For several days, the world of auto racing has savored the exciting and fortuitous finish to this year's Indianapolis 500. Exciting because Gordon Johncock held off hard-charging Rick Mears by a car length; fortuitous because the close finish served to obscure several bizarre events that preceded it.
Chief among these were two pace lap crashes that delayed the start 45 minutes and knocked Mario Andretti, among others, out of the running. During the race itself, defective fuel nozzles ruined pit stops for A. J. Foyt and Tom Sneva at what seemed crucial moments, while Mears accidentally tail-ended a competitor in the pit area on another occasion.
Add to this the usual spinouts, numerous mechanical breakdowns, and concerns about ground-effect cars losing their grip on the track and the 21/2-mile oval resembled a theater of the absurd. At the finish, only eight cars were still running.
It is logical to wonder what the future of Indy will or should be. As an unabashed spectacle, the 500 has few peers, but it comes dangerously close to being nothing more.
If not too fast, today's cars are too temperamental, or their drivers too inexperienced, to be whirling around a track built seven decades ago. The brickyard has been paved over since then, but the winning speed has more than doubled. This year's field was the fastest ever, with eight 200 mph qualifiers.
At those and even lesser speeds, Indy's concrete retaining walls can be terribly unforgiving. A long list of fatalities soberly testifies to that.
The public, of course, is fascinated by pure speed, which is the main allure of this otherwise monotonous race. Consequently the pace is destined to become faster even though the cars are little more than a blur now.
The power needed to attain these higher speeds puts a premium on driving experience. Yet it is sadly lacking at Indy, where nine rookies sat on this year's 33-car starting grid. A rookie's car is designated by stripes on the wing, so a veteran will know to pass with caution. But that can't be much comfort, and something really needs to be done to toughen qualifying standards.
Andretti and Foyt were especially upset with Kevin Cogan. Though last year's top rookie, Cogan lost control accelerating on the pace lap, sideswiped Foyt, and cut off Andretti, who broadsided him. Just how competent Cogan and other young drivers are is hard to judge. However, scant few Indy-style races makes it hard for them to gain the necessary experience.
Formula One racing is beginning to take on a European look in this country, with winding circuits through city streets replacing closed track events. Long Beach, Calif., has become the Monte Carlo of California, and Cleveland and Detroit will host similar races. Maybe the time has come for Indy to consider some radical changes. Keep the traditional oval, but incorporate major portions of it into a new circuit that would snake around the current Speedway grounds. At the same time, limit the field to, say, 20 cars. The result should be a slower, safer, yet infinitely more enjoyble race to watch. Latest Swede sensation
Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert Lloyd, and John McEnroe all made their initial tennis splash at major tournaments. Many observers at the French Open wonder if Mats Wilander is following in their sneaker steps. The Swedish 17-year-old rocked the tennis world by upsetting Ivan Lendl and Vitas Gerulaitis in successive matches to reach the French semifinals.
In his first five-set match ever, last year's French junior champion beat Lendl, who had won 92 of his previous 95 matches. Then he used his steady baseline game and deadly passing shots to eliminate Gerulaitis.
Based on his play in Paris, Wilander will surely find himself in the limelight if he plays at Wimbledon later this month. Though his game might not suited to grass, tournament officials would consider him a welcome addition to a men's field that will be without Borg, Lendl, and several top players. Haden calls it quits
Quarterback Pat Haden supposedly took a look at new Los Angeles acquisition Bert Jones throwing spirals in a recent mini-camp and decided to retire from pro football. That the announcement was news at all is a credit to Haden's NFL accomplishments. Despite being a seventh round draft choice once considered too small for the pro ranks, he regularly guided LA to the playoffs.
Debate has long surrounded LA's quarterback selections and Haden came in for his share of public criticism. He handled the situation well, though, and now leaves the game with dignity. A Rhodes Scholar, he will turn his attention to a law practice and work as a college football commentator.