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An Unqualified Success At The Qualifying

With Rick Mears on the pole and Kevin Cogan next to him, team Penske is sitting pretty for the 500

Among the speed records set at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during time trials Saturday, there was an unofficial one that said as much as anything about the way things went. It was the mark for the fastest resolution of the battle for the pole position. At 11:11 a.m., nine minutes after time trials had begun, they were, for all practical purposes, over. That was how long it took for Kevin Cogan and Rick Mears of the Penske team to run four laps apiece and confirm what the 63 other drivers had suspected all week. Cogan averaged 204.082 mph and Mears 207.004 to put the pole out of reach of the rest of the field. Each drove a new Penske-Cosworth, Cogan's named the Norton Spirit and Mears's the Gould Charge, and each set single- and four-lap qualifying records, although Cogan's only lasted until Mears, the 1979 winner of the 500, broke them.

All week during practice no one could touch the Penske times. The Penske backup car was faster than anyone else's No. 1 machine; in fact, that was the car the 26-year-old Cogan ended up using in qualifying, after the engine seized in his faster No. 1 car in practice about an hour before the trials began.

Filling out the front row was a man who has raced at Indy almost as many times as Cogan has celebrated his birthday. A.J. Foyt, driving a March-Cosworth at 203.332 mph, qualified for his 25th straight 500 in a wind gusty enough to give even him a thrill. The only other cars to cause Mears and Cogan to look over their shoulders were the STP team Wildcat-Cosworths of Mario Andretti and Gordon Johncock, who qualified for the second row at 203.172 and 201.884 mph, respectively.

The fact that Roger Penske's drivers had drawn second and fourth in the qualifying order (they actually went first and second, because Bill Alsup, who had picked the first spot in a blind draw on Friday, and Bobby Rahal, in the third position, had passed) was a portent that wasn't really necessary. The drivers had the only omen they needed after Mears's 11th lap on his first day of practice, when he hit 203.7, .08 mph faster than the one-lap qualifying record set in 1978 by Tom Sneva before a rule change restricting turbocharger boost. Penske's new cars, model number PC-10, had been ready since last October and had 3,000 miles of testing on them by the opening of the CART season on March 28. Foyt summed up what all the non-Penske drivers faced when he said, "The rest of us are trying to do as much in six days as Penske took six months to do." Then Foyt compared the handling of his own March-Cosworth to Mears's PC-10. He raised a hand and made smooth and swoopy motions as he traced the imaginary path of Mears's car through Turn 1. Then the hand began shaking as if Foyt had the DTs. That was A.J. going through the same turn. And Andretti had already said that in trying to approach Mears's practice speeds he was having to take deep breaths down the straights to psych himself for the turns. Said three-time winner Johnny Rutherford, "Complacency. That's what got us all so far behind. At least that's the case at Chaparral. We really believed our 4-year-old car could be competitive." The Chaparral folks could not have been more wrong: Rutherford qualified only 12th fastest, at 197.066 mph.

Each year the Brickyard seems to spawn a golden boy, a driver who's young, handsome and, above all, fast. Four years ago it was Mears; this year it is his new teammate, Cogan. In the 1981 500 Cogan finished fourth as a rookie, but he was overlooked for Rookie of the Year because of the dashing Mexican, Josele Garza, who won the award after leading the 500 for 13 laps before crashing. Penske didn't overlook Cogan's performance. When Bobby Unser, driving for Penske last year, won his third 500 and retired—to manage Garza's team—Penske hired Cogan as his replacement.

Although Cogan has been paying his racing dues for 10 years, he shows no signs of wear; he looks even younger than 26, with an every-hair-in-place handsomeness that fits the mission-control image of Penske racing. But more important than the image, Cogan has the Penske do-whatever-it-takes attitude. He began racing in high school, financing his cars by hustle and shrewdness. As a 17-year-old he got his first look at an electronic video game—the seminal Pong—and saw it as his ticket to motor racing. He bought one of the machines, installed it in a bar for half the profits it generated, bought more machines as the game's popularity spread and made thousands in his senior year at West High in Torrance, Calif. He used his earnings to race his first Formula Ford. Then, after two years of studying marketing at El Camino Junior College, he borrowed $50,000 to continue racing, with no means to repay it beyond confidence in himself. He scratched along for the next few years. Despite notable success in the Formula Atlantic road-racing series, none of the front-line teams took much notice of Cogan. He was at an alltime low just a year ago, tired of second-rate cars and ready to quit. "If nothing else, I figured it all had been a character-building experience," he says, having been fairly confident that he could always become a Pong magnate, or something. Then 1963 Indy winner Parnelli Jones stepped into the picture. As he had touted Mears, then an off-road racer, to Penske five years earlier, and Unser to Andy Granatelli 12 years before that, Jones helped Cogan get an Indy ride last year.

