The cars were not quite as hot as the sun, nor were the speeds as high as the drama. But for all that, the opening day of qualifications for the 59th running of the Indianapolis 500 was more than a bit of all right. Not only did the weather gods abandon their spite of recent rainy years, they were positively beneficent. Cloudless skies framed a late spring sun whose bite was mitigated by cool breezes not strong enough to unduly hassle the cars and drivers. Add the smell of blossoming lilacs mixed with petroleum fumes and freshly popped beer and last Saturday was an ideal day for all-American automotive melodrama.
That the show even got off the ground seemed miracle enough. Motor racing in general, and the U.S. Auto Club's championship car series in particular, have been hurting in the recession, so much so that the last of USAC's 500-mile outings at Ontario, Calif. was a near disaster in terms of sponsorship and competitive machinery (SI, March 17). Yet Indy has a life of its own, not just competitive but economic as well. Whatever bucks could be scraped together to support an entry in this year's race had been scraped, and the result was a field of 56 spanking bright machines, fully 41 of which had passed USAC's stringent technical inspectors by qualifying day. And though many were older racers with little hope of winning the pole position, at least eight or nine cars stood a chance, a respectable percentage even in the most prosperous of years.
But high drama requires more than a robust cast. A certain tension must be established between hero and potential disaster, a tension of plot, whether its outcome be decided by broadswords, six-guns or race cars. This year the hero was obvious from the start: Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. of Houston and the raceways of America. If numbers can say anything of heroism, old A.J. had many of them working for him. Age 40 is a bit long in the tooth for a sport that places such high demands on reflexes and eyesight, yet A.J. continues quicker than ever. A few other numbers: Foyt has won 50, count 'em, 50 championship races, the most in history (Mario Andretti lies a distant second with 32); up to this year Foyt has driven 5,967½ miles in competition at Indy (only luckless Lloyd Ruby, with 5,745 miles—and no wins—is close among active drivers); he has driven in 225 champ car races as opposed to runner-up Roger McCluskey's 184, has started the last 17 Indy races vs. Ruby's 15, and leads all active drivers in the number of race laps on which he has been in the lead—394 compared to Al Unser's 311. Ah, but the big number is four. Up to this year. A.J. has been tied with Wilbur Shaw, Louis Meyer and Mauri Rose as the only three-time Indy winners. If Foyt can win an unprecedented fourth 500, he will be not only the best driver in American history but, arguably, the best the world has ever known.
O.K., but the race itself is not until May 25. How could A.J. excite us with nothing more significant than a run for the pole? After all, he had already demonstrated the superiority of his Coyote chassis and V-8 Foyt motor in the season's earlier races: a victory in a 100-mile qualifying race at Ontario, Calif., the California 500 a week later and the Trenton 200 in early April. He looked like a shoo-in for the Indy pole, but only if you don't know Indy. Potential disaster—everything from simple humiliation to outright dismemberment—faces every hero at every moment on that most demanding of racecourses. As practice wound up and the cars wound round and round, it suddenly looked possible that A.J. and his Gilmore Coyote could lose the pole to Gordon Johncock, the 1973 Indy winner, in George Bignotti's slick new little Sinmast Wildcat.
"Every car has a lot of speed in it," Foyt said. "The trick is getting the speed out of it." With all the pressures Indy generates, it takes more than driver talent to make a car perform to its maximum. It takes cool and skill and leadership, all of which A.J. possesses in quantity. It also takes good tires. Clearly, as practice wore along and Johncock turned in consistently quicker lap times than Foyt, the question arose as to A.J.'s ability to meet the test. He was working with two cars in this duel—his No. 10 "wide" Coyote, with which he had won the earlier races of the year, and his new narrow No. 14 car, which he obviously wanted to prove worthy. Still, the best Foyt could crank out of the new car in practice was 192 mph plus small change. On the Thursday before qualifying, as the psych built and sandbags fell soddenly on the rain-washed track, Johncock had pulled all stops and ripped off a sizzling lap of 195.228 mph. That won Wee Gordie not only a pair of free dinners at a local restaurant for fastest clocking of the day (three times in the previous four days he had been so honored with hamburgers), but it put the fear of the Wildcat into the crowd. Whether it scared A.J. into superhuman efforts we will never know, for he refuses to speak of it, and his manner on that day—hatless, laughing and scratching—indicated a jolly self-confidence in a man usually known for his slow boil and swift tongue.
