On the surface, at least, it all looked ominously familiar. The same dark columns of thunderheads marched down the sky as the same bright circus of race cars went round and round in practice, and the same rowdy, beer-guzzling crowd whooped it up under the oak trees at Turn One. But when qualifying day arrived in Indianapolis last Saturday, all similarities ceased. Just as the event was about to turn sour—what with the inept officiating, the scorched spectators, the deaths and other distractions—Indy saved itself.
The rains that had played havoc with last year's race held off just long enough to permit a full morning of time trials. And when the weather finally did put an end to the automotive action, the crowd took over the task of entertainment. Streakers by the dozen pranced out of the "Snake Pit," the enclave of youthful exuberance in the infield at the southwest corner of the track, and one more elderly nude assaulted the new starting tower on the main straight.
Granted, most of the streakers were male and overweight, thus leaving a lot to be desired esthetically in that absurd sport, but still it was a refreshing touch to a scene that in recent years has been far too grim. Even more refreshing was the fact that the Indy cops, never known for their gentleness, did not come down hard on the kids. Only 14 were arrested, and 11 so much as slugged. When the Big Streak ended, the kids themselves helped clean up the broken beer bottles on the track and even replaced the Cyclone fence they had torn down to gain access to the banked turn.
Along the way, as everyone had expected, A. J. Foyt Jr. of Houston gained a firm grip on the pole position for the 58th running of the Indianapolis 500. A firm grip, but not a fully secure one. When qualifying resumes this Saturday 11 drivers who did not have a chance to run on opening day will have a shot at bumping Foyt from the pole. But their shot will be a long one at best.
Foyt dominated the scene right from the moment that his flat, orange Gilmore Racing Special took to the track. Restrictions on wing size and turbocharger boost have lowered speeds for this year's race by nearly 10 miles an hour, but it seemed as if Supertex had found a new way around the speed barrier.
During Thursday's practice session conditions were perfect for fast running—temperatures in the low 50s, the skies windless and overcast. Johnny Rutherford, who had captured the pole last year with a clocking in excess of 198 mph, went out in his McLaren and turned a quick lap of 192.389. Foyt emerged from Gasoline Alley, warmed up with a couple of slow, growling laps, and then almost playfully whipped off a run of 192.636, just enough to edge Rutherford. Later in the afternoon Wally Dallenbach cranked out a 193.434 in his red STP Eagle prepared by Master Mechanic George Bignotti. Again Foyt was compelled to put the upstart in his place. He quickly turned a lap at 196.249. Nuff said.
Indeed, so fast was Foyt—and so stringent the speed restrictions for this year's race—that many top teams were not even making a full effort to win the pole, despite the fact that a bonus estimated at some $20,000 goes with it. With fuel for the race reduced from 350 to 280 gallons, the cars will have to get 1.8 miles per gallon if they are to finish the full 500 miles. That can be accomplished only by lowering the "boost" pressure in their turbochargers and thus running at a considerably lower speed than the cars are capable of hitting.
Bobby Unser, whose high-flying Dan Gurney Eagle has already won two of the season's three championship races, virtually ceded the pole to Foyt. "The trick is to be race ready," said Team Manager Gurney. "We want to be somewhere in the first three rows on race day so as to stay clear of any traffic jams during the start. But this year, with the speed restrictions, the pole doesn't seem to matter that much."
Others who might have wanted to challenge Foyt for the pole met with the mechanical frustrations that have made Indy a cuss word for so many years. Gary Bettenhausen, driving an impeccably prepared Eagle set up by Mark Donohue and Roger Penske, was all show and very little go. Bettenhausen managed to blow two engines in as many days. Mario Andretti, whose brand-new Parnelli had won the pole at Trenton Speedway last month and was touted as the only car in the field built specifically to this season's fuel requirements, could not get untracked. After four days of frustration during which he was just able to exceed 186 miles an hour, Andretti parked the Parnelli and turned to his backup Eagle—which also refused to reach 190. Teammate Al Unser fared a bit better in his own Parnelli Jones Eagle, inching over 188 on a couple of practic runs. But then he drew a qualification starting slot well down the list for Saturday and shortly before the big show started, he burned a piston in practice. This put him out of the running for the pole.
The third member of the Jones "Superteam," Joe Leonard, was still sidelined with the broken leg he sustained in the California 500 at Ontario in March. "The leg isn't mending as fast as Joe had hoped," said Andretti, shaking his head. "It's not good. The circulation hasn't come back completely."
Leonard's replacement on the Super-team was something of a surprise to those who remember Parnelli Jones as Mr. Straight. Jan Opperman is a reformed hippie and confirmed Jesus freak who only quit blowing pot last February (by his own admission). When he applied to Parnelli last week for the ride, the only thing longer than Opperman's hair was his string of sprint car victories—105 of them, to be precise.
"I looked right past his hair," said Jones. "What impressed me was that he ran 99 races last year and 103 the year before that. I used to run 60 a year and thought I was some kind of iron man. Anybody who runs that much has just got to have his stuff together." Nonetheless, Parnelli insisted that Opperman get a haircut. In fact, it took two severe pruning jobs before P. J. was satisfied, and Jan Opperman, 35, of Beaver Crossing, Neb., was a Superteammate. But he won't get a chance to show his stuff until he passes his rookie test next weekend.
In deference to the so-called energy crisis, Indy qualifying this year was cut to two Saturdays rather than the customary two weekends. So officials tailored the situation to fit tradition: the first half of opening day was to count entirely for the basic starting grid—i.e., any cars ready to run at 11 a.m. Saturday would be given a shot at the pole. Cars unable to run until 2:30 p.m. that day (which became, in effect, Sunday) would have to take station somewhere behind, regardless of their ultimate speed.
