Sunday, May 23, 1999

Indy speed king says it's time to slow down




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        INDIANAPOLIS — Arie Luyendyk refuses to reconsider. He has won the pole for the Indianapolis 500, but lost none of his resolve.

        This is it, he says without wavering. The end of the road. The Flying Dutchman is determined to retire from racing next Sunday, regardless of how the scene plays out. When he pulls his car into the pits at The Brickyard — and even if he should steer it into Victory Lane — he will be leaving.

        He will not be seduced by fresh success nor enticed by easy money. Luyendyk insists these are his last laps.

        “I have no second thoughts,” the two-time Indy winner said Saturday afternoon. “I'm at peace with my decision. That doesn't mean I'm here at Indy to play. I'm really taking this pretty seriously.”

        Leadfoot Luyendyk holds most of the major speed records at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and was again the fastest man in the field in Saturday's qualifying, but he is convinced it is time to slow down. He is 45 years old, and wary of testing his limits with declining reflexes. He turned four laps Saturday at an average speed of 225.179 miles per hour, yet he is not going to push his luck much longer.

        “The timing is right for me to stop,” Luyendyk said. “I want to help my son (Arie Jr.) with his racing. I've been thinking about this for quite some time. Fortunately, I'm able to retire on my own terms, and I don't think there can be any better place to do it than at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

        In other sports, the athlete who quits at the top of his game is inevitably conflicted. He wonders how much more talent he had to tap. In motor racing, a great driver who can get out in one piece is invariably wise. Bill Vukovich won back-to-back 500s in 1953 and 1954, only to lose his life in the 1955 race. Luyendyk has lately experi enced enough wrecks to consider his own mortality.

        “It's funny,” he mused recently. “We do this to ourselves. We strap ourselves in a race car, we are going really fast. You can get killed. You have all this adrenaline going. Then, you have all this pressure on yourself to perform. ... Why do we do what we do?”

A victory lap
        There's the money, of course. Luyendyk has made more than $10 million in racing, and has earned more at Indianapolis than any other driver. He first won at Indy in 1990 — still the fastest 500 in history — lost in 1993 by less than three seconds, and won the race a second time in 1997. He has qualified on the front row five times during this decade, and lost the 1996 pole when his car was discovered underweight.

        “Arie has an exquisitely unique ability to extract maximum speed out of a car,” said Eddie Cheever, Indy's defending champion. “He's definitely one of the fastest human beings ever around here.”

        Some of this is experience. Some of this is nerve. Some of this is improvisation. John Dick, Luyendyk's engineer for the 1990 race, recalls seeing the driver limp back to the garage after qualifying. He wondered if there was a problem with the car's cockpit.

        Luyendyk assured him that the limp was self-induced. Once he had shifted into top gear, he stuck his left foot on top of his right to ensure that he would not ease off the accelerator in Turn One.

        “I guess I must have left it there for the entire run,” Lu yendyk said, “because my right foot is so sore I can hardly walk on it.”

        His stride was steadier on Saturday, but his emotions were all over the map. Notoriously stoic, Luyendyk is sentimental about the Speedway.

        “I didn't wake up this morning thinking that it was going to be my last qualifying day or this is going to be my last this or that,” he said. “But when I had completed the run, I was really moved by the enthusiastic crowd all over the track and, coming into the pits, all the crews waving and clapping.”

        It would have been the perfect goodbye, if there weren't still a race to be run.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE