You would like Al Loquasto. He is a little guy, maybe 5-foot-5, with a handsome, square-cut face and the unblinking eyes of a man who drives cars 185 miles per hour. Unless you are a race-car nut, you have never heard of him. He is a little guy in a big-money game. Every year he comes to Indianapolis to race. Once his operation's formal name was "Indy on a Shoestring." He painted it on his car. He accepted donations.

The Indianapolis 500 defines a racer's career. "The person who goes to church seven days a week only heard of one race, this one," A.J. Foyt said. To win the world's most famous race, to win a $1 million race in front of 450,000 spectators, you must spend $300,000 for engines and chassis, parts and tires, campaigning and testing. For Foyt, who has won the 500 four times, a few hundred thousand dollars is spending money. His Guccis need no shoestrings.

You'll see Foyt on television Sunday night when they play the 500 on tape delay(WJLA-TV-7, 9 p.m.).

You won't see Al Loquasto.

Loquasto failed to qualify today, missing out by the narrowest of margins. He needed to drive 183.908 mph. He went 183.318.

Two cars did qualify in a special session ordered by the United States Auto Club. Billy Vukovich and George Snider made this a 35-car field, the first larger than 33 since 42 cars produced three deaths in the 1933 race. Of 11 cars eligible for the extra session, only eight tried. One crashed, two dropped out with mechanical problems and three ran too slowly. Of those three, Al Loquasto stole our hearts.

All week he had been Don Quixote on wheels.

"I call it 'the impossible dream,'" Loquasto said three days ago.

He had been wronged, Loquasto believed.

He began a furious tilt with USAC's windmills.

When USAC discovered cheaters among its first weekend's qualifiers, it "clarified" its rules. Some people thought the rules had just plain been changed. Loquasto had made his qualifying run before the rules change and was not allowed a try under the "clarified" rules.

That was wrong, he said. With owners, sponsors and drivers of 10 other cars, Loquasto began a political campaign in Gasoline Alley to get the "Indianapolis 11," as they were called, another chance. "It's the impossible dream because we only have five hours to do it," he said.

Loquasto told newspapermen his story. He went to drivers with petitions that all 33 qualified drivers would have to sign before the 11 cars would get the extra chance. That is what USAC said-all 33 had to agree-and Loquasto was stunned. "You couldn't get 33 Indy drivers to agree the sun is shining," he said.

When two drivers wouldn't sign, Loquasto and his buddies seemed beaten even though they contended USAC had admitted it was wrong by giving them any second chance, even one as remote as a unanimous vote.

Tipped carburetor over exhaust pipe by the USAC windmill, these Quixotes did not quit. They talked of a lawsuit, and USAC, up to its magnetos in controversy, then changed its mind.

USAC ordered today's special qualifying session. Vukovich said he woke up at 3 a.m. today and couldn't go back to sleep for worrying about the thing. It was one chance, one only, with only 10 minutes of practice. Making the race was guarantee of perhaps $15,000, to say nothing of keeping happy the sponsors who foot the big-bucks bills for Indy-car racing.

For Loquasto, the pressure was heavier because he had been so visible in the fight for the second chance. "If he doesn't make it after all this, he'll have egg on his face," UASC publicist Paul Reinhard said.

At 8 a.m. today, Loquasto ran a practice lap at 184 mph.

That was fast enough to make the race if he did it in his four-lap qualifying run later.

But he also brushed a wall, the edge of his tires stirring up dirt at the wall's edge.

On a normal day, a tire brushing the wall is nothing to worry about. USAC demands replacement of such a tire on the theory it could be damaged, whether or not the damage is visible. Normally, a driver puts on new tires, practices a few laps, adjusts the car's chassis to the new handling characteristics and goes about his dangerous work.

Loquasto had time on this special day for only one more practice lap. With new tires, he went 185.5 mph.

But he didn't like it. Vukovich in his run admitted to guessing on his tire adjustments. "We made drastic changes and just got lucky," he said. "We hit everything right."

Loquasto hit everything wrong. The 185.5 mph lap was uncomfortable, the car shimmying frighteningly. Loquasto could not make four laps that way. So his crew made hasty adjustments and he went out to a chase a dream that, a decade ago, brought him to Indy. His first four years here, he crashed three times in practice. He finished 25th in 1976, 28th the next year.

His laps today were consistent, the fastest 14/100ths of a second better than the slowest. Such consistency is proof certain of a driver's skill. It just wasn't fast enough to make the field. By 63/100ths of a second . . . by .590 mph . . . by half a heartbeat, Loquasto missed.

"Three seconds or 10 seconds, it's the same at this point," Loquasto said. He stood in his garage. A hundred yards away, the 35 drivers in this 500 were introduced to spectators. The drivers waved to the folks, conquering heroes in their glory.

"I knew it was really close," Loquasto said. Each lap's speed was posted on a board by his crew for him to see as he flew by. "But I couldn't go any faster. There's nothing you can do about that. I guarantee you, I couldn't come any closer to the wall in Turn Two. People behind that wall started getting out of the way."

Loquasto is 38 years old, the owner with his father of a small chain of freight and salvage stores in eastern Pennsylvania. A hill-climb driver at 16, a sports car champion 10 year later, the sprint-car rookie of the year in 1966, Loquasto first raced an Indy car in 1969. In 54 Indy-car races since, he has never finished better than sixth and has won only $151,033.

"If I'd gone any faster, I would have crashed," he said. "And I didn't come here to crash."

For an hour after his run, Loquasto kept his garage door closed to visitors. A man at the door said the driver didn't feel like talking to anybody. And when Loquasto let in a newspaperman, he first said, "I don't want to say anything. It'd sound like sour grapes I don't make excuses."

They weren't excuses. They were, in keeping with this phantasmagorical month, implausible reasons for implausible events. The tire change that did him in was ordered by USAC's safety people even though Loquasto said his tires were fine and he wanted to keep them because his car was set up for them. And then he couldn't practice on the new tires because USAC, in setting up this day to set matters right, made it a one-try-only event.

"I'll be back here next year, definitely," Loquasto said.

"Losers quit," he said.

"I'm not a loser," he said. CAPTION: Picture 1, Race driver Al Loquasto, left, waits to talk to Tom Binford, Indy chief steward. AP; Picture 2, Shorty Morrison, crew member for John Mahler, has USAC patch on Mickey Mouse cap