Qualifying day broke hot and windy, with a stale yellow aura that promised rain later in the day. A massive cold front was approaching from St. Louis, the radio said, and it should start raining "farmers and pitchforks" shortly after noon. In order to keep things even during the qualification runs, the cars were equipped with "pop-off" valves mounted in the manifold, which held turbocharger pressure to a skimpy 80 inches of mercury. When Foyt had hit his 196 on Thursday, he was running closer to 90 inches, so it seemed clear that the pole winner would probably run no faster than 193. During the hour and a half of practice preceding qualification, the hot dogs all cracked the 190 mph barrier, but Foyt obviously was still the hottest of all.
What's more, Foyt had drawn the top slot for his run. In terms of drama it was everything the impresarios might have desired: Foyt would go out first, and everyone else would have to strive for his mark. A. J. was dead cool when the magic hour of 11 arrived. He winked at Di Gilmore—his sponsor's pretty wife—and disappeared into his Coyote-orange helmet. Gone was the bank-robber bandanna that was once Foyt's trademark; since he was burned at Du Quoin two years ago, his flaming bandanna char-broiling his tongue, A. J. has converted to Nomex, the flame-retardant fabric most racers prefer. After only two warm up laps, Foyt raised his fist and Starter Pat Vidan gave him the green flag. The electric current that only Indy, with all its ugliness and courage can generate, was flowing once again.
Foyt's first lap was about what he had expected. A decent 192.555. But by now the wind was whipping down the back-stretch at nearly 25 miles an hour, making the left-hand turn into the short chute at the north end of the track very dicey indeed. On the second lap, A. J. held consistent—192.226—but on the third go-round he came close to that edge which ends in the wall. The wind confounded his line and he almost lost control. "Wait'll you see the reruns of that one," he said later. "I damn near lost it between three and four. I thought I was going into the wall. I really did."
The third lap was a disheartening 191.489, Foyt having scared himself that severely, and the fourth was a mere 190.275. Foyt's average for the 10 miles was 191.632 mph. He was bitterly disappointed. "It will probably be good enough for the first three or four rows," he said over the public-address system, but he had not taken the rapidly deteriorating weather into account. The track was slick and the wind was humming. At the same time, as the front approached from the southwest, the barometric pressure dropped rapidly. That "low" condition, added to the mechanical restriction of the pop-off valve, greatly reduced power in the turbochargers of every succeeding qualifier.
George Snider, driving Foyt's second car, could only come up with 183.993 miles an hour—roughly a third-row position. Bobby Unser, who had hit 192 in practice just an hour before, could run no faster than 186.220 on his opening qualification lap and ended up with a 185.176 average for the four laps. That put him, for the time being, on the inside of the second row. Just what Doctor Gurney prescribed.
At that point, the man with the best chance of bumping A. J. off the pole seemed to be Wally Dallenbach in the quickest of the three STP Eagles. Now 37, Wally is a bit of a late bloomer. Last season, after years of being one of the faceless journeymen of USAC, he won the Milwaukee 200 and the California 500, ending up second in the championship point standings to Roger McCluskey and winning the title of New Jersey's Athlete of the Year. He also gained personal stature as one of the men who helped pull David Walther from his flaming car after the smashup that aborted the start of last year's Indy 500.
Though a lot of racers were muttering that Foyt had to be doing something illegal in order to achieve his superiority, it was Dallenbach's car that came closest to copping the finagler-of-the-year award. George Bignotti had equipped the Offy engine with a giant turbocharger of the sort used in Allison aircraft engines and Gold Cup hydroplanes. Fully legal because of loopholes in this year's boost restriction rules, the big blower added 100 horsepower to the Offy's kick. In effect, it simply puffed so much fuel and air through the motor that it overrode the pop-off valve and delivered more than 30 pounds of boost as opposed to the 27½ pounds the pop-off permits. Still, the best lap Dallenbach could turn was 190.718—faster than Foyt's slowest, but not fast enough. His average speed of 189.683 mph put him right next to Tex in the front row center. Mike Mosley filled out the lineup in his Lodestar Eagle—at least for the nonce.
When the rains came, as predicted, the crazies, the flashers and the streakers took over. As usual, the Indy management failed to handle the situation and let the Turn Oners do their thing, virtually uninterrupted, for more than two hours. Even after the spate of showers ended and the track turned bone-dry, the officials held back the qualifying, contributing to the overall mood of restlessness. Had Tony Hulman ordered his tow trucks out onto the track—and turned loose a race car or two—or had Announcer Tom Carnegie firmly requested the streakers to get dressed, nice seeing ya, the delay might have been reduced by half. As it was, only five cars got out to qualify after the Rain Streak ended and another rainstorm started.
Best of that lot was rookie Tom Sneva, who made the second row with an average of 185.149 mph. Sneva, a 25-year-old junior high school principal from Sprague, Wash., is a quick study—and a good long-shot bet for the May 26 race.
When the day's running was over, average speed for the 15 qualifiers figured out to 184.252 mph, with 180.605 on the low side, setting up a situation for the second capsulized weekend that could produce a flurry of bumping for position.
Of the 11 drivers who still have a shot at the pole, the smart money has to ride with Gordon Johncock, last year's winner, in the second-fastest of the Bignotti cars. Al Unser and Johnny Rutherford both burned their engines during Saturday's prequalification practice and are thus ineligible to take a shot at Foyt—neither car was ready on the pit road at 11 a.m.—but Gordie was there and Gordie can go. The little man from Michigan, lately of Phoenix, is nothing if not a charger.
Meanwhile, Foyt will sweat, and the streakers—bless 'em all—really should recruit a few more girls.
Disappointed with his run, A.J. considered the pole position firm, though not secure.
Awaiting his chance is challenger Johncock.
Closing in, Dallenbach almost bumped Foyt.