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The magic 190s were a mere flight of fancy until airfoils sprouted—and then the cars really took off

As they say in Middle America, who'd of thunk it? For the better part of a decade, the big cars that race at Indianapolis had been chipping away at an invisible speed barrier that stands just short of 200 miles an hour, right up there in the mid-190s. By last year they had come within hailing distance of the goal, but even the winged McLarens—quickest of the championship machines—were still about 20 mph short of it. And since such records must be inched up on, no one seriously could have conceived of a breakthrough quite as dramatic as the one that took shape last week at Indy. There, in outbursts of speed that blew the mental engines of even the most unflappable racing men, car after car ripped into the sacred 190s. It was like a platoon of Bob Beamons breaking the world long-jump record in the same meet by the same incredible margin. And in the rain. While wearing overshoes.

Actually, the nagging spring rains that washed out most of the first and second days of qualifying, while certainly frustrating the 150,000 fans who showed up for the action, served many racing teams in good stead. It gave them extra time to mend the engines broken in practice. And by the time the green light finally winked on at 2:42 p.m. Sunday with just about three hours left to run, everyone was ready.

Even before the weekend's abbreviated qualifying began, 23 cars had exceeded the 180 mph mark, making Peter Revson's one-lap record of 179.354, set during his pole-winning run last year, look like a Go-Kart clocking. Not that the comparison bothered Revvy. He was one of four drivers this season who topped 190 just warming up. Bobby Unser was Mr. Superquick with a lap of 194.721 in his Olsonite Eagle—a practice time that measured a full 15 mph faster than last year's best. Revson himself was second quickest in practice with a 191.123 before he blew the turbocharged Offenhauser engine in his orange McLaren on the eve of qualifying—a development that made for a long and hectic night in the Team McLaren garage.

Gary Bettenhausen of Roger Penske's B Team clocked a 191 flat in his blue McLaren while A Team driver Mark Donohue was busy destroying five different engines in a virtually identical machine. It was that kind of week: one never knew which car would blow up next. The fourth member of the 190 club was Mike Mosley, fully healed from his flaming, near-fatal crash in last year's race. Mosley topped out at 190.5 mph in his A. J. Watson Eagle. Another A. J.—the one called Foyt—barely missed the 190 mark in practice, with a 189.553 clocking to become the only Ford-powered driver in the top 10.

The price of all that speed was considerable. More than three dozen engines blew during practice alone, and since a turbocharged Offy or Ford costs from $25,000 to $35,000, the tab for broken motors came to nearly a million by the time the boys were ready to qualify. Still, to the speed freaks who live and sometimes die for the dubious honor of running at Indy, the cost in mere metal, however finely wrought, was inconsequential. "We've only sprang part of it," exulted Bobby Unser. It might have stood as a motto for the week.

To understand the full significance of last week's spranging, one must first recognize that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is not the fastest racecourse in the world. It is only the scariest—a four-cornered, low-banked, sadistic taskmaster whose obdurate concrete walls destroy courage as well as life. The breakthrough at Indy last week was basically aerodynamic, but it was psychological, too. In the past, a sensible driver legged it on the straightaways and backed off just a bit through the corners, counting largely on engine power to give him the fastest time.

This year, with the new adhesiveness produced by airfoils fore and aft, it finally became possible for a driver to stay on the throttle through at least two of the four turns—or maybe more. "If I were brave enough," Bobby U. admitted one afternoon, "I think I could drive flat out all the way around." Nobody is quite that brave just yet, but they soon may be.

The trick word among the speed buffs this May is "geometry"—but not the way you learned it from Pythagoras. It should have been obvious all these years that the best way to increase speed in oval-track racing would be to build a car that sticks tight to the pavement as it runs through the corners, thus permitting full use of engine power most of the lap around the track. The inverted airfoils mounted on the tails of today's cars produce downthrust, and the smaller wings up front keep the car tight to the track as it turns. At the same time, wider tires and stickier compounds of rubber keep the car from spinning out under the complex pressures of engine thrust and turn. All of these developments existed long ago, but they had never been assembled in the proper combination.

Now, taking a cue from the McLaren M16s that astounded the conservative Indy community a year ago, designers have turned to the wing as the best possible solution to the geometry problem. The resulting configurations make this year's Indy the snazziest car show ever.

Dan Gurney's new Eagle was not only the quickest machine around, but probably the handsomest example of the new geometry. From its massive rear wing through its long, low midsection (which packs the driver inside a flat, low-level fuel cell) to its gaping side-mounted air scoops, it was the optimum design both visually and speedily. Roman Slobodynskyj, the self-effacing, mustachioed designer from Los Angeles who played a major role in getting the new Eagle properly feathered, says that "we had the basic concepts well in hand even before last year's race."

