Because it rained this morning, they held the drivers' meeting in a tent soon overcrowded with gawkers. A dark man with heavy shoulders made his way slowly to the front, gently squeezing past people.

"Hi, Danny," someone said, and the dark man smiled.

"Danny Ongais," someone else said to a buddy. "Doesn't have much of a limp, does he?"

"That's not a picture," someone said. "That's the man. Danny On-the-gas. I picked him to win last year."

They love Danny Ongais here. He stands on it. They call him the Flyin' Hawaiian. He wears a silver helmet and drives a black bullet. He nearly died here last year when he hit the wall in Turn 3 at 190 miles per hour.

Surgeons twice fixed an artery so they wouldn't have to amputate his right leg, his throttle leg, little more than jelly laced with bone fragments. They put steel rods in his crumpled left arm. They put assorted bones back together.

Ongais lay in bed and rode an electric wheelchair and gimped around on crutches for eight months until, in mid-January, wearing a brace, folding himself into a cockpit again, he drove a Porsche race car as fast as he ever had.

What did Ongais do, a reporter asked, to get his body in shape to race again?

"I think," the stoic said, "that I thought about it a lot. There was no special therapy. The doctors were not unfamiliar with motor racing. They knew what I wanted to do, and everything was directed to that end. They just let me out of the hospital."

So it's no special feeling to be back at Indy, Ongais said, because there was never a doubt he'd be back.

"I came to do a race this week," he said, as if nothing had happened worse than, say, an accountant misplacing his pencil. "Events leading up to the race shouldn't affect anything."

Race drivers hold life dear, saving nothing, refusing to enter the hell's circle of suffocating gray. A.J. Foyt is here after ripping his arm apart last summer. Rick Mears is here after burning his face last May. Danny Ongais confessed only to taking one little peek at the Turn 3 wall.

"The first time out, I looked around to see if I left any marks," Ongais said of a mid-March test. "I was sort of surprised there weren't any."

He qualified for Sunday's Indianapolis 500 at 199.148 miles per hour, the ninth fastest time in the 33-car field.

Larry Griffin, writing in Car and Driver magazine of a 1979 road race in which Ongais ran off from A.J. Foyt and the Unsers:

"Anyone who has seen Danny Ongais drive would likely be willing to vote in favor of his immediate committal. When he is in an automobile, Danny Ongais is quite probably insane. He is, also, in many minds, a genius at the wheel."

Ongais told Griffin the accident happened after a pit stop when he needed to make up time. "I remember coming out and going down the back straightaway and then the thing just violently turning right. Without any warning it just turned. When it turned right that hard it did something to my equilibrium, you know, and I don't remember anything else other than some time later getting up in the hospital."

"No," Ongais said, he never worried while healing that he would lose his touch.

Ongais believes the touch is his gift, his forever, and he stared a long, discomfiting time at a reporter who asked about aftereffects of the accident. Did it make him a better driver?

"I still have bones to heal," Ongais finally said, "but I have full motion in all areas. As for learning anything, I don't know that I learned anything."

Ongais said he had no apprehension coming to Indy, because he had been in a race car often by then (running only one official lap, that in the Daytona 24 Hours, where his engine blew). Except for the one peek at the wall, he said he hasn't replayed the accident. He still doesn't know what caused it.

"I couldn't really say we know," Ongais said. "I don't know. Possibly somebody in our group knows. I'm a driver. I've got a race to drive. I don't go back and look."

He races, even with risk so clearly defined, because, "I enjoy what I do and the people I do it with."

Nothing has changed. "You just live."

Danny Ongais is 40 years old. He has won six Indy-car races and almost $500,000 in six years. He was a drag-racing star first. One time a driveshaft broke in his dragster, stuck in the pavement and catapulted the car upside down across the finish line, the parachute burning. Accountants lose pencils, Ongais gets upside down.

He limps more than the man in the tent noticed. To get into his race car, he uses both hands to lift his right leg. To race, he wears a brace and foot plate under his hero suit. When someone asked if he would drive next Monday in a sports car race, Ongais said, "All I can tell you is I hope to be here Sunday morning."

Can he go fast enough long enough to win?

Danny On-the-gas nodded yes.