For undiluted Americana, the May festivities at Indianapolis culminating in the 500-mile race top anything else by a whoop and a holler and a good many miles per hour. People eat fried chicken and soak up the Indiana sun, and out on the Speedway the traditional Offenhauser cars thrum out as fine a noise as The Music Man's 76 trombones.
Last Saturday, as qualifying trials for this year's "500" began, Americana seemed to be in full spring flower. With the happy commotion of a family reunion, a fantastic, record-breaking crowd of 225,000 midwestern Americans jammed the grandstands and ebbed and flowed in the infield. A gathering of that magnitude roughly corresponds to filling New York's Madison Square Garden for a heavyweight championship fight weigh-in.
So far, so good. But as the spectators turned their eyes to the track it was obvious that something was out of joint in Indiana. There were the good old front-engined Offies, all right, but they were nearly lost in the parade of new rear-engined cars: Lotus-Fords and Fords with American chassis, rear-engined Offies, even an Offy in a British chassis put together, for heaven's sake, by an Australian, Jack Brabham. Beyond that, a splendid old Indy Novi showed up with British four-wheel drive.
When the last car came home at sundown of a day of upheaval, British Lotuses with sensational new American Ford overhead camshaft engines had shattered all speed records and seized three of the first six starting positions in the 33-car Memorial Day field. An all-American Ford was right up there, too. On the pole sat Jimmy Clark with a stupendous 10-mile qualifying average of 158.828 mph, and as he was told his speed a triumphant grin spread over his sometimes dour Scots face. It was mirrored on the faces of that Limey bloke, Colin Chapman, builder of the Lotuses, and Ford Vice-President Benson Ford.
Filling out the front row of three Ford-engined racers were Pennsylvania's frail leadfoot, Bobby Marshman, in a 1963 Lotus-Ford (fitted with the new engine) and Indiana's Rodger Ward, twice winner of the "500," in a new Ford created by A. J. Watson. Watson used to fret when early spotters of the rear-engine trend took to calling his Offies "dinosaurs." After all, his traditional models were to win five "500s," including last year's. He stopped fretting, though, and started putting his own engines behind the driver. Last of the great dinosaur-builders, he is evidently the first superior American fabricator of rear-engined Indy designs. No other native craftsman was within miles of him last weekend.
Orthodox Indianapolis men who take their racing with deadly seriousness were twice jolted, first by the ease with which the Fords suppressed the opposition, and then by the sudden appearance all over the infield of "Dan Gurney for President" lapel buttons and bumper stickers. Gurney, a superb American Grand Prix driver, has never had much appeal for the Offenhauser vote. It was Gurney who first induced Chapman and Ford to collaborate on Indianapolis cars, and everyone remembers how close the one driven by Clark last year came to winning. Last week Gurney himself outsped most of the Offymen to qualify sixth.
The pair he did not beat were the roughest, toughest traditionalists on the grounds, A. J. Foyt and Parnelli Jones. Jones qualified fourth at 155.099 mph in an ultralightweight Offy built by his chief mechanic John Pouelsen. Foyt, the 1961 winner, took the next place, averaging 154.672, in a similar and similarly slimmed down Watson.
Thus Foyt and Jones enter the "500" carrying the greatest promise and heaviest responsibilities for what is clearly a last-ditch stand for the old-style Offy. It appears unlikely that any other front-engined models can give the Fords a fight. And both men will battle fiercely—Jones because some people thought he won unfairly last year, that he should have been black-flagged for spilling oil and slicking the track in the closing laps, Foyt because he is the kind of man who believes that he can win any race, no matter how hopeless his chances may seem, and will never give up.
But last week it was difficult to see beyond the Fords. For one thing, there were so many Ford people around. Benson Ford sat in the stands with his fingers crossed. Lee Iacocca, Ford Division general manager, prowled the throng, shaking hands and, as the returns came in, accepting congratulations. "We are," he said, "in racing to stay." Ford engineers and publicity men were out in regimental strength.
Ford strength on the track was evident long before the 11 o'clock starting gun for qualifying. Bobby Marshman slipped out on the track early in the car which Gurney had wrecked on opening day 1963, and warmed it up at 160.085 mph. It was a speed everyone had said would come sooner or later, but that kind of thing has considerable shock effect. The official one-lap qualifying record at the moment was 151.847. "He did it in ... what?" choked one driver over his coffee and doughnuts in the cafeteria under the grandstands. "Isn't that just great! Yeah, great. This is liable to turn into one hell of a day."
