Not since the dreary depths of the Great Depression has American oval-track racing been in quite so sad a state. The 33-car field for last Sunday's California 500—first of the U.S. Auto Club's Triple Crown races—had to be filled by invitation. A tour of the garage area at the Ontario Motor Speedway provoked the same grim sense of penury that often accompanies a stroll through a used-car lot. There stood Roger McCluskey, the fine old USAC veteran, beside his mount, the—what's this?—Silver Floss Sauerkraut Special.
Sauerkraut, indeed. And that wasn't the funniest monicker by a long shot. With sponsorship money fast evaporating, drivers have been forced to patch up the most amazing financial alliances. Jimmy Caruthers, a rising young racer from Southern California, ended up behind the wheel of the Alex Foods Tama-le Wagon. Last year's Indy winner, Johnny Rutherford, found himself piloting a color-coordinated Gatorade McLaren—a green machine, the unluckiest of colors according to racing tradition. But Al Loquasto took nomenclatural honors with his Frostie Root Beer Pennsylvania Bicentennial McLaren Special.
Nonetheless, anyone with any angel at all was far better off than a driver like Dick Simon, who lost his TraveLodge sponsorship on the eve of the race and had to wheel forlornly around the track in a car most remarkable for the absence of big-letter decals.
Of the 38 cars that showed up for qualifying, only one was brand new: George Bignotti's Wildcat. Bignotti, the superwrench who has prepared six winning cars at Indianapolis, went the whole route. The Wildcat is not named for a feline but for an oil well, since Owner Pat Patrick is a petrobuckster, and the car comes with a brand-new engine as well as a new chassis.
"The main thing isn't power today," Bignotti says, referring to recent USAC rules that require cars to get 1.8-miles-per-gallon fuel consumption, half a mile more than in the halcyon days of unlimited power just two years ago. Thus the Wildcat chassis is "cleaner" than the now dominant Eagle and Coyote chassis favored by most teams, and its engine is more efficient than the standard Offenhauser. And cheaper, too—only $25,000 per copy when it goes into full production next year, compared with $35,000 for an Offy. Despite its novelty, Gordon Johncock could qualify the Wildcat no higher than the fourth row.
Laudable as Bignotti's motives may be in moving toward a less costly, more efficient Indy car, the change may be too little and too late. Racing costs are escalating even faster than the cost of living. "We've never been hurting worse for money," says one of the sport's top constructors. "We've been living a binge for the past eight or 10 years, starting with expensive engines, then the big-bucks involvement of the fuel and tire companies. It created a kind of 'sky's the limit' mentality that is still at work among the USAC officials, but bears no relation to the economic realities of today. After all, the USAC bosses don't have any bucks in this, and human nature being what it is, it's easy for them to adopt a ruinous attitude of superiority. What we really need is a common, less costly engine that can be used in both oval and road racing, one that will put victory back where it deserves to be—in the hands of the driver, not the banker.
"What's really so sad is seeing the sport become an old man's game. The top drivers are getting long in the tooth—Bobby Unser and A. J. Foyt are over 40—and there's very little new talent coming down the road. A foxy grandpa can win Indy by playing it cool, using his savvy, not going all out. The fans want to see racing, not runaways by a super-expensive car or races won by cunning."
Roger Penske, who is one of the most dedicated and determined men in racing, also is disgusted with the USAC climate. "If it weren't for Indy, the prestige and money and significance of that one big event, I wouldn't be in oval-track racing," he says. "The costs are insane, the pressure is nearly intolerable, and even if you do everything right, it's still a matter of luck if you win." It was more than luck, however, that brought the Penske team into Victory Lane at Indy in 1972—painstaking preparation and the canny skills of Mark Donohue were the prime ingredients. Still, in talking to men like Penske and Dan Gurney and McLaren builder Teddy Mayer one comes away with a sense of frustration. These racers want to race, not play money games.
Moreover, the Speedway has its own problems. Mainly, it is on the verge of insolvency. The $25.5 million Ontario track, completed in 1970, is the handsomest racing facility in North America, if not the world. Yet it is a financial white elephant. When a group headed by Parnelli Jones took over the track in 1973, after the original managers went bust, it was acknowledged that success would be touch and go. It looks more like go right now. A complicated bond structure administered by the city of Ontario puts the daily cost of the track at $4,000. Racing alone cannot pay off that nut, so last year the track held a rock concert that drew more than 190,000 spectators—nearly twice the number that attended the first California 500. However, the bluenoses of Ontario didn't like all those longhairs in town, so future concerts have been forbidden. The Jones group has given notice to the city that it may have to bail out.
"We'll need a crowd of more than 100,000 for this race to stay with it," Parnelli said gloomily as race weekend approached. "I'm not in this for profits, I've got plenty of other business operations going, but I'm in it for the sake of racing." He looked out over the empty stands and the gleaming track. The snows of the San Gabriel Mountains shone just over his shoulder. "I'd sure hate to see them turn it into another lizard ranch."
Well, best bring on the lizards. The race-day crowd sure looked smaller than the magic number. And it was a shame, too, for the richly sponsored Foyt ran away with the 500 in his slick Gilmore Coyote, thus becoming the man to beat at this year's Indy. Among the others, Johncock performed respectably in the Bignotti entry until forced out with debris in his engine, but then perhaps a lot of racers in the pack were scouting the stands for backers. The day ended with all problems sadly intact. For everybody but A. J.