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Ray defends Brickyard turf, wins first pole
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- If you want to call Saturday's pole qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 the first showdown between America's rival open-wheel series, the league formerly know as the Indy Racing Northern Lights Series won.

Greg Ray, the defending Indy Racing League champion, knocked Juan Montoya, the 1999 CART champ and an Indy rookie, off the top qualifying spot for the May 28 race.

Greg Ray
Greg Ray rebounded from a troublesome first qualifying attempt to win the pole Saturday.

Montoya, the 24-year-old Colombian, set the early pace, making it look easy as he averaged 223.372 mph on his four-lap qualifying run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He never came close to the speedway's menacing concrete walls, which collected six cars Saturday during practice and qualifying. All the drivers involved escaped injury.

"I tried to set up the car pretty similar to the way I drive the Champ Car so it's comfortable," Montoya said of his G Force-Oldsmobile Aurora. "The car is just very friendly."

Ray's Dallara-Aurora was far less friendly.

The 33-year-old Texan aborted one qualifying attempt after nearly hitting the wall on his first lap. He then came back to beat Montoya with a nerve-wracking, on-the-edge 223.471 run just over two hours from the end of the first of two days of time trials.

"As soon as I got it up to speed on the backstretch, I knew I had a bad vibration," Ray said. "There's 16 corners (during the four laps) and the car was sliding in all 16.

"I think once in turn four was really close, and I think once in turn two was really close. What are you going to do? I went for it."

The two champions will start the 500-mile race side-by-side, but it will be Ray on the inside of the first of 11 three-car rows.

"I think as a driver ... you always want to measure yourself against the best, whether they're CART drivers or IRL drivers," Ray said.

CART teams have been boycotting Indy since it became part of the IRL series in 1996. But Chip Ganassi chose to bring his team, winner of an unprecedented four straight CART titles, back to the speedway this May.

"People had said over the last couple of years they thought that being on the pole or winning the race at the Indy 500 wasn't quite the same," Ray said. "Well, they weren't driving in it. I'm here to tell you there's some very, very good drivers, very good teams. Whether those teams had shown up or not I don't think the outcome would have been much different."

Still, the fact that CART's best team is finally taking on the IRL's biggest event has stirred plenty of interest.

Ganassi, who also entered 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser, wasn't about to stir up any controversy.

"Our team is based here in Indianapolis and we've built up a lot of good relationships," he said. "It's been a fun week."

Robby Gordon, Ray's Team Menard teammate and another of the fastest drivers in practice, cut short two qualifying attempts in an effort to work his car up to a challenge for the pole.

Making his third run of the day, Gordon -- a NASCAR regular who plans to race in both the Indy race and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C., on the same day -- came up well short. His 222.885 with 45 minutes remaining left Gordon on the inside of the second row.

Twenty-three of the 33 starting positions were filled Saturday. Once the field is filled Sunday, the slowest qualifiers can be bumped out by faster cars until the end of the session

Each car entered in the race is allowed up to three qualifying attempts.

Eliseo Salazar of Chile, driving for A.J. Foyt -- whose team won the race last year with driver Kenny Brack, now racing in CART -- took the outside of the front row with an average of 223.231.

Joining Gordon in the second row were former IRL champion Scott Sharp at 222.810 and Jeff Ward, another Foyt entry, at 222.639.

Vasser took the inside of the third row at 221.976, with Stan Wattles at 221.508 and Robbie Buhl at 221.357.

Two-time Indy winner Al Unser Jr., returning to the speedway after being part of the CART boycott the past four years, qualified 18th at 220.293.

Unser, the winner in 1992 and 1994, was the first driver to complete a qualifying attempt on the cool, overcast afternoon.

"I can safely say we're back now," said Unser, who failed to qualify for the race in 1995, the last year before the CART boycott. "The first lap (218.187) wasn't what I wanted, but we were on cold tires and I didn't want to take a chance. I was a little too careful with that lap."

Among the other drivers making it into the tentative field on Saturday were former Indy winners Eddie Cheever Jr. (1998) and Buddy Lazier (1996), and 19-year-old rookie Sarah Fisher, one of two women entered in the race this year.

Lyn St. James, the other woman, crashed hard during a late qualifying attempt. At one point, her car skidded onto its right sidepod, but it wound up back on the wheels and St. James, 53, the oldest driver entered, walked away without injury.

Among those still waiting to qualify are veterans Roberto Guerrero, Raul Boesel, Scott Harrington and 1998 pole starter Billy Boat.
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