But for Foyt and Jones it began badly. First man to shoot for the pole position, Foyt wheeled in after four unsatisfactory laps around the track, fuming over what he diagnosed as chassis problems. Jones made one turn and brought his car back, also unqualified. "I think I blew a piston," he growled, and slammed his garage door to further questions.
Then, with the crowd roaring and tossing paper picnic plates in the air, the Fords poured it on. Clark was a big surprise last year, but now the spectators were on to the Scot. Buttoned into the low-slung Lotus (the cars are tailored as tightly around the driver as a suit with a belt in the back), Jim hit 158.339 miles an hour on his first lap, tuning in Indiana on the racing sound of the future: the high-pitched scream of a rear-mounted Ford engine. On subsequent rounds he once exceeded 159, sliding effortlessly in and out of the turns, the sun glinting brightly from his car. It is British racing green, a color which roughly matches the trim on Gasoline Alley garages—and the faces of several garage inhabitants.
Marshman, on his official run, slashed around the course at 157.867 but, unlike Clark, he seemed to be pressing, to be flirting with the ragged edge of disaster. Ward wheeled his Kaiser Aluminum Special up to 156.406 mph for the third spot. Marshman had been wearing a red baseball cap in his nonracing hours with 158 mph stitched on it in white embroidery. After the Saturday run he took it off and looked at it speculatively. "I've already got one made up with 160 miles an hour on it," he said, "for when I make it official." Maybe next year.
Gurney roared into the sixth slot in his blue-and-white Lotus-Ford, but was unhappy. "I should be going about as fast as Jimmy," he grumbled. "I don't know. Maybe it's the difference in color."
Said Colin Chapman: "We will have the car right in a day or two. We didn't come out here to run at 155."
The Offy breakthrough came in late afternoon, under glowering skies and with a gusty wind blowing across the backstretch. Jones had a replacement engine in his big No. 98, and he qualified smoothly. Foyt, still scowling over the imbalance of his car, rolled off with but half an hour left in the session. He was still scowling on his return, for he had vowed to run back to the 157-plus he had achieved in practice.
In Ford's headquarters, one engineer said it had not been as easy as it looked. A. J. (Gus) Scussel, manager of the special engine department, declared, "Sometimes I think Ford is regarded as the villain in this drama. You hear how we have lavished millions on this project to dominate racing. But racing is full of imponderables. We do not tell these people how to run the race; that is their business. We have eight of our new engines down here. We loan them to these people and we take them back and study them when they are through. We forbid—understand that, now—we forbid them to tear the engines down. They are too intricate and there isn't enough time to train mechanics to do the job. If an engine blows up, or collapses, we simply pull it out of the car and install a new one. This program is still new."
Benson Ford, his fingers finally uncrossed, grinned and said, "We want to see a Ford-powered car win the '500,' make no mistake about it. We felt that the automotive industry resolution against direct competition was not working out, and it seems reasonable that winning races will sell cars."
As an evening rain fell on Gasoline Alley, Offymen, gathered in clusters in the garages, began to perk up a little. Maybe Ford was not going to win. After all, the engines were new. New racing machinery often harbors bugs. The top Offies could move, too, at very respectable speeds. "Don't count us out," warned Foyt's chief mechanic, George Bignotti. "The race will be won by a car that can run at, say, 152 all day without letup. Our little jewel can do it. Can the Fords stand up under that pace?"
Well, the Fords certainly would not be hanging back. "This will be an all-out speed race," said Marshman. "My only strategy is to get ahead and stay there." Said Ward: "You just go as hard as you can. That's all there is to it this time."
Apart from their apparent deficiencies in pure speed, the Offymen had another worry. It looked as though they would have to make at least two pit stops for fuel, while the Fords probably could get by on one. Burning methanol, the Offies would do only about three miles per gallon. Burning high-octane gasoline, the Fords would average seven miles per gallon. There was some talk of exotic methanol-gasoline mixtures for the Offies to bring that mileage figure up within one-stop capabilities, and there was some about the possibility of adding extra fuel tanks. Bignotti was among those toying with the latter notion. "But even with two stops," he asserted, "we can still win."
At least one thing was certain. More people would have a view of the "500" than ever before. Apart from the 250,000 or so witnessing the race at firsthand, scores of thousands more would look on via theater television.
As for Clark, he missed most of the flap. Tipping his helmet to the crowd, he left Indianapolis on an afternoon plane for New York, flew on to London, and on Sunday was racing a Lotus-Ford sports car at Mallory Park in the English Midlands. And he won his race.
Before leaving the Speedway he told Chapman: "There isn't a car here I can't pass on the backstretch. There is still more performance in this car. And, I say, Colin, that feels good."