When they first tried to run it a month ago, the so-called Eastern jewel in auto racing's Triple Crown proved to be nothing more than a floating opal. The torrents of tropical storm Agnes darn near washed it away, along with the nearby towns of Wilkes-Barre and Pittston. But last week the Schaefer 500 at Pocono International Raceway, high in the hirsute mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, got another chance to demonstrate its carat count. Rescheduled to run, back to back, with the Pennsylvania 500 for stock cars in a parlay that came to be known as the Pocono 1,000, it glittered like a very zircon—at least for the two star teammates who thought they had won it.
At this stage in the USAC championship season the cast of characters is pretty well established. It came as no surprise when Bobby Unser won the pole in record time in his Olsonite Eagle. What was a bit amazing was the fact that it was the sixth straight pole-position start for Bobby in as many races, although he ultimately won just two of them totaling only 300 miles. The Eagle is certainly quick enough; Unser's Pocono qualifying mark of 189.473 mph was 17.06 mph better than Mark Donohue's pole-winning time last year in the track's inaugural race. But the big question remained. When would the Eagle fly a full 500?
Donohue was not on hand to defend his title as the first winner of the Schaefer 500 or as this year's Indy victor. He was still in a Georgia hospital with Can-Am knee, recovering from surgery after his crash at Road Atlanta earlier in the month (SI, July 17). That left the burden of proof for the Roger Penske McLarens on Gary Bettenhausen, the fellow who had led Indy most of the way only to fail in the final laps with ignition problems. Gary now seemed ready to continue the fast pace he had established this season. His qualifying speed of 182.766 put him and his red-trimmed blue racer in the middle of the second row, armed with both reliability and determination.
The orange cars of Team McLaren—virtually identical with Penske's machine—fared only so-so in qualifying. Gordon Johncock in the No. 24 car averaged 183.457 to sit second to Bobby Unser, but Peter Revson needed three tries and a couple of fresh engines to run at 180.277, a time that placed him in the ninth of 11 rows since he did not qualify until the second day of trials. The most improved cars in the field were those of Parnelli Jones' "superteam"—Mario Andretti, Al Unser and the reigning USAC champ, Joe Leonard. With the aerodynamic vee-wings of the Parnellis clipped and replaced by longer noses and wider rear wings, Mario qualified third at 183.216, Al fourth at 182.981 and "Pelican Joe" sixth at 181.646 mph. That put three Parnellis, two McLarens and a lone Eagle in the first two rows—a decided numerical advantage to the superteam.
But open-wheel racing wasn't all the weekend was about. When the Indy cars stopped qualifying, out rolled the USAC stockers for a bit of comic relief. Or so it seemed at first. The stock-car racing division of the U.S. Auto Club is bush compared to the sleek and highly competitive machinery of NASCAR—taxicabs by contrast with well-tended family sedans. Pocono management had invited a mini-galaxy of NASCAR stars to hype attendance, but Richard Petty, the best of the good old boys, was the only authentic big-timer to show. Operating with a discreditable bitchiness, some minor USAC officials quickly kicked Petty out of the garage assigned to him and exiled him to a tent—l√®se majesté to the King of the Road. USAC Executive Director Bill Smyth quickly returned Petty to his proper quarters and tendered an apology, but that wasn't all Richard needed. USAC drivers Roger McCluskey, Butch Hartman and Wally Dallenbach then added insult to injury by acing Petty out of the pole position. (And when they got down to the real racing McCluskey further ruined Petty's week by leading most of the way and winning easily. Especially after Richard blew a tire at the 250-mile mark.)
Still, taxis and nastiness aside, the main weekend attraction remained the rescheduled Indy car race, and it proved well worth the wait. Gordon Johncock outdragged Bobby Unser into the first turn, with Bobby and Mario Andretti in such close pursuit that when the trio reappeared at the start-finish line, it was Andretti leading by a bonnet. Bobby did not nip into the lead until the fifth lap, and he held it only five laps more before pitting to replace a frayed rear tire. And though Unser later turned on the pressure and seemed to be closing the gap, he ultimately was nibbled out of contention with a failing gearshift. This time Bobby had at least passed 150 miles—192.5, to be exact.
Meanwhile, with the lead changing between Andretti and Johncock, Peter Rev-son had been charging hard from his position at the rear of the pack. He gobbled up 14 cars, increasing a few heart rates among those who were watching his sinuous course through the slower traffic, but finally went under with a broken rod bolt. Along came Gary Bettenhausen to hold the lead gamely for some 40 laps, driving with the same cool that had characterized his Indy ride this year. But with the Parnellis hanging tough right behind him, Gary lost ignition on the backstretch midway through lap 78. Scratch another of Penske's splendidly prepared bad-luck enterprises.
That put Mario Andretti into the lead. At last: it had been more than two years since Mario won a USAC race, quite a dry spell for the onetime "Golden Guinea" of oval racing—and now it seemed that his time had come again. Mixing his pit stops judiciously with a few more brief yellow-flag periods, Andretti was leading handily at the halfway point over his superteammates, Leonard and Al Unser, respectively. The predominantly Pennsylvanian crowd was eager to see another Keystoner win their one big race, but their hopes were dashed on lap 163 when Andretti pitted routinely for fuel—and stalled out. When he finally got restarted, it was too late.
Then the confusion began. Andretti's prolonged pit stop seemed to put Joe Leonard in the lead. Next came a flaming crash by Jimmy Caruthers, and out came the caution flag. The cars slowed and Al Unser, who had already pitted seven times—once for more than 3½ minutes with a broken fuel line—was still obviously running behind Joe. But when the green flag came out again after the wreckage had been cleared, the official scorers suddenly announced Al to be in the lead, with less than 45 miles to roll. Indeed, when Unser swept across the finish line as the sun lowered over the Pocono greenery, the checkered flag was out for him. But Leonard knew better, and he pulled right into victory circle with Unser. Had they not been teammates, fists would have flown. Or something.
But there was no need for mayhem once the USAC stewards got their heads together. After studying the scoring charts for more than an hour, Chief Steward Dick King proclaimed Leonard the winner—and penalized Al Unser one lap for an alleged infraction. That dropped Al to third, behind Johnny Rutherford. Thus, the victory at a record speed of 154.781 mph made Pelican Joe some $83,530 richer and gave him a commanding lead in points toward his second straight USAC driving championship. "My only regret is that Mark Donohue and A. J. Foyt couldn't have been here," he said. "It would have made it more competitive."
And probably considerably more confusing.
For Al Unser, victory was sweet—and short.
For National Driving Champion Joe Leonard, the race was not to the fleet, but to the steady.