Originally created 05/24/04

Indy field filled; Ray leads final qualifiers



INDIANAPOLIS -- For Greg Ray, it was worth the wait.

After nearly two weeks of frustration as he waited for sponsorship to turn up, the former IRL champion and seven-time Indianapolis 500 starter finally got on track Sunday and made qualifying for next Sunday's Indianapolis 500 look easy.

Ray ran only 20 practice laps before completing the 33-car lineup with a four-lap, 10-mile average of 216.641 mph. That speed would have placed him 18th had he done it on May 15, the first of three days of time trials.

Instead, Ray will start 27th in the 500-mile race after topping seven Sunday qualifiers. But that's just fine with the former Indy pole-winner.

"We didn't really have time to get the car sorted out," Ray said. "There was a lot of frustration. We were all chomping at the bit and everybody was saying, 'Let's just unleash this thing.'

"But this is a good race team and we know that every time you push the boundaries, you take additional risks. And, no matter how fast we went today, we wouldn't have started any higher in the race and we'll just try to finish better than we start."

Ray's run ended weeks of speculation that the 88th Indy 500 could be the first since 1947 with fewer than the traditional 33 starters. Only 30 ran that year.

Twenty-six cars qualified on the first two days of time trials, leaving the seven spots to fill and a big question mark whether there would be enough driver-car combinations to do it.

Only six non-qualified drivers practiced on Saturday, with Ray remaining on the sidelines. At one point Saturday, the car was fully prepared while his crew waited fruitlessly for Ray to complete the sponsorship deal and climb into the cockpit.

"We still don't have a primary sponsor, but we need to be in this race," Ray said. "We're working for the future and you've got to keep beating the drum."

With the threat of rain on Sunday, the remaining hopefuls wasted little time once qualifying began at noon.

Rookie P.J. Jones, who got into the Beck Motorsports entry for the first time on Saturday, got things started, turning in a four-lap, 10-mile average of 213.355.

The son of 1963 Indy winner Parnelli Jones was elated after several days of frustration, waiting for his last-minute ride to come together. When it did, P.J. got a scare.

"I was on my 10th lap going into Turn 1 and the throttle stuck wide open," he said. 'I had to get out of the car, I was so nervous. That kind of got me scared for a moment."

It didn't keep him from getting back in the car and qualifying solidly on Sunday.

"I knew the job," he said. "We just needed to put it in the race. I kept telling myself that."

Marty Roth, a 45-year-old rookie from Toronto, Canada, followed Jones onto the 2 1/2 -mile oval and got off on to a shaky start with a first lap of only 210.952 - barely fast enough to satisfy IRL officials.

But Roth, driving his own car, improved on each succeeding lap, hitting 212.520 on his final trip around the historic track and averaging a respectable 211.974.

"It's been a huge learning curve as a driver and a team owner and just about everything," said Roth, who is also a rookie in the IRL's Infiniti Pro Series.

Moments later, 1996 Indy winner Buddy Lazier, who picked up his ride with Dryer & Reinbold Racing on Wednesday and didn't get on track until Friday, qualified at 215.110.

"I just wanted to have an uneventful run," Lazier said. "It really was qualifying with our race package, our race level downforce. I have a remarkably good race car."

Lazier was followed by rookie Jeff Simmons, who got his ride from Morris Nunn Racing on Saturday after finishing second in the Pro Series race. Simmons made it 30 in the lineup with an average of 214.783.

After a short break, Richie Hearn, whose ride materialized with Sam Schmidt Motorsports on Saturday, qualified at 213.715.

Robbie McGehee, who made it onto the track with PDM Motorsports for the first time late Saturday afternoon, then made it into the field at 211.631 - the slowest of the 33 qualifiers.

Ray completed the run at 1:45 p.m., just one hour and 45 minutes into the session. Rain began falling 20 minutes later, putting the rest of the qualifying, scheduled to end at 6 p.m. in doubt.

NASCAR star Tony Stewart, a former IRL champion, made an unexpected appearance at the track Sunday, passing a physical and chatting with team owner A.J. Foyt in his garage. That fueled speculation that Stewart might try to qualify one of Foyt's backup cars if the track dried in time. Foyt already has son Larry and grandson A.J. IV safely in the lineup.

If he was successful in bumping his way into the lineup, Stewart would join fellow NASCAR Nextel Cup driver Robby Gordon in doing a difficult double next Sunday, racing in both the 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 in Concord, N.C. Gordon qualified 18th on the opening day of time trials.