Motor Racing: Unser Jnr on track for new ring at the magic oval: Half a million will tomorrow flock to the Indianapolis 500, where 32 cars and a concrete wall stand between Nigel Mansell and glory

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The Independent Online
ON THE day Americans honour their war dead a local clergyman in Indiana will say a special prayer for 32 men and one woman who face the ultimate motor racing test tomorrow. On a two-and-a-half mile unforgiving concrete track they hope to survive three hours plus of intense drama and dangers with their life and limbs intact. Welcome to the Indy 500.

It is certainly not for the faint-hearted which is why for one weekend high-powered cars captivate half a million spectators, the world's biggest sporting audience, who are drawn to the notorious Motor Speedway Arena to cheer on the turbo-charged rockets called IndyCars.

This is the place where the buck stops, millions of them thrown at the drivers as the Americans go crazy with sponsorship.

To the winner goes the impressive 5ft high, 80lb Borg Warner trophy, a dollars 100,000 Warner winner's cheque and a diamond-studded ring. Al Unser Jnr, last year's winner, hardly takes his ring off. 'Money can't buy this,' he said proudly fingering the ring. 'It's the same as the Green Jacket worn by the golfer who wins the American Masters. Hopefully, I can replace it on Sunday with the new one because mine's a little scratched.'

Unser's father, big Al, four times the Indy 500 champion, is 54 today and still driving in the race. 'I grew up watching dad wear a ring on his finger. It makes me feel good that I've got one just like his,' Al Jnr added.

For this weekend some television stations will push aside the basketball and baseball coverage to screen action from the brickyard beast. The Indy track is not a place for claustrophobics. One dollar bus rides around the track may feel comfortable going at speeds of 20 mph as huge spectator stands hover over you. But place 500,000 bodies in those seats as you speed around at 230mph inches away from the concrete wall and suddenly it all closes in on you.

The crowd, on the other side of the huge safety fence, will have a carnival. The girls appear to be vying to see who can wear the skimpiest shorts while the men flex their suntanned muscles holding the obligatory can of Budweiser.

The Americans call it the greatest spectacle in the world, and few here would disagree, certainly not Nigel Mansell, Britain's world Formula One champion, who admits he is taking on the greatest challenge of his motor racing life.

The 39-year-old Mansell is not expected to win in his Ford Cosworth driven Lola but promises to give it his best shot. 'I think there's no question you must treat it with the utmost respect. It's the fastest race circuit in the world, period. From my own point of view it's going to be the biggest challenge of my life,' he said.

Unser Jnr, who is still a little upset by the way his Long Beach race was ended last month when Mansell blocked him into the wall, refused to give the Briton any last-minute advice. But the Colombian Roberto Guerrero, who in 1987 hit the wall here in a tyre test and woke up 17 days later from a coma, believes the now narrower track and modified cars will suit Mansell.

'Everyone's on par here because there's no advantage for any driver because of the changes. Last year I could have given him lots of advice but he knows as much about this track now as the rest of us,' Guerrero said.

Mansell's last experience of an oval race ended with him crashing into the Phoenix wall at 180mph on the second day of practice. Rick Mears, the retired four-times Indy 500 winner, argues that Mansell must learn from what happened. 'At Phoenix he ran out of patience and that's part of problem,' Mears said. 'But that was a learning experience for him. Basically, it's going to be the same here as Indy. He's going to need to have some patience, take small steps; roll into the corners, not turn into them.'

If Mansell is not able to survive the sheer physical presence of this marathon event then the favourite to win the race is his own Newman-Haas team-mate, Mario Andretti, who starts on the front row of the grid and can call on 30 years' experience and his 1969 Indy 500 triumph to see him through to the chequered flag.

Unser Jnr will also be a threat from the second row having tasted that triumph last year, as will Paul Tracy, the young Canadian in the Joe 90 specs who will be fired up from winning his first IndyCar race at last month's Long Beach Grand Prix.

A unique atmosphere is guaranteed by the avalanche of hype and hoopla that puts the Formula One circus in the shade. The Americans whip up the atmosphere with star-bangled frenzy. The biggest bass drum in the world is rolled out by the Purdue University Band to play a succession of patriotic numbers, and a lone bugler will blast out taps before Indy's own national anthem 'Back home again in Indiana' is sung. Then, at precisely 10.51am the immortalised motor-racing words are spoken: 'Lady and Gentlemen start your engines.' The action begins exactly nine minutes later when the green flag drops for the start of the 77th Indianapolis 500.

INDIANAPOLIS 500 STARTING GRID: Row 1: No 10 A Luyendyk (Neth) 1991 Lola-Ford Cosworth 223.967mph; 6 M Andretti (US) 1993 Lola-Ford Cosworth 223.414; 9 R Boesel (Bra) 1993 Lola-Ford Cosworth 222.379. Row 2: 2 S Goodyear (Can) 1993 Lola-Ford Cosworth, 222.344; 3 Al Unser Jnr (US) 1993 Lola-Chevy C 221.773; 16 *S Johansson (Swe) 1993 Penske-Chevy C 220.824. Row 3: 12 P Tracy (Can) 1993 Penske-Chevy C 220.298; 5 *N Mansell (GB) 1993 Lola-Ford Cosworth 220.255; 4 E Fittipaldi (Bra) 1993 Penske-Chevy C 220.150. Row 4: 40 R Guerrero (US) 1993 Lola-Chevy C 219.645; 22 S Brayton (US) 1993 Lola-Ford Cosworth 219.637; 7 D Sullivan (US) 1993 Lola-Chevy C 219.428. Row 5: 77 *N Piquet (Bra) 1993 Lola-Menard 217.949; 11 K Cogan (US) 1993 Lola-Chevy C 217.230; 36 *S Gregoire (Fr) 1992 Lola-Buick 220.851. Row 6: 21 Jeff Andretti (US) 1992 Lola-Buick 220.572; 8 T Fabi (It) 1993 Lola-Chevy C 220.514; 51 G Bettenhausen (US) 1993 Lola-Menard 220.380. Row 7: 18 J Vasser (US) 1992 Lola-Ford Cosworth 218.967; 91 S Fox (US) 1992 Lola-Buick 218.765; 90 L St James (US) 1993 Lola-Ford Cosworth 218.042. Row 8: 76 T Bettenhausen (US) 1993 Penske-Chevy C 218.034; 80 Al Unser Snr, (US) 1993 Lola-Chevy C 217.453; 84 John Andretti (US) 1992 Lola-Ford Cosworth 221.746. Row 9: 41 *R Gordon (US) 1993 Lola-Ford Cosworth 220.085; 15 H Matsushita (Japan) 1993 Lola-Ford Cosworth 219.949; 66 D Dobson (US) 1992 Lola-Chevrolet A 218.776. Row 10: 50 D Jones (US) 1992 Lola-Chevy A 218.416; 27 Geoff Brabham (Aus) 1993 Lola-Menard 217.800; 75 W T Ribbs (US) 1992 Lola-Ford Cosworth 217.711. Row 11: 60 J Crawford (GB) 1993 Lola-Chevy C 217.612; 92 D Theys (Bel) 1991 Lola-Buick 217.752; 59 E Cheever (US) 1992 Lola-Menard 217.599.

Ave speed: 219.692 mph.

*Denotes Indy 500 rookie.

(Graphic omitted)