The Callahan Report: Thunderbird On the Brickyard Pole for the Last Time
1 August 1997INDIANAPOLIS: Ford Thunderbirds are fast at Indy. The only problem is, they aren't selling fast. Next year, the Ford teams will be using the Ford Taurus. The T-bird is flying away.
Robert Yates Racing driver Ernie Irvan used a Thunderbird to grab the pole for the 1997 Brickyard 400 with a record speed of (177.736 MPH). It is only fitting that the T-Bird sings its swan song from the pole for NASCAR's richest race. "I left a lot on the table. They gave me a great race car. This car tested good. It's the one we all picked out. They (the team) make it a lot easier for me," Irvan said after his run.
Irvan's mind could have easily been elsewhere. His mother is critically ill in a hospital in North Carolina. Irvan said, "My mother knows that racing is in my heart and racing is in her heart. There is nothing I can do a the hospital right now, so the best thing I can do is get the pole."
Yates cars held the top two spots until late in the day. Joe Nemecheck, or "front row Joe" as he is being called lately, went out and put his Bell South Monte Carlo on the outside of the front row. He bumped Dale Jarrett back to the third starting spot. Jarrett commented about the prospects of running the Taurus next year. "As far as the driver, you know a feel you are looking for, and certainly the body can be a big part of that. You'll just have to kinda play with it for a while to get back the feel you are looking for, but it's much ore of an adjustment for the teams in learning how to build =91em and exactly what they want to do than it is for the driver."
There is a nice mix of Ford/Chevy up front. Starting fourth for this weekend's big event will be Shufflin' Darrell Waltrip in a Monte Carlo. At the time Waltrip made his qualifying run, he broke the existing track record held by Jeff Gordon. Waltrip was elated and did his famous shuffle after returning to the pits. The stands rumbled with applause, but it didn't last long. Jarrett broke the record as Waltrip was being interviewed.
The man in Black, Dale Earnhardt, put a Chevy in the fifth spot. He is followed by his teammate, Mike Skinner (Chevy). Ricky Rudd will start his Ford from seventh. The highest Pontiac starter is Bobby Hamilton. He will begin the race from the 12th position.
The Ford Taurus announcement has been a long time coming. There has been extensive work performed in the development of the new racer. Preston Miller, NASCAR Program Manager for Ford said, "The templates, per se, are done. We have not issued for approval a nose and tail section. They'll be very similar to what you see on the car here. There will be very minor modifications."
The Ford Taurus will be on track in short order. Bruce Cambern, Director of Ford Special Vehicle Operations (SVO). "The car will be on the track in about two weeks. NASCAR will tell us what track we can test on." Cambern said Penske South will be the first to test the car. "We may be able to put in a driver of similar size to Rusty (Wallace) from one of the other teams. And then from there, hopefully we will be able to test with some of the other teams on the Monday after a race at the same track. Again, this will happen at NASCAR's direction."
The fastest twenty-five drivers are locked in for the Brickyard 400. Notable drivers that did not make the top twenty-five include Mark Martin (26th), Terry Labonte (31st) , and Rusty Wallace(36th). Hendrick driver Ricky Craven had the worst qualifying attempt of the afternoon (51st). Drivers may elect to "stand" on their times. Qualifying will continue tomorrow at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.