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St. James, Fisher can make Indy history together
Associated Press

Lyn St. James signs an autograph for a fan in the garage area Saturday during the start of practice for the Indy 500 on May 28.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Lyn St. James is the oldest driver entered in the Indianapolis 500. Sarah Fisher is the youngest. Teacher and pupil, they could become the first pair of women to race at Indianapolis in the same year.

"I hope it's a big deal," St. James said Saturday, the opening day of practice for the May 28 race. "I think it's a statement for this sport being open and not being gender-specific or specific in any other way. It's talent-oriented."

St. James, 53, landed a major sponsor on Saturday, one week from the start of qualifying, and was selected to drive a car for Dick Simon Racing. Fisher, 19, who four years ago attended St. James' driver development school, already has driven in two of the three Indy Racing League events this season for Walker Racing and is 25th in the series standings.

St. James hasn't driven an Indy car since her failed attempt at Indianapolis last year.

"Dick and I both had the humiliation of not qualifying," said St. James, who qualified but was bumped from the lineup. "We were coming back with a strong point to prove, so I had to totally trust Dick that if it's too late, if we can't do this properly, then tell me to go away somewhere and throw away the key. I don't want to put us in that situation again."

Simon, a former driver and longtime car owner, also failed to get Stephan Gregoire in the race last year. The two Simon drivers were among more than two dozen who began practicing on Saturday.

UNSER AT HOME
INDIANAPOLIS -- Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. proved Saturday that his five-year absence from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hasn?t diminished his ability to go fast.

Unser posted the top speed in the opening day of practice for the 84th Indianapolis 500 with a lap of 217.223 mph.

"Today was a special day for me being back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway," Unser said. "We went out on the track today with a plan to just shake the cars down and get used to the track. Not everyone was out on the track today, like Juan (Montoya) and Jimmy (Vasser), so there will definitely be some tough competition in the days ahead.

"It felt really neat to get the response I did from the fans, and I can't tell you how much it means to be back here.

"What we are going to concentrate the most on for the next six days is getting into the show. Once we do that then we will start thinking about race day."

The last time that Unser participated in official Indianapolis 500 practice was 1995, when he drove for Penske Racing. Penske entered cars for Unser and teammate Emerson Fittipaldi that year, but neither driver qualified for the race.

After Penske and Unser parted ways at the end of 1999, Unser signed with car owner Rick Galles to drive in the Northern Light Series full-time. Galles was Unser?s car owner for his first Indianapolis 500 victory in 1992. He won again in 1994 with Penske.

Two-time winner Al Unser Jr., who left Team Penske in the rival CART series and rejoined Galles Racing in the IRL this season, was the fastest at 217.223 mph in his backup car, just ahead of Gregoire's 217.035. Former winner Buddy Lazier was third-quickest at 216.810.

St. James took only eight laps, with a top lap of 151.316.

"Dick assured me that if we follow the timetable, which we've been able to do, he would assemble the people, we would get the car and the car would be built," she said. "It's not exactly ready to be first out, but we're still ready to put a car on the race track."

St. James' whose best finish in six previous starts at Indy was 11th in 1992, when she was rookie of the year.

Simon also owned the cars St. James drove at Indianapolis each year through 1995. She was 14th with McCormack Motorsports in 1996, then drove her own entry to 13th place in 1997. She returned with her own car in 1998 but did not qualify.

"You do what you can with the resources you have. It certainly puts you in a disadvantage compared to the competition," she said of the late sponsorship this year by Yellow Freight System. "But yet we've seen teams test who have all the resources that don't necessarily shine or prove they're better prepared than someone else.

"So it's a crapshoot. It always is. But we have a good team and well-prepared equipment."

Others recently assigned to cars were Robby Unser, whose cousins Al Jr. and Johnny Unser also are entered; rookie Ross Cheever, who will drive for his brother, 1998 Indy winner Eddie Cheever; and Raul Boesel.

Eddie Cheever accounted for the first crash of practice when he spun his backup car between the first and second turns and hit the outside wall with the right rear. Cheever was not injured and came back later in his primary Dallara at 216.773 mph, fourth-quickest of the day.

"It appears that a rear (brake) caliper was catching," said Cheever, whose top speed in the backup was 213.379 mph. "I was already down to 180 and when I went to brake, the caliper must have caught on the rear tire."

Others quick laps were turned in by Scott Harrington at 216.471 and rookie Sam Hornish Jr. at 216.076.

Fisher, who last month passed the mandatory rookie driving test, was expected to practice for the first time on Sunday.

"She was definitely talented," St. James said of her one-time racing pupil. "You could see the potential, and the talent was there. She was 15. I could see the commitment and determination. I could see with the little bit of on-track that we had that she had the talent.

"I could see from her racing resume even to that point that she was going to be a contender, and if she stayed with the program she could get to this level, and she certainly has."
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