Seat-of-the-pants speed has always been the major attraction of the Indianapolis 500. And not just in the race itself, scheduled for May 27 this year, but also during the time trials, when being the fastest qualifier in a four-lap trip around the Speedway is its own reward.
The driver who wins the pole position achieves a lofty status and holds it for the two weeks leading up to the race. A substantial fortune accompanies the fame, too, with Tom Sneva, the latest pole sitter, in line to receive the annual flood of cash and prize bonuses.
Teo Fabi, a little known Italian driver when he arrived at Indy last year, says winning the pole changed his life. It didn't help him much in the race, though, as he wound up 26th in the 33-car field. Sitting on the inside of the first row is the best place to be, of course, making it easier to avoid dangerous congestion at the start and virtually assuring a contending position for some time, but it is far from a decisive advantage in a 200-lap event.
Sneva, a former school teacher who won last year's race, set a new qualifying record of 210.029 m.p.h. in the first weekend of qualifying. In 1977, when he also won the pole, he broke the Speedway's 200 m.p.h. barrier. Joining Sneva at the front of the starting grid will be teammate Howdy Holmes and Rick Mears, the 1979 winner.
While obviously no stranger to Indy's terrifying speeds, the reigning king of zing feels they could be reduced by 30 m.p.h. with no loss of excitement. ''We don't have to be going this fast to put on a good show for the people,'' Sneva said after qualifying. ''We've got to do what is good for the sport in general, and that's good, close, competitive racing.''
Slowing things down would make it easier for fans to follow the action, and, of course, safer for the drivers. This might be especially true during qualifying runs, when drivers are tempted to go for broke more than they would during the race.
''In qualifying,'' says ABC commentator and ex-driver Sam Posey, ''you are looking to keep the car balanced on the ragged edge every split second you're out there, which means more than three minutes of the most demanding concentration imaginable.
''During the race, with 33 cars and dense traffic on the track, the situation often controls how you drive. Therefore, many times you are running way below your potential simply because there is a car in the way and the opportunity to pass isn't immediately there.''
The race, which ABC will carry the same day on a delayed basis (9-12 p.m. EDT), attracts about 300,000 spectators each year. The time trials, with their unbridled speed, don't do badly either, with 150,000 showing up last weekend according to police estimates (the Speedway doesn't divulge attendance figures). Ultimate fun run
San Francisco's Bay to Breakers road race has been called a mobile Mardi Gras , and with good cause. Thousands of runners wear costumes in the 12K (7.46 miles) jaunt, that begins at the Embar-cadero, ends at the Pacific Ocean, and celebrates its 73rd anniversary Sunday.
The old Cross-City Race, now sponsored by the San Francisco Examiner, takes itself seriously up to a point, with 500 seeded athletes, including world-class runners, placed at the front of the field. But for many, this is purely a fun-loving romp. In fact, for nearly half the 80,000 to 100,000 participants, the Bay to Breakers represents their only race of the year.
Race organizers encourage a degree of sartorial lunacy by awarding prizes for the best individual and team costumes. The costumes become more elaborate all the time, with people dressed to resemble everything from an Oreo cookie to the Transamerica Pyramid. A group of 13 college students, entered in the ''centipede division,'' have even run as a 132-foot long, mechanical Bay Bridge.
Touching other bases
* The Boston Celtics heaved a sigh of relief when they finally closed out the New York Knicks in a tense, seven-game NBA playoff battle. The quarterfinal series, which the Celtics won to set up their current Eastern Conference shootout with Milwaukee, was special for many reasons. For starters, it was a renewal of one of the NBA's oldest and fiercest rivalries, which, in this case, showcased the superior talents of Boston's Larry Bird and New York's Bernard King. The home court advantage was clearly that, with each team winning all its home games. The series also produced a rare blooper, a technical foul on the Knicks for having too many players on the floor, and a classy gesture by Boston Coach K.C. Jones, who apologized to officials after a Game 6 loss in which he drew a technical for a verbal outburst.
* Two of tennis's best players met with quite different results during the past week. John McEnroe ran his 1984 match record to 32-0 with a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Ivan Lendl in the Tournament of Champions final. Jimmy Connors, meanwhile, was handed his worst defeat as a professional, losing to Lendl 6-0, 6 -0 in the semifinals of the same event.