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Gugelmin runs fastest-ever Indy-car lap

September 27, 1997 GMT

FONTANA, Calif. (AP) _ Mauricio Gugelmin made it official Saturday, running the fastest qualifying lap in the history of Indy-car racing as he captured the pole position for the Marlboro 500.

``It’s just a great number,″ the low-key Brazilian said after turning a lap of 240.942 mph on the two-mile oval at the new California Speedway. ``It’s just unbelievable a car can get around this place at a speed like that.

``The speed is linear,″ said Gugelmin, whose 242.333 in the morning practice was the unofficial fastest lap ever in an open-wheel racer. ``You almost don’t slow down in the corners. It feels like one long straightaway.″

It is the third pole of his Indy-car career, all this season in his Mercedes-powered PacWest Motorsports Group Reynard.

The blazing speeds also took their toll this week, with PPG CART World Series champion Alex Zanardi and top series rookie Patrick Carpentier both knocked out of Sunday’s race by concussions sustained in crashes during Friday’s practice.

But the excitement was there, too, as 19 of 27 starters qualified above 230 mph.

Official marks can be set only in qualifying or during a race. The record-breaking performances began late in Saturday’s qualifying when Bryan Herta became the first driver to break the official Indy-car lap record of 237.498, set by Arie Luyendyk in 1996 in time trials for the Indianapolis 500.

It also was Luyendyk, a two-time Indy 500 winner, who held the unofficial record of 239.260 _ also at Indy in 1996 _ before Gugelmin topped 240 for the first time on Friday.

Herta’s fast lap of 237.890 was good enough to hang on to third place as Jimmy Vasser, Zanardi’s teammate and last year’s series champion, raised the record of 239.222.

Gugelmin was last in the qualifying line and gave the crowd it’s dramatic finish, running his first lap at 240.736 and then bumping that up to the new record.

``Today, we made history,″ Gugelmin said. ``It’s a great feeling. After I saw Jimmy’s speed, I knew the pressure was on my side and I just concentrated and tried not to scrub off too much speed in the corners.″

Despite the speeds and a much warmer day on Saturday, there were no more crashes. But none of the top drivers were really happy to be running such fast laps.

Gugelmin, who said Friday he was uncomfortable with the speeds here, added Saturday, ``At these speeds, by the time you feel a problem, it’s too late. You have to be very confident of your car.″

Vasser, who watched videotape of his teammate’s crashes, said, ``A lot of bad things can happen at that speed when something happens and you get out of control.″

``I’m not totally comfortable with the speeds we’re running,″ Herta said. ``We have to slow them down. Having said that, though, this week we have to run what we’re running. It is what it is.″

Ironically, Luyendyk, who hasn’t had a full-time CART ride since 1994 and is now a star in the rival Indy Racing League, will also be in the lineup on Sunday.

He was called upon by car-owner and longtime friend Chip Ganassi to replace Zanardi in the season-ending race. Luyendyk recently re-signed with his IRL team, Treadway Racing, but owner Fred Treadway, on hand for the CART race, said he had no objection to Luyendyk filling in at Fontana.

Ganassi sent his private plane to Phoenix to pick up Luyendyk, who arrived at the track in time to pass a physical and practice in the final session of the day. Since he was unable to participate in qualifying, this year’s Indy winner will start last.

``In a 500-mile race, where you start really doesn’t mean anything,″ Ganassi said.