There are always two separate and disparate races at Indianapolis during May: one for the checkered flag and one for the pole position. But this year there was a third race: one for history. Ever since Johnny Rutherford went 199.071 mph in 1973, Indy fans have been lusting for a 200-mph lap. Rule changes in 1974 set back speeds—although not progress—but now technology has finally, officially, caught 200. Tom Sneva, a 28-year-old former junior-high school principal, driving a Roger Penske McLaren, made history and won the pole position for this year's Indy 500 with one qualifying lap of 200.535 mph and a record four-lap average of 198.884.
So far, five men have cracked the 200-mph barrier, but it is appropriate that Sneva's 200 is the one that counts the most, for he paid the most for it. He had come within one turn of reaching 200 last Friday, the final day of practice before qualifying. He had clicked off a lap at 199.9 and was going for 200—and making 201, he reckons—on the next lap, when he spun coming out of Turn Four, nicked the outside wall and slid 450 feet down the track. His crew worked 12 nonstop hours, past midnight, to repair Sneva's car, and on Saturday morning he went back out and got what he was after.
It's a little fuzzy who will get credit for first exceeding 200. Gordon Johncock went 200 during tire tests in March, but that was recorded by stop watches, not electric timers. Mario Andretti, A. J. Foyt and Rutherford, the 1976 winner, all hit 200 during practice last week. Because Andretti was first, he got the history-maker treatment at that moment.
Wednesday had been a hot, sultry day. There were about 25,000 spectators in the stands behind pit row, contentedly drinking beer in the sun, but eager for some excitement. During the last, frenetic hour of practice, the time when drivers prefer to run because temperatures drop and their engines produce more power, Foyt hit 199.956 in his Coyote-Foyt. That was all it took to cock the crowd, which created a duel for 200 between Foyt and Andretti—whether Foyt and Andretti wanted a duel or not.
Andretti was on the track as Foyt came in to change a spark plug. His back to the track, Foyt twisted the plug wrench expressionlessly when Andretti's car howled by. As the public-address announcer said, with anticipation causing his voice to rise, "We've got a good one on Mario, 199.978," Foyt didn't bat an eye; he just kept twisting the wrench. Forty-five seconds later, Andretti howled by again. "Here it is!" shouted the announcer, drawing a whoop from the crowd. "On that lap Mario Andretti just went 200.311!" Foyt may have flinched inwardly but he never changed his expression, never revealed a hint of disappointment, never paused, just kept twisting.
Andretti came in, was mobbed as if he had just won the 500 and was whisked away for interviews. Foyt went out on the track, cut a 200.177 with two minutes remaining in the practice session, pulled back into the pits, went directly to his garage and closed the doors behind him.
Said Andretti afterward: "I was going for 200, make no bones about it, but by the same token I wasn't going to scramble to race Foyt for it. If it was going to come, it was going to come in my own good time."
But the crowd would never have let Andretti, or Foyt, ignore 200; their cheers, as much as anything, encouraged the drivers to go for it. "It's like an auction," said Jim McGee, Andretti's crew chief. "You start bidding, you get carried away by the excitement, and pretty soon you're bidding $25 for something that's only worth about three bucks."
Tyler Alexander, Rutherford's crew chief on the McLaren team, is not the sort of man to get carried away easily. Alexander runs a tight ship; he kept Rutherford in the garage that afternoon and let Andretti and Foyt do the bidding. Rutherford got his 200 the next day—200.624, in fact. That evening he had dinner with Andretti, along with their families. The first thing Rutherford said when they met in a Japanese steak house was, "Whew! You should have told me...." And he pounded his heart with his fist. "Yeah," replied Andretti, "after 198, things really get tight, don't they?"
Two reasons for a 10-mph increase in speeds since last year are a rule change allowing five more inches of turbocharger boost for qualifying, and the resurfacing of the Speedway. But another reason is better equipment: the movement to Cosworth-Ford V-8 engines, begun last year by Parnelli Jones, has spread to the McLaren and Penske teams, which means Rutherford, Sneva and Andretti. Of the six cars in the first two rows for the 1977 race, only two will be powered by four-cylinder Offy-style engines. Also, there were two new chassis this year: Dan Gurney's successor to the 1972 Eagle, which was one of the most successful Indy cars ever, and the Lightning, by Roman Slobodynskyj, the man who designed the 1972 Eagle. Gurney's new car is a gamble; it is narrow for better aerodynamics, and to compensate for the loss of cornering ability inherent in a narrow car, the cockpit is offset to the left, which puts most of the car's weight on the inside of the turns. Pancho Carter qualified the new Eagle on the third row, at 192.452 mph. The fastest Lightning was the one driven by Bobby Unser, who put his on the front row next to Sneva with an average of 197.618 mph.
On Saturday Foyt was the first to qualify—at a disappointing 193.465. But shortly after his run, USAC's tech committee discovered that the popoff valve—a device that limits turbocharger boost to the regulation pressure level—was cracked, so the stewards allowed him to requalify, since they provide the valves. Foyt's second attempt was only about 1 mph faster than his first and the 194.563 average left him on the inside of the second row. Before Foyt's second chance Al Unser had clocked 195.950 in his Parnelli, completing his run in a cloud of white smoke after a turbocharger seal split; that was good enough for the outside of the front row.
Sneva had qualified early, and his time looked formidable, if not untouchable, to Andretti and Rutherford. Andretti had missed the Saturday practice session when his crew discovered a frayed drive belt and spent the morning replacing it. Because the cars' suspensions have to be tuned to the conditions of the track each day, Andretti was forced to qualify with an untried and, as it turned out, ill-handling car. The best he could manage was 193.353, which put him on the second row, with national champion Gordon Johncock and Foyt inside him.
Rutherford provided the suspense late in the day. Earlier he had made three laps of a four-lap run at an average of nearly 197 mph; that wasn't fast enough to beat Sneva, so Alexander waved his driver off, planning to try again later in the day when the conditions would be cooler and faster. (Each car is permitted three attempts, if time allows.) The decision was a jaw-dropper; most people thought anyone who would wave off a 197 was plain crazy. But Penske and Andretti understood the McLaren decision. "You got to gamble," said Penske. "That's the only way you get anywhere in this game." "They're going for the pole," said Andretti. "That's what competition is all about."
When Rutherford pulled in after his first run, he revealed a problem with his engine; he wasn't getting enough turbocharger boost. So they rolled his backup car into line, and at 5:18 p.m. he attempted to qualify it. The car stalled dead on the warm-up lap. "What's wrong with Rutherford?" a reporter asked. Rutherford coasted to a stop on the track. "His heart stopped," cracked Wally Dallenbach, who had qualified 10th at 189.563. With only 42 minutes remaining and seven cars in line ahead of him to get on the track, Rutherford could see disaster approaching fast.
In a last-gasp attempt to qualify before the 6 p.m. deadline, the McLaren crew sprinted back to their No. 1 car. Time slowly ran out, with Alexander nervously watching it go on his wristwatch and Rutherford sitting on the car, fuming, fidgeting, sighing and cursing the cars in front of him, like a man late for an airplane and caught in a traffic jam. He qualified Sunday at almost the same speed he had waved off the day before—197.325. But he will start 17th in the race behind all those who qualified Saturday.
All week, Alexander had been pooh-poohing anything but the 500 itself. "The race is the only thing that counts," he had said over and over again. But the decision to go for the pole cost Rutherford what was a front-row spot. In the end, even the cool Alexander got caught overbidding.
Despite crashing the day before, Sneva's McLaren was the only car to top 200 mph in qualifying.