Who knew? Well, one thing is for sure—everybody wanted to find out.
As the Saturday sun rose over Indiana's verdant fields and plastic suburbs on qualifying day, the traffic lanes into the Speedway were nearly as clogged as on race day itself. ABC-TV later judged the crowd at 175,000 while local Indianapolis stations crowed it up to 225,000. Since the Speedway does not release attendance figures, it would be safe to split the difference and peg it at 200 big ones. Certainly to the veterans of this race it looked like the largest qualifying day crowd in memory, and the density—along with the sights, smells and sounds—seemed close to the 300,000 who turn out on the big day itself.
All of which raises a quick question. Why, if racing is hurting so sorely for sponsorship money and the American economy is in such a bad way, do so many folks come to the races? This year's Daytona 500 stock-car race had a record crowd, and if Indy time trials can draw so many live, on-the-spot, hand-me-an-other-beer spectators, then there must be something in motor racing that the moneybags are missing. Maybe it's just that we like cars and drivers better than we like most things. Or perhaps it is because men out of work are proud enough of other men who are working on shoestrings—both financial and dangerous—to spare the money.
If it is a peculiarly American trip, it is a good one. And as the cars began howling and grumbling their way around the 2½-mile oval on Saturday, the excitement began to rise. The only smashup of the morning came when Eldon Rasmussen lost it in Turn One and stuffed his yellow Rascar-Foyt into the retaining wall, shaking both himself and the car severely. But crashes aside, the suspense grew by means of the draw—the order of qualifying attempts determined by each driver pulling a numbered ball from a box the night before. It turned out that A.J. had to run early—fifth man on the line—while Johncock would go next to last, having drawn No. 40. In between would come other dark horses, whose prospects brightened quite a bit just as the day did, drivers like Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Mike Mosley, Lloyd Ruby and the sharp youngster of the Roger Penske stable, 26-year-old Tom Sneva, a former junior high school principal from Spokane whose consistency won him USAC's Rookie of the Year Award in 1973.
When Foyt rolled out onto the rapidly heating track shortly after 11:30 a.m., no competitor had run faster than 186 mph. The crowd roared A.J. on his way, the fervent cheer that punctuates his every move at Indy. But on his first lap Foyt could turn no better than 189.195 mph, and he whipped back into the pits. The word went out that he hoped to try again later in the day when the track was cooler and more grasping, perhaps with different tires. The crowd moaned and turned back to the sun and the beer and the smell of the lilacs. The climax would have to wait.
Mosely took his shot in the Sugaripe Prune Special and averaged 187.833 for the 10-mile, four-lap test, while Billy Vukovich hit 185.845—a disappointment for those in the crowd who have always wished Billy the swiftness that might someday salve the sting of his race driver father's death at Indy in 1955. Then out came Tom Sneva in the Norton Spirit, a sweetly prepared McLaren painted brilliant blue. Sneva turned a first lap of 189.753 mph, and the fans perked up, yelling tentatively when the second lap came in at 190 plus and finally howling when he clicked off two more like the second for a final average of 190.094. With their master away at Monaco where former Indy winner Mark Donohue is pursuing a Grand Prix career, the McLaren team took special pride in the sudden rise of Sneva's car from slowpoke early in the week to momentary pole sitter. "Won't last long," said Sneva wisely. "I'll be happy to sit in the second row."
Then out came Johnny Rutherford, who won the race last year and whose records for the pole run still stand—199.071 for a single lap and 198.413 for all four, both set in higher-horsepowered 1973. But his green-and-white Gatorade McLaren ticked off a disappointing 185.998. Those who thought Johnny had been sandbagging all week long were fooled. "Only thing we had up our sleeve was our arm," said Rutherford. "Some days you eat the bear and some days the bear eats you."
Other disappointments followed. Bobby Allison, the stock-car hero from Hueytown, Ala., took a fling in Penske's second car, the CAM2 Special, and hit only 184.398. Al Unser, in the Viceroy Special, weighed in with a 185.452, having wasted a lot of time during the week working on another car built around a Formula I chassis and a Ford Cosworth engine, which except for the turbocharging is like those used on the Grand Prix circuit. Unser and Team Manager Parnelli Jones hope to go Formula I racing full time next year; Mario Andretti preceded them this season and the Monaco race kept him out of Indy qualifying during the first and most important weekend. (Andretti's ill luck still dogs him: at Monaco he banged up two cars in practice, started the race, ran eight laps—and conked out.)
Bobby Unser, who had been having troubles all week with his Dan Gurney-prepared Eagle, finally got it partway together. His average of 191.073 mph fulfilled Sneva's prophecy, but Bobby was equally pessimistic. "I won't hold the pole very long," he said after pulling into the pits. "Johncock's out there."
Gordie was indeed out there. But unfortunately, with tires turning soft on the hot pavement, he had trouble adjusting his stance on the track during the early laps. His speeds improved with every circuit—from 191.002 on the first go-round to 192.102 on the fourth and final—but his average was a vulnerable 191.652 mph. Both of Foyt's cars had gone quicker in practice.
But how vulnerable would Johncock's time look in the few hours left of the day? A somnolence ensued, an entr'acte in the four-wheeled drama during which the groundlings, now dozing on the fat new grass of the infield or sucking up Bloody Marys in the hospitality suites, began to consider Foyt's plight. Should he fail to win the pole, and then go on to win the race itself, his triumph would be sadly marred. With A.J. it had to be everything; even the considerable something of a fourth 500 win at Indy would not be quite enough without the pole. No, not if this man is to be the hero we want him to be, which he himself has shown us how to define: everything or nothing.
An hour and a half of silence. Buzzing bees. A few cars turning the course in practice, hardly louder than the bees. Waiting for the track to cool. Couples cuddling on the new-mown lawns of the infield golf course, shadowed by bunkers and locust trees. Then, as the sun swings over the ancient yardarm of the Speedway's western stands, the track cooling in the fading day, Foyt emerges with his red machine. This is the skinny knife on wheels that will carve his heroism into our memory, we hope, as this track demands, as all the American driving heroes have sought to do. While he winds through his warmup laps there are a few who see something in the cockpit, something in the angle of the helmeted head and the raising of the arm—the acceptance of the green flag—that means he is going to go do it.
And Foyt transcends himself. His first lap, at 195.313 mph, becomes a shimmer of light and fear along the walls—so close in Turn Two that it seemed he had actually ticked it; men gasped and blinked in awe. The next three laps were slower, 193s and a bit. But it was more than enough, and it was more than merely nice or splendid, or whatever the words. The 193.976 mph average completed the act with a finality long absent from the American racing melodrama—a streak of red flashing along the wall, a streak that becomes, finally, a strong man in a fast car who has done it: won the pole.
And that really did it. In terms of sheer speed, the only other threat loomed in Wally Dallenbach, who had blown two engines in another Bignotti Wildcat earlier in the day.
The crowd waited, but he didn't make it out before the six o'clock deadline. New power plant installed, Dallenbach rolled out on Sunday and turned four strong laps at 190.684 mph, which served fair warning to Foyt that the Wildcats would be tough in the big Memorial Day scratching contest. But Foyt wasn't thinking of Wildcats after his pole-winning run.
"I thrilled the hell out of myself a couple of times out there," he said. He meant the scare that comes from the edge of control; we all felt it, too, and would like to feel it again. Come May 25, A.J., you better not let us down.
Parting the crowd, Foyt wheels away for his 193-plus mph run around the Indy Speedway.
Tooling at a cool 191.073 mph, former 500 winner Bobby Unser was just as cool after leading the qualifiers: "I won't hold it long."
Suiting up, Gordon Johncock gets ready for his 500 role: the spot in front-row center.