Scott Brayton secured the pole position for the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, while the elite Team Penske was shut out in the opening weekend of qualifications for the first time.
Al Unser Jr., the winner of last year’s pole and race, and Penske teammate Emerson Fittipaldi, like Unser a two-time Indy winner, didn’t even make a qualifying attempt as the interrupted opening round of time trials and the second round were completed on a warm, sunny Sunday.
Both were in line to qualify late in the first round but were pulled out at the last moment, apparently still unable to get the speed that had eluded them all week in practice.
In a total of more than 150 laps of practice in four team cars, neither of the Penske drivers was able to hit 220 on Sunday as the team’s Penske-Mercedes cars continued to experience severe handling problems in the corners.
“I don’t want to risk to go out there and make a mistake,” Penske said. “It can happen too easily. At this point in time, we felt we’d wait and work on the setups for the rest of the week.
“If I knew what was wrong, we’d have fixed it,” he said. “That’s as frank as I can be.”
He said the team would test a 1994 Penske chassis on Monday, as well as continuing work with the new cars.
Addressing a widespread rumor that he was going to buy new Lolas to use in place of his team-built Penske chassis, Penske said: “I’ve had three or four car owners come up to me and say, ‘Look, if you need a car, you’ve got one.’ We are looking at those options. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say we might have those types of opportunities, and we’re going to be looking at those as we go into the next few days.
“But again, we’ve got some things we’re going to change on our existing cars… . We’ve got plenty of time.”
Penske said he was surprised by the team’s problems after winning the last two races - Unser at Long Beach and Fittipaldi at Nazareth.
“That’s why it’s great to come here and run,” he said. “You can’t hide. You have to produce. I can say this, the amount of pressure on our people to stay on the top … everyone has kept their chin up. The big situation is we have to get a combination that will get in the race.”
Twenty-five of the 33 starting spots for the May 28 race were filled by the end of the second of four days of time trials, with rookie Eliseo Salazar of Chile the slowest qualifier at 225.023 mph.
Last year, Penske’s team dominated the month with a specially built Mercedes pushrod engine that was made obsolete by changes in the rules. Penske drivers have won the 500 a record 10 times and have started from the pole 11 times since the team first ran here in 1969.
Brayton, who barely beat teammate Arie Luyendyk in Saturday’s rain-shortened session that saw 11 drivers qualify, wound up on the pole - the first of his Indy-car career.
The best previous start at Indianapolis by the 36-year-old from Coldwater, Mich., was second in 1985. Brayton will be starting his 14th Indy, the most of any driver entered.
Brayton’s four-lap, 10-mile average was 231.604 mph. Luyendyk, who won the 1990 race and the 1993 pole, put his Menard V6-powered Lola in the middle of the first of 11 three-car rows with a 231.031.
The Team Menard drivers had led each day of practice since the track opened on May 6.
“It’s just a credit to this team to start out 1-2 and finish 1-2 in qualifying,” Brayton said. “Now we just have to do it on race day. I just couldn’t be happier with the way things have worked.”
Qualifying will resume Saturday. Once the field is full, faster drivers can bump the slowest of those already qualified until the end of time trials next Sunday.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.