The Callahan Report: Fernandez Starts from the Pole for CART's U.S. 500
25 July 1998
By Terry Callahan
The Auto Channel
Fernandez qualified much slower than he had practice. The main reason for the decreased speed was sunlight and the lack of traffic.
The cars were quicker during practice when all the Champ Cars were on the track under cooler conditions. During qualifying, the cars were sent out by themselves for two-lap qualifying runs. This year on the super-speedways, CART has mandated a new rear wing in an effort to slow the cars. The wing produces drag in the straightaways and lessens the downforce in the corners. However, the new wing has allowed the cars to "draft" without upsetting the cars nearly as much as in the past.
Fernandez practice speeds topped 232 mph. He qualified at a speed of 229.519 mph. It is the second year in a row a Pat Patrick owned race car has sat on the pole for the U.S. 500. Scott Pruett was the polesitter last year for CART's main event. Pruett qualified for the sixth starting position this year.
Jimmy Vasser, the 1996 CART FedEx Champion, will start on the front row with Fernandez. Vasser had a top speed of 228.855 mph on his qualifying run. Vasser's teammate and series points leader, Alex Zanardi, was left scratching his head after his qualifying run. The usually dominating driver could do no better than seventh starting position for Sunday's race.
The new rear wing is called the Handford device. Vasser commented, "We tested here at 226 (mph). I ran 236 here two years ago and I think it's safe to assume we'd be up to at least 238 if nothing had been done. The Handford Device has slowed us down about 10 miles per hour, and that's significant, especially when you consider the force of hitting the walls at these speeds."
Initial estimates by Swift Engineering, manufacturers of the Handford device, were that the speeds would decrease by as much as 20 mph.
Mauricio Gugelmin, driving for the PacWest team, has his own definition for the new rear wing. He said, "It's like dragging a parachute behind you."
Richie Hearn, driving the Budweiser Swift Ford, found himself third quickest as qualifying ended. He posted a speed of 228.238 mph on his run. He is followed by Al Unser Jr., who will have the best start in a while driving the Marlboro Penske Mercedes.
Drafting will be an added feature for the U.S. 500 Sunday. Michael Andretti said, "You'll probably see laps faster in the race than in qualifying. The draft with all those cars out there is going to be massive."
Michigan is notorious for tearing up race cars. Andretti continued, "This place is always hard on equipment. Already, my guys are saying, `You're not going to be the leader until past halfway.' The first 300 miles or so, you've got to breathe the engine, make it live, and then go for it after that.
"A 500-mile race is all about finishing. I haven't finished this race since 1989, the last time I won. In fact, I think I've only finished this race three times in my career."
The green flag waves for the 1998 U.S. 500 at 1:00 p.m. (ET) Sunday. Television coverage will be provided live by ABC Sports.