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Ray's reward: A spot in the back

By Associated Press
Published May 26, 2004

INDIANAPOLIS - This was a new one, even for Greg Ray.

The former IRL champion has driven for big teams and small teams, has started the Indianapolis 500 from the front row and from the back, has led more than 100 laps without ever winning and is one of just a handful of drivers to start from the pole and finish last.

But never, until this year, did he have to go through so much turmoil just to get into the race.

Never did he have to spend so many hours cooped up in his Gasoline Alley garage, working the telephones, answering e-mail and wondering how he would pay bills. Never did he have to wait until the final day of qualifications before taking even a single lap of practice.

That's what he gets as an owner-driver: an underfunded owner-driver.

"I've run the gamut," said Ray, still without a major sponsor as he prepares for Sunday's race. "There's frustration, knowing we could be so much faster. We just didn't have time to get the car sorted out. We carried a fair amount of stress the last couple weeks, and it wasn't the optimal situation to just jump in the car. It's not the kind of thing I like to do."

Ray, the 1999 series champion and 2000 Indy 500 pole-sitter, has not won a race in three years. He started his Access Motorsports team last year but never finished higher than eighth in 13 starts and wound up 15th in points.

With his limited budget and no major sponsorship, he didn't practice until Sunday morning and managed only 20 laps, the fewest by any of the 33 drivers in the race.

His four-lap qualification average of 216.641 mph was the fastest of the seven who completed the field on Sunday, but he'll start 27th, on the outside of the ninth row. Buddy Rice's pole speed was 222.024 mph, and 11 other drivers topped 220 in qualifications.

Ray thinks he could have been another 220 mph qualifier had he been able to get more practice.

"I really believe in the right situation that we could have been a pole contender," Ray said. "But you have to do the smart thing."

The track will be closed until race day, Sunday, except for a two-hour practice on Thursday, still sentimentally called Carburetion Day though fuel injectors replaced carburetors in Indy cars more than 40 years ago. Until then teams will tune the cars in the garages and work on race strategy.

"I'm really happy with the car," said Rice, who drives for Rahal Letterman Racing. "We're just going to get ready for the race now. We're very happy the way the race setups have gone. I think we have every variable covered."

Sarah Fisher, who will start next to Kelley Racing teammate Scott Sharp on the seventh row, qualified at 215.771 mph but said she still needs to work on her car's handling in traffic.

"I feel really comfortable in the car by myself," she said. "In traffic, we just have to use the tools in the car to get the car to handle how I want it to. When I can achieve that, the car will be great."

Former winner Buddy Lazier qualified for his 12th start at 215.110 mph, on the inside of the 10th row.

"Even though I'm starting toward the back, it's a long race," he said. "Anything can happen here. It may be a long shot with as little practice as we've had, but ... there's a (team) chemistry that could do some pretty neat things come the end of the race."

FORMULA ONE: The British Grand Prix will stay on the series calendar through 2006 after the Silverstone racetrack's owner reached an agreement with the sport's billionaire rights-holder, Bernie Ecclestone.

[Last modified May 26, 2004, 01:00:46]

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