Monday, Sept. 16, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
Parting is such sweet ... survival.
Richie Hearn, who will be leaving the fledgling Indy Racing League to compete in the established CART IndyCar series next season, found the best way to avoid the mayhem that was happening all over racy but wind-blown Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday was to stay in front of it.
The 25-year-old budding star from Canyon Country, Calif., led 90 laps, including the last 32, to post his first Indy-car victory in the inaugural IRL Las Vegas 500K.
The race was marred by nine caution flags, eight for crashes. Hearn managed to avoid them all.
"There were some pretty big wrecks ... I was seeing shocks and whole suspensions out there," said the rookie driver about driving through the debris that littered the country's newest, fastest and dirtiest 1.5-mile oval.
Amazingly, considering the severity of many of the crashes, the worst injury was a broken leg suffered by Brad Murphey, a former student at Clark County Community College.
"About 30 or 40 laps into the race, my car just clicked," said Hearn, who held off 20-year-old upstart Michel Jourdain of Mexico by 1.693 seconds at the finish. Theirs were the only cars on the lead lap.
"Either I was going faster or they were going slower."
Actually, it was a little of each. Hearn, who considers himself a road-racing specialist, said some sage advice from the oval-meister himself, Rick Mears, figured heavily in his race strategy.
"Before the Indianapolis 500 I called him up and asked him a lot about how to win that race," Hearn said of his relationship with Mears, whose son, Clint, was a former teammate of Hearn's in the Toyota Atlantic series.
"I took a lot of it to heart and it helped me out in the race (at Indy, where Hearn finished third) and it helped me out here."
Hearn's car owner, John Della Penna, also paid homage to Mears, who won Indy a record four times: "Rick said use the first half of the race to get to the second half. That's the best advice we ever got from him."
Charging from the eighth starting spot (until the cars started banging off the walls of the dusty, 1.5-mile D-shaped oval), Hearn stayed close to the lead pack before his first pit stop.
A front-wing adjustment corrected a small understeering problem. From that point on, his Ralph's Food 4 Less/Fuji Film '95 Reynard-Ford was the fastest car on the track.
Hearn's only competition came from Robby Gordon, the IndyCar star who will take his aggressive driving style to Winston Cup next year. Hearn first took the lead from the former off-road champion at exactly the midway point on lap 100.
Other than yielding the lead twice to Johnny O'Connell during pit stops, Hearn was passed only once during the second half of the race -- on lap 161 by Gordon, following a restart.
Hearn, who favored the low side of the track, dogged Gordon, who was running a high groove, for eight laps before storming by his more experienced rival coming out of turn 4. Gordon, who led 59 laps and had an exciting early-race duel with polesitter Arie Luyendyk, eventually retired with a wheel-bearing problem.
"I knew from running with him earlier in the race that I had the faster car," said Hearn, whose winning pace was a snail-like 115.171 mph due to the 75 laps run under the yellow flag.
"I just had to get around him. I got a really good run on him coming out of turn two ... he couldn't hold that line on top up there. But I was glad to get by."
Hearn said he was also glad to miss the crashes by a wide margin.
The closest call for Hearn came on lap 185, when O'Connell's car belted the wall in turn 4 and got upside down on the main straight in front of the stunned grandstand spectators.
About the same time O'Connell was extricating himself from his battered car -- amazingly, with nary a scratch -- Hearn ran over some of the debris and felt he had punctured a tire.
But when the race was red-flagged to attend to O'Connell and clean up the mess, Hearn was able to pit for new rubber.
O'Connell's wreck easily was the most spectacular of the day, but there were a handful of others that looked serious.
Murphey and Eddie Cheever clouted the turn 2 wall on lap 29 in an incident that also collected Stephan Gregoire; crowd favorite Luyendyk suffered only bruised knees after making heavy contact in turn 1 on lap 107; rookie Stan Wattles was knocked unconscious after tagging the turn 4 concrete on lap 125; and Mark Dismore was lifted from his car on a stretcher after a hard impact in turn 4 on lap 151.
Johnny Parsons, Tyce Carlson and front-row starter Tony Stewart also caught the wall in separate incidents.
Stewart was admitted to University Medical Center complaining of back and left shoulder pain; Wattles and Dismore were administered CAT-scans. Wattles was released but Stewart, Dismore and Murphey spent the night in the hospital.
"A lot of the wrecks occurred because guys were running high and running out of track against the wall," said Hearn, who indicated neither the track nor the dusty conditions were responsible for the majority of the mishaps.
"I was pretty much concentrating on running low all day long. I was almost in the dirt a couple of times. I don't think I could have run high if I wanted to, but to tell the truth, I don't really like running up there. I felt more comfortable down at the bottom. There was more grip down there and the wind didn't affect you as much."
Veteran Mike Groff, who was slowed by a pair of blistered tires, soldiered on to a third-place finish, one lap behind Jourdain. After two of five events that comprise the IRL's 1996-97 season, Groff leads the championship with 63 points.
Hearn is second with 59, but won't be adding to that total, as he and Della Penna will make a full-time IndyCar commitment after competing in selected races this season.
Both thought the IRL was a good learning experience and said all the politically correct things in the postrace news conference, which sometimes is hard to do amid the bitter IndyCar-IRL political dispute.
Della Penna had a couple of angry exchanges with IRL officials early in the week but was smiling at the end.
"This is the biggest day in my motor sports career," said the personable car owner, who has moved up the racing ladder along with his youthful driver. "I'm really glad with the relationship we've developed with Richie. That's special and that's what this is about."