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Like Bringing A Knife To A Gunfight

May 26, 1994

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ I own a newer car than Roberto Guerrero does. So do roughly 10 percent of the Americans who will be out on the road Sunday. The real shame of it, though, is that Guerrero will have to drive his in the Indy 500.

It may not be an embarrassment to show up at the supermarket or church, or even the country club behind the wheel of a 1992 car. But the Brickyard is another matter.

Normally, year-old technology is already a liability and 2-year-old technology, such as the Lola-Buick that Guerrero will drive, a virtual antiquity. But it will seem even more outmoded this year because megabucks owner Roger Penske is outfitting his team with Mercedes V8 engines in custom- built chassis that could provide as much as a 300-horsepower advantage over other 1994 models. That could translate into 20-mph superiority over his closest pursuers down the straightaways - light years in racing terms.

″I’d be lying if I said we have a chance of winning,″ Guerrero, the affable, 35-year-old Colombian said.

The hint of a smile tugged at his lips.

″But 500 miles is a long way. And if I can drive it consistently and we can keep it running until the end,″ Guerrero added, ″it won’t be an embarrassment.″

No, it won’t be the same thing as showing up here in a Yugo, even if the situation Guerrero finds himself in recalls the line Sean Connery delivered in ″The Untouchables″ while drawing a bead on a poorly prepared assassin: ″Just like a ... to show up for a gunfight carrying a knife.″

That said, the 2-year-old Lola chassis powered by a 2-year-old Buick V6 engine (and a similarly set-up backup car), were all owner Allan Pagan could afford.

His staff of 10, half of what the top teams have, is half-volunteer and includes college students, a moonlighting Amtrak employee and a guy who writes up service orders at a local car dealership the rest of the year. While most of Pagan’s competitors have caterers, he has his mother, Shirley, stop off at the nearby Village Deli each morning. He figures his total cost for the two cars - the frontliner is nicknamed ″LeRoy,″ the backup, ″Herman″ - is about 5 percent of what Penske spends on just one.

Fortunately, even those few discretionary dollars Pagan is throwing around here came from selling used cars back at the family’s Chevy dealership in Corpus Christi, Texas; so he’s already heard every bad joke on the subject.

″Actually, everybody has kind of been rooting for us. And what little ribbing we’ve taken has been good-natured and in the right spirit,″ Pagan said.

″The way we scratched and scraped to put this together is the way racing used to be. And imagine,″ he added, ″what kind of hoo-rah would go up at this place Sunday if we actually won.″

Fat chance of that.

Though both Guerrero and the car have a history at the oval, a very uneven one. The Lola-Buick, purchased last October from owner and former Guerrero employer Kenny Bernstein, was the same car Guerrero drove to the 1992 pole with a four-lap qualifying run of 232.482 - a record that still stands. However, that was the same year that Guerrero spun out on the warm-up lap, one of the most embarrassing moments in Indy history.

He’s had some success here, finishing second twice in nine tries. And he nearly died here, crashing in the second turn during tire tests in September 1987. He was in a coma for 17 days, but returned to drive the following May.

In 1993, while in Bernstein’s employ, Guerrero drove the same car that he will drive Sunday. His race last year ended when he collided with Jeff Andretti, who happened to be driving for Pagan’s team. Guerrero’s luck with both cars has barely improved.

″Herman,″ the backup, caught fire earlier this month while Guerrero happened to be sitting in it. And after running a four-lap practice session at 226 mph on the morning of qualifying, a computer glitch cropped up in the afternoon that scrubbed nearly 5 mph off ″Leroy’s″ time in the afternoon. That left Guerrero starting Sunday from the middle of row seven.

″After ’92 I figured I’d never see the car again. I was amazed when I got it a year later. And now?″ Guerrero said, ″Two years later? Who would believe it?″

Who, indeed.

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