Open race not such good idea

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – One driver calls it “dialing for dollars,” the annual rite of spring when underemployed racers go to the phones seeking a sponsor who will stake them to a ride at the Indianapolis 500.

In many ways, the idea is almost impossibly quaint: Any driver with moxie enough to find the money, a sponsor or even a family member willing to foot the bill can take part in “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing,” pretty much regardless of his record or credentials.

In the wake of IRL driver Paul Dana’s death this year, though, the notion of letting the inexperienced and the rusty into one of America’s top races is once again coming under scrutiny. Some think it’s the key safety issue for the Indy Racing League, which has set the trend in so many other areas involving safety and auto racing.

“Some guys have more experience than others,” said P.J. Jones, son of 1963 champion Parnelli Jones, who has bounced around in NASCAR and open-wheel over the years and will make his first start of 2006 on Sunday.

“Some guys are a little crazier than the others. We can all make mistakes, no matter what the experience.”

Dana’s accident during a warm-up lap before the race in Homestead was an eye-opener, though.

Here was a 30-year-old former racing reporter who worked his way up with some middling success in the Indy Pro Series, the triple-A league for IndyCar.

He had always dreamed of driving in the big-time and had worked as a mechanic, racing instructor and marketing rep. But was he ready when he debuted as a regular this year, taking his car for laps at 200 mph along the 1.5-mile oval at Homestead?

It appeared Dana never slowed down before he hit Ed Carpenter’s car, which had crashed moments before and bounced off the wall.

Did Dana see the caution lights flashing along the speedway walls, or listen to his spotter, who was trying to warn him of the wreck ahead? Would a more experienced veteran have seen all the clear signs that warn a driver of danger?

“I think Paul, obviously, progressed in the way any career progresses,” said Jeff Simmons, the 2002 Indy Pro League champion who took over Dana’s car after his death. “He earned his way here. He qualified ninth for that race against a good field. Unfortunately, he won’t get a chance to prove his detractors wrong.”

Among the other part-timers taking part in Sunday’s race are:

-Rookie Thiago Medeiros, who hasn’t done any steady racing since 2004 and qualified last of 33 cars after persistence and his own money helped him stay in the loop.

-Rookie Arie Luyendyk Jr., son of the two-time champion, whose dad helped finance this trip.

-Roger Yasukawa, a regular on the IRL last year who was without a ride this year until last week, when he replaced Jon Herb for Playa Del Racing.

-Airton Dare, who hasn’t raced with any regularity since 2003, but got funding from Sam Schmidt Motorsports to find his way to Indy this year.

-A.J. Foyt’s son, Larry, who has made it through a total of 68 of 400 laps over his first two races at Indy and said his goal this year isn’t winning, “but just to get to the checkered flag.”

“This is a tough place to learn how to drive this car,” Foyt said.

Of course, veterans and youngsters alike acknowledge the dangers and vagaries of race-car driving. Very few would admit to being afraid.

“But yeah, you keep an eye on who’s racing beside you,” said 1996 champion Buddy Lazier. “If it’s someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience, no, I don’t want to run with them. This is a risky sport. You only get a few opportunities in your life to be out there. You don’t want someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing to ruin that for you.”

The qualifying procedure for the Indy 500 is very different from that of most big-time sports. For a golfer to tee it up at the Masters, he must have a certain ranking on the money list or have won a major tournament in recent years. At Wimbledon, tennis players make it via their rankings, a few wild card spots and a few precious spots available to those who make it through a difficult circuit of qualifying matches. Even in NASCAR, where money can field a car, there are often more cars than spots available.

But at this year’s Indy 500, all 33 drivers who wanted to race will race come Sunday. Nobody got pushed off the bubble. There’s a good chance not all are ready to tackle Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 220 mph.

“If they can field a car out here, they deserve a ride as much as anyone,” Lazier said. “It’s not up to me to say who should and who shouldn’t be out there.”

And, as Tony Kanaan said, there’s only one way for inexperienced drivers to become experienced. By racing.

“You go out there thinking the people out there are very capable, regardless of their experience,” he said. “I’m not afraid to race against anyone. It’s auto racing. There’s going to be some danger no matter what.”

AP-ES-05-26-06 1831EDT

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