Ganassi qualifies four for Indy

Posted: Monday, May 14, 2001

INDIANAPOLIS -- Chip Ganassi has an enviable predicament, trying to find enough people to crew four cars in the Indianapolis 500.

Late entries Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian, rookies who didn't even know they would be racing here until late the previous day, got up to speed in a hurry Sunday and joined teammates Tony Stewart and Jimmy Vasser in the field for the May 27 race.

Asked where he would find enough help to pit his cars -- the most in the Memorial Day Weekend classic since Team Scandia had five starters in 1997 -- car owner Ganassi grinned and shrugged.

''I'll be damned if I know,'' he said. ''But isn't this a nice problem to have?''

Junqueira and Minassian, who got up to speed in a hurry during the morning, completed four-lap, 10-mile qualifying runs within moments of the opening of the second of three days of qualifications at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Scott Sharp won the pole Saturday at 226.037 mph.

Junqueira, a Brazilian, had Sunday's fastest average at 224.208, which would have placed him 10th had he run it on Saturday, when 27 cars qualified. Minassian, a Frenchman, also made it look easy at 223.006.

Both tested here briefly, and took part in the orientation program last month. They passed their rookie tests, although Minassian crashed hard when a part in the rear of his car broke.

''You just have to get in and do it,'' Minassian said.

Junqueira didn't have to do much work.

''I'm happy because the speed came really fast,'' he said.

Michael Andretti, 1998 Indy winner Eddie Cheever and Buzz Calkins, all in danger ouf being bumped by faster qualifiers, withdrew the cars they put in the tentative field on Saturday and moved solidly into the lineup on Sunday with backup cars.

Andretti raised his 220.747 of the previous day to 223.441 near the end of the session. Cheever followed by raising his Saturday speed of 220.513 to 222.152, while Calkins went from 220.039 -- the slowest qualifier so far -- to 222.786.

''It's tough, it's high pressure,'' said Andretti, CART's all-time leading race winner who is returning to Indy for the first time since the CART-Indy Racing League rivalry began in 1996. ''We're finally in the show for sure.

''I thought yesterday when I talked to you guys, we were in the show pretty solidly, but then everyone put in some good times. It was pretty stressful, and I didn't sleep a lot last night.''

Other qualifiers Sunday were Jaret Schroeder (222.786) and Davey Hamilton (221.696), both of whom had crashed earlier in the week, and Tyce Carlson (220.480). The field average stood at 222.976 and Roberto Guerrero was the slowest of the 32 qualified drivers at 220.054.

Several other drivers aborted slow attempts on Sunday and Eliseo Salazar, driving for A.J. Foyt, winner of four races here as a driver and one as an owner, blew an engine on the last turn of the fourth lap as he appeared to be cruising toward a 222-plus run. Salazar, a five-time Indy starter, also crashed both Friday and Saturday.

That left one more spot to fill in the 33-car field next Sunday, the final day of time trials. Once the lineup is complete, faster cars can bump out the slowest qualifiers until the end of time trials at 7 p.m. EDT that day.

There was no pressure for Ganassi on Sunday. He was simply enjoying his team's effortless-looking performance over the weekend.

It's just the latest coup for the former Indy car driver -- the fastest rookie here in 1982 -- whose team has won four CART championships and 44 races, including Indy in 1989 and 2000.

A year ago, Ganassi broke ranks with his fellow team owners and came back to Indy, ending a four-year boycott of the rival IRL's centerpiece race by CART's top teams and drivers.

Juan Montoya gave him a dominating victory and Vasser a solid seventh-place finish.

This month, Ganassi has been joined by fellow CART team owner Roger Penske, a 10-time Indy winner whose regular drivers -- series champion Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves -- were among Saturday's qualifiers.

Montoya went to Formula One and Vasser was cut loose by Ganassi at the end of last season. He hired Junqueira and Minassian, who had finished 1-2 last year in the European Formula 3000 series.

With neither of his regular drivers having any oval racing experience -- and races in Brazil and Texas canceled -- Ganassi decided to let the rookies concentrate on the CART race next Sunday in Motegi, Japan.

But Ganassi changed his mind after Stewart and Vasser got in the field so easily. Both Junqueira and Minassian were driving out of the speedway on Saturday when they received calls to return and begin preparations to race.

''It just came as a surprise, but it's a good one,'' Minassian said. ''It's exciting. Everywhere you go in Indianapolis is racing. I go to the supermarket and racing is everywhere.''

Junqueira agreed, saying, ''I was ready to race here and then I was ready to race in Japan and now I'm ready to race in both. This is a very special track for everyone. The Indy 500 is the biggest race in the world and I think everyone agrees.''

Ganassi enticed Stewart, a former IRL regular and now a NASCAR star, to try the difficult double of racing in both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 Winston Cup event in Concord, N.C., on the same day. Then Ganassi talked CART team owner Pat Patrick into letting him rehire Vasser for this race.

''Looking back on the whole thing, it was difficult to tell those young guys they weren't going to be in the race,'' Ganassi said. ''Obviously, we were counting on Tony and Jimmy. We talked to our two rookies at 3 o'clock yesterday afternoon and told them we were going to stick them in the cars and see what they can do.

''They showed us what they could do by putting the cars solidly in the field after just a handful of practice laps. But my hat is off to Tony Stewart and Jimmy Vasser. They did the work to get the guys into the show. Without them, it wouldn't have been possible.''

Not only did the veterans get the team's Oldsmobile-powered G Force cars up to speed, both stuck around to help Junqueira and Minassian find their way around the demanding, 2 1/2-mile Indy oval.

''Jimmy and Tony gave me a good car and the car did it,'' said Junqueira, who won the pole position a week ago in Nazareth, Pa., in his first oval race. ''I have a lack of experience on ovals, and it's important here to run a lot and have a good car.''



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