If you're driving 200 miles per hour, you want everything as safe as you can get it. You need concentration and protection. So you leave the wife at home and replace her with a platoon of St. Christophers on the dashboard.

Then you find A. J. Foyt's car in the traffic. You follow him. At 200 mph, A. J. knows what he is doing. If A. J. drives up a tree at 200 mph, you ask him which branch he'd like you to park on. There's a reason he's driving up that tree. Could be a shortcut to turn four.

What you don't do, as Johnny Rutherford was saying today, is drive 200 mph alongside a guy who has never driven 200 mph. It makes your insurance man nervous. It makes your wife, the backseat driver, nervous. It makes St. Christopher nervous.

But is Johnny Rutherford nervous?

Would a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner worry that 10 rookies will drive 200 mph in Sunday's 64th running of auto racing's grandest test?

A tough Texan nervous?

You betchum, Rod Ryder.

Not that Rutherford would say it.

Race drivers are cool. Unflappable. They don't blink. They go the edge of life every time they sit between those fuel tanks in those little mosquitoes of cars. Rutherford has hurtled into concrete at 200 mph, has broken both arms in a single cartwheeling accident, has burned both hands.

Ask him about those times in which he put a race car upside down and Johnny Rutherford, now 42, now wealthy, the father of two children -- Johnny Rutherford will say only this: "I learned a lot in those days."

Racers deal in understatement. Life at the edge is a job to them. It's fun. No big deal. Just like writing sports stories, Rutherford would tell you. To understand what a racer means, then, you often must forget the word. Multiply the effect of the words. "Learned a lot." What he learned was he better get damned good or he'd get dead. Watch Rutherford's face when you ask him if he's worried about the 10 men driving in the 500 for the first time.

He raises his right eyebrow and turns away, breaking eye contact.

He's sitting in his garage. Nothing goes on today. The cars are shut down until Thursday's last round of practice. An airplane buff who flies a restored P-51 Mustang fighter plane left over from World War II, Rutherford is leafing through a picture book. "Pacific War Wrecks and Where to Find Them" is full of wrecked airplanes.

"It is going to be. . . "Rutherford says before stopping. He turns another page of airplane wrecks.

"I've always had the theory that you give a rookie the benefit of the doubt," Rutherford said. "You have to."

Another page, another wreck.

He's searching for a way to say this.

"You have to watch your timing. If you're coming up on a rookie, you don't want to do it in the turn. You don't want to just drive up next to him unless he knows you're going to be ther. You could cause him trouble doing it. Trouble he's not prepared to handle."

What Johnny Rutherford is saying so cooly and with such understatement is this: A rookie might turn straight left into your ear if you scare him. The race would be better off without a third of the field still learning which one is A.J. Foyt.

It was 1965 when as many as 10 rookies last started in the Indianapolis 500. It has become an old man's race, an "old" man defined in athletic terms as anyone on the croaking side of 30. The three fastest qualifiers here --Rutherford, Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser -- are 42, 40 and 46. Foyt is 45. Gordon Johncock 43, Al Unser 40. Jim McElreath, the 13th fastest man, is 52 and they've named a city park after him in Arlington, Tex. f

Of the 10 rookies, only two are under 30: Tim Richmond, 24, and Greg Leffler, 29.

That's because these Indy cars represent at least $100,000 of somebody's money. Such money is not going to be entrusted to just any local hotshoe. A kid might go fast, but an old man will bring the thing back in one piece to run another day.

At 35, Dennis Firestone is an old beginner. A champion road racer for a decade around Los Angeles, Firestone is here for the first time. He qualified at 183.702 mph, the 22nd fastest time, some 9 mph behind Rutherford's 192.256.

Rutherford leafs through pictures of burning airplanes as he talks about the rookies.

Firestone, a rookie, stands outside his garage, arms folded, saying as how the rookies better behave themselves or have hell to pay.No understatement from the old kid.

"These fellows have to realize they can't try anything on the start," Firestone said. "They are mostly midget and sprint car drivers who always are looking to take advantage. They can't do that on this start."

The start of the Indianapolis 500 is the most frightening, most riveting moment in sport. Thirty-three of these 200 mph matchboxes come roaring, three abreast, down a narrow chute 50 feet wide, concrete walls on both sides, toward the first turn. Mel Kenyon, old driver: "Going into that first turn is like driving down a city street at 120 mph and turning into a dark alley."

Catastrophe has struck on the start.

Footnotes from the 1964 race, printed in a record book: "Lap 1: MacDonald skidded into northeast inside retaining wall, exploded; Sachs killed, MacDonald died of injuries. Hall spun to avoid crash, hit wall: Dument hit inside wall, caught fire, seriously burned; Unser bumped by . . ." dIt goes on, listing 14 cars and drivers in a first-lap accident said to be caused by the overeagerness of Dave MacDonald, a rookie.

"All the great drivers here," Firestone said in this afternoon's bright sun, "were hard-chargers once, too. But now they've got wisdom. That's what we rookies have to do Sunday, be like them. It's not a sprint car race you can win on the first turn; it's a three-hour race."

At Eldora, Ohio, April 3, 1966, a kid from Texas, a kid 28, his first child to be born three years later, drove a sprint car straight up into the air. Sprint cars are bombs with wheels. Anything goes wrong, they fly upside down. The kid from Texas was lucky. He only broke both arms and only had to sit out a year.

"I drove very hard back then," the graying kid said today, looking at airplane wrecks. "I still drive my hardest, and those things will happen if you charge. But I'm on -- what should we say? -- a strong learning curve."

Johnny Rutherford smiled the smile of a wise old man.