Slobodynskyj says the key now is "cooling." Once you can permit a car to run flat out, or nearly so, most of the way around a 2½-mile track—as the wings do—the next difficulty is keeping the engine together. Other designers also recognized this problem. Eric Broadley's Lola, purchased and prepared for the race at the last minute by Andy Granatelli, had two huge "nostrils" straddling its front end, ready to suck in air and cool the highly-stressed engine. The radically designed Parnellis, products of the fertile imagination of Maurice Phillippe, whose Lotus 72 is currently the scourge of the Formula I circuit, at first sported large V-wings just athwart the driver's cockpit. These wings not only generated downthrust but contained the car's radiators. Result: the same air that pushed the car down onto the track also cooled its engine.

But the new design did not sit well with the team's drivers—Al Unser, Mario Andretti and last year's USAC champion, Joe Leonard. They said, in effect, that they wanted big, wide rear wings like the other boys had.

"We cut off the V-wings to reduce drag," deadpanned George Bignotti, the Parnelli team's chief mechanic. He might have added that they clipped the vees to honor driver psychology—which in the wrong configuration can be just as much of a drag.

The Saturday-Sunday rains, which may well have been ordered up especially by Roger Penske, who was busy installing yet another engine in Mark Donohue's car, forced most of the racing fans indoors. But Indy regulars are nothing if not patient, and if they can't watch racing they'll sit there and talk racing. As usual, the conversation in the bars and boîtes of Nap Town centered on racing deaths and such leading questions as "Say, how do you think old A. J. goin' to do?"

By the time Saturday's skies cleared, only an hour of racing time was left in the day. Old A. J., unfortunately, had drawn a qualifying number near the top of the list. He took the green flag just as the sun was sliding back behind the grandstand, and for a few seconds it looked as if Foyt might become the first man to break Revson's qualifying record officially.

But Foyt blew his engine in the short chute between turns one and two, thus blowing his chances for the pole. With that, the faithful retired for another session of drink and stories, eager for the morrow.

That the tension was high on both metal and minds became clear during the Sunday morning practice session. Veteran Jim Malloy, in an Eagle-Offy that he had run up close to 190, hit the wall in turn three, burned as he slid down to turn four, and was cut out of the car in critical condition with all four limbs broken. A spate of rain around noon heightened the tension for fans and foes alike. When Al Unser finally went out—for the first qualifying attempt since Foyt's ill-fated run the previous afternoon—he lasted just one warmup lap before popping a piston and losing his chance, if indeed he had one, for the pole. Bill Vukovich became the first driver to complete an official lap—at a by-now-banal 185.797 mph—but then spun out and went into the wall in the south chute as he started his second lap. Then along came more rain—would it never cease?—before Joe Leonard rolled out to run four nearly faultless laps at a new record average of 185.223. "This record will be short-lived," said Joe. And it was. Mario Andretti, next out in the last of the Parnellis, upped the mark to 187.617.

Then came the first act of the day's climax. Three cars after Andretti, Gary Bettenhausen took to the track in the Penske B Team McLaren and ripped off a first, fast lap of 189.474, averaging 188.877 for the full four. Gary, whose popularity at Indy is as much of his own making as it is derivative of the memory of his father Tony, looked at Bobby U. warming up and said: "O.K., Bobby's out there now. I'd like to hold the record for a few minutes at least." And that was all he got.

By now a tricky wind had abated, the air was properly damp, and Bobby was ready to sprang the rest of the way. His first lap was a convincing 194.922—the quickest he'd traveled since arriving at Indy early in the month. The second—well, no one could quite believe it, not even designer and ex-racer Dan Gurney. His watch reading converted to 196.026. Too much. But on his third lap, Bobby surprised even himself with a clocking of 196.678. His final lap dropped off by half a mile an hour, but no one was disappointed. Unser's final average: 195.937. That was precisely 17.241 miles an hour faster than Revson's record a year ago.

"I feel like cryin'," Bobby laughed when it was all over. "You know, it didn't feel quite as nice at '96 as it did at '94—the ragged edge and all that. The wind was causing some trouble, and I couldn't really get four perfect turns together. But I always got three, and that was enough."

There were few who doubted that it would remain enough. Although Mark Donohue and Peter Revson, who had drawn qualifying positions at the very end of the 33-car line, would have to wait until this weekend to make their runs, it seemed unlikely that their McLarens could catch Bobby Unser's highflying Eagle. Then again, when Revvy went out last year with a previously ragged engine and set the record, who'd of thunk it?



Geometry, Indy style, produced this fat, low profile on Andretti car.



Track-eye view of a McLaren design shows aerodynamic principle: while wide tires give the car traction, front foil holds nose down.



Key features of Gurney's Eagle are high foils and long, low silhouette.



Another McLaren mark: stable flattop.



The radical new Parnelli has wings fore and aft—and an extra set over the front wheels.



Wings were not enough for Lola designer Eric Broadley: he added front nostrils for cooling.