 219.645; 11 S Brayton, Lola-Ford, 219.637; 12 D Sullivan, Lola-Chevrolet, 219 428; 13 N Piquet (Bra), Lola-Menard, 217.949; 14 K Cogan, Lola-Chevrolet, 217.230; 15 S Gregoire (Fra), Lola-Buick, 220.851; 16 Jeff Andretti, Lola-Buick, 220.572; 17 T Fabi (It), Lola- Chevrolet, 220.514; 18 G Bettenhausen, Lola-Menard, 220.380; 19 J Vasser, Lola-Ford, 218.967; 20 S Fox, Lola- Buick, 218.765; 21 L St James, Lola-Ford, 218.042; 22 T Bettenhausen, Penske-Chevrolet, 218.034; 23 A Unser, Lola-Chevrolet, 217.453; 24 B Rahal, Rahal-Hogan-Chevrolet, 217.140; 25 John Andretti, Lola-Ford, 221.746; 26 R Gordon, Lola-Ford, 220.085; 27 H Matsushita (Jap), Lola- Ford, 219.949; 28 D Dobson, Galmer-Chevrolet, 218.776; 29 D Jones, Lola-Chevrolet, 218.416; 30 Geoff Brabham (Australia), Lola-Menard, 217.800; 31 W Ribbs, Lola-Ford, 217.711; 32 J Crawford (GB), Lola-Chevrolet, 217.612; 33 M Smith, Penske-Chevrolet, 217.150.