Still, that such an inexperienced Indy driver could blow the doors off the likes of Foyt and Andretti made people wonder how much of Cogan's speed in last week's practices was driver, how much car. It was a reasonable question. In the two Indy car races to date this year, Mears has set two track qualifying records in the PC-10 and run away with the races. The car was designed at Penske's shop in England by Geoff Ferris, nicknamed Pencil by his crew, a truly retiring man who would probably make himself invisible if he could. Ferris began working at the drawing board in his office over the Penske race shop almost before his previous car, the PC-9B, had left Victory Circle at Indy last year. In November the PC-10 was ready to test.

Says Cogan, who would have two crashes during the testing, "After our first session at Atlanta we had gone five miles an hour quicker than Rutherford's pole-position time there the previous year. We all just went, 'Heh, heh' and rolled our eyes at each other. At the next test we destroyed the track record at Phoenix. Then we began to let ourselves think the car was for real."

The most striking thing about the PC-10—other than the fact that it goes around Indy at 207 miles an hour—is its nose, long and thin and sharp like a stiletto. That nose gives a clue—to a designer, at least—to the car's hidden attributes. It's long and sharp to slice the air and push it around to and underneath the car's sidepods; when the air speeds under the pods, a vacuum is created that sucks the car to the ground. The nose is narrow to allow the pods themselves to be wider and provide a larger vacuum area. Underneath the car, the aluminum tub of the monocoque chassis is a mere 18 inches wide—more or less; the exact width is a design secret.

The practice week at Indy had been so lopsided that all the excitement was within the Penske pits. The other teams were working too frantically for any drama. Mears and Cogan, though they have hit it off well personally, formed an immediate rivalry. Says Mears, "That's one of the reasons Penske likes to have two drivers, to keep that competition going." Every time Mears made a hot lap, Cogan was right there to match or better it. Mears went 203, Cogan went 204. Mears went 205.8, Cogan went 206.3. Cogan sat out Thursday while the crew changed his engine, and Mears stayed out on the track all day, until he finally hit 206.8. "We can't get him to stop running," said Ferris jokingly. Said Mears of Cogan that night, "He's good. He's real good. He's scaring me, he's so good."

At 1:15 on Friday, when the air temperature was a horsepower-robbing 88°, Cogan turned in his own scorcher: 207.8. Mears couldn't beat it in the heat of the afternoon, but at 5:30 p.m. he turned a ferocious 208.7. But even as the crowd roared with the announcement of the speed, Penske, ever the perfectionist, wasn't smiling. He was dissatisfied because Mears's speed on the front straight, as measured by radar, was three mph slower than Cogan's: 210 vs. 213. That indicated Mears's engine was weak. Too slow! "We've got to change the engine tonight, put in a better one," Penske grumbled. Derrick Walker, Penske's Scottish race manager, chuckled. "Getting greedy, aren't we?" he said. "We want to get off the speed conversion chart [which calculates miles per hour from lap times and ends at 209.3]. We want to see those suckers print a new one."

Saturday the rivalry for the pole ended in the warmup session when Cogan's engine seized and he had to switch to the backup car. And with his new engine Mears did "only" 207, and didn't get off the chart. But each had a comment on the intensity of qualifying.

Cogan: "You're definitely white-knuckling it. I don't look forward to doing too many laps in a row. Four laps at 206 or so and you'll be able to wheel me away for a couple hours."

Mears: "In the race you do what the car wants you to do for 500 miles, which is relatively easy. In qualifying you try to get the car to do what you want it to for four laps."

The car rarely cooperates. Sometimes it turns vicious. Sometimes it kills you, as it did Gordon Smiley. One hour after Mears and Cogan had made their record runs, Smiley, 33, a Texan in his third Indy appearance, began to slide out in Turn 3 as he tried to get a flying start for the first of his four qualifying laps. When Smiley corrected, his March-Cosworth shot head-on into the wall at about 190 mph. The car disintegrated into little pieces of metal and big balls of fire, and with it went the life of a man who was doing what he wanted to do.

Danny Ongais could tell you about that. Ongais crashed in 1981 against almost the same spot, but his car had hit at an angle and slid along the wall. The chassis of his car withstood the impact; the fireball stayed behind him. Among other injuries, his right leg was shattered. During his eight months of rehabilitation, Ongais says that quitting never entered his mind. This year he qualified ninth, at 199.148 mph, still limping.

Mears could also tell you about wanting to race so much that little else matters. "I'm so lucky to be racing that sometimes it scares me," he says. Last year at Indy his car caught fire during a refueling stop. The invisible flames of burning methanol licked inside his helmet and played on his face. Five weeks later, with an unhealed nose, he drove again and won two 125-mile races in one day at Atlanta. He went on to win four more—and the CART championship. He has had plastic surgery done on the nose and needs more. The reason Mears hasn't had another operation is that he has been too busy doing what he most wants to do.

Mears and Ongais and Smiley all had that in common. Mears and Ongais were fortunate enough to have lived to prove how much they want to race. Smiley paid for it, but he was getting his money's worth when it happened.


Mears poleaxed Cogan, averaging a record 207.004 mph in his needle-nosed PC-10.


Penske (center) has high hopes Mears or Cogan will give him his fourth Indy 500 win.


Smiley's car slammed into the Turn 3 wall at 190 mph. The driver was dead in the wreckage of the cockpit even as the rear of the car caromed in flames down the track.