Monday, May 31, 1999

Gordon: No fuel plus no rain equals no milk




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        INDIANAPOLIS — Robby Gordon was a little short on gas and a little long on sunshine. First, his fuel tank went dry. Then, about 10 minutes too late, it started to rain.

        “Why now?” Gordon asked, his arms raised toward the heavens. “Why not 10 laps earlier?”

        So many questions. So much anguish. Less than two laps from the checkered flag, the gallon of milk, the Borg-Warner Trophy and automotive immortality, Gordon coasted into the pits Sunday afternoon as the latest heartbreak kid of the Indianapolis 500.

        Gordon had plenty of car, but not quite enough in the way of fuel economy. Officially, he finished fourth in the Greatest Spectacle In Gas Guzzling, behind A.J. Foyt's Swedish protege, Kenny Brack. Yet the decisive margin in Indy's 83rd rendition may have amounted to no more than a single gallon of methanol.

        “I want to sit and cry,” Gordon said, “but it's not gonna change anything. I could go kick the car, but (owner) John (Menard) would be mad at me. I could punch our fueler, but what would that accomplish? We have a big race in Milwaukee next weekend, so we just have to suck it up and move on.”

So close to victory
        Experience told Gordon to deal with his disappointment with dignity. He took the questions in stiff-lipped stride, answering in a vigorous and cheerful voice, the good soldier recounting a failed mission. But deeper, beneath the surface, the analysis had to be excruciating. A driver only gets so many shots at the Indianapolis 500, and he sure doesn't want to lose it for lack of a siphon hose. Sunday's race represented Gordon's best showing at Indy and, probably, his worst nightmare.

        “Damn,” he said, wistfully. “We came this close to winning the 500.”

        The 30-year-old Californian will be a long time getting over this disappointment, if he ever really recovers. (Ask any Andretti). What Moby Dick was to Captain Ahab, Indy is to open-wheel racers. The former is an obsession with blubber; the later with rubber.

        “We should have come in and gotten a splash of fuel,” Gordon said, second-guessing a missed opportunity to get gas while the other leaders were changing tires. “We knew what it takes to win, and we let it slip away.”

Not enough miles per gallon
        Gordon's fuel meter showed 2.3 gallons remaining in his 35-gallon tank when he came out of Turn 4 on the next-to-last lap. Because he was getting two miles per gallon at that stage of the race, Gordon might have made it to the finish line without taking that last pit stop. His calculations told him, however, that he would be riding on fumes too long to hold his narrow lead over Brack. Menard suggested he drop down to sixth gear to save fuel.

        “Already done that, boss,” Gordon replied.

        A late caution flag could have slowed the pace enough to win Gordon the race — a small oil slick would have sufficed — but the last 26 laps were run without incident and, barely, without rain.

        “We kept praying for a yellow (flag),” Menard said. “If there had been a yellow, we'd be drinking right now and having a great time. But we're still having a great time. Don't feel too sorry for us. I haven't had this much fun at a 500 in a long time.”

        As Menard spoke, the rain began to resonate against the tin roof of the interview trailer, as if to mock him for his near-miss.

        “That Foyt,” Menard observed, “must have a connection.”

        The Indy 500 has a history of tormenting its suitors, of excruciating endings and lingering laments. Sunday marked the fifth time in the race's history that the lead had changed hands with three laps or fewer remaining.

        “I thought all the stars were aligned,” Robby Gordon said. “There was a full moon, it was beautiful, but the stars weren't aligned for me.”

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

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE