Trenton is a grim, battleship-gray town that announces itself—at the entrance to the New Jersey State Fair Grounds—as the Indianapolis of the East. Its annual spring 100-mile auto race is billed as an out-of-town opening for the Memorial Day 500. It offers some of the same cars and their all-star drivers. There are the familiar cannon bursts overhead, the bunting, the balloons and the hot dogs that taste faintly of cardboard. Finally, Trenton hints that the driver who wins the warmup will be the man to beat at Indy. Much of this is valid promotion. But if that last part is valid, a lot of folks at Ford Motor Company are going to lie down and cry.
Last Sunday at Trenton, 21 cars started and 12 finished a race that proved: 1) auto racing is still the marvelously mixed-up, unpredictable sport it has always been; 2) it promises to be just that sort of Indy; and 3) yes, traditionalist, there will always be an Offenhauser.
For a while Sunday the 22,350 fans at Trenton's one-mile blacktop track indeed seemed to be viewing a preshrunk Indy. There was the fastest qualifier, 1964 Indianapolis winner A. J. Foyt, sitting on the pole in a low, wide white car. It was a beefed-up 1964 Lotus with a new four-camshaft Ford engine mounted close behind Foyt's head, spaghetti-like exhaust pipes curling above. Beside Foyt was fellow Texan Jim McElreath in a glittering metallic maroon 1964 Brabham, also much reworked by Owner Jack Zink, and with an old reliable Offy stinger in the tail. In the third starting position was Rodger Ward, 44 years old and a two-time Indianapolis winner, with his 1964 Watson-Ford, equally revamped. Angry about the way his car was functioning, he said, "I feel just like the grapes of wrath." Also, he had forgotten to bring his special thin-soled racing shoes and was wearing a pair of $3 sneakers he had bought at the Trenton Sears & Roebuck. Other prime Indy contenders lined up behind them: veterans Bud Tingelstad (Halibrand-Ford) and Don Branson (Offy roadster), the racy newcomer Mario Andretti (Offy roadster).
The familiar crew of Ford Motor Company officials was at trackside to see Ford man Foyt leap away to a commanding early lead. First he had to overtake Offenhauser man McElreath, a 37-year-old charger who then raced swiftly and smoothly in second place. Ford man Ward held steady in third place, threatening McElreath in the turns. Then it began to shower, and things began to go to pieces.
By the 33rd lap Foyt was in the pits. He climbed out of his car, into his parka, and shrugged. A rear suspension part had broken, he explained unconcernedly. On the track Rodger Ward's car had gone out with a burst of smoke. A fuel line had pulled loose.
By the 40th lap, the field was thinning fast, and only Offenhauser-powered cars remained—except for one maverick Chevrolet-engined machine.
McElreath rode on to victory, with Andretti making brave but futile dashes at him in the corners. The speed of the race had hit 106.824 mph when Foyt led, but it dropped into the 90s and finally averaged out at 97.184 mph. At 87 laps, with the rain thickening, the race was halted and McElreath was flagged into the winner's circle.
"I was playing it real cautious," he said. "The track was slick, and I am just glad nobody got hurt."
The only thing hurt was Ford's pride. The engines seemed to be running fine, but at Trenton and elsewhere the people using them were finding nasty bugs in other hardware. Attempting to qualify at Trenton, Lloyd Ruby, for example, smacked a wall with his Halibrand-Ford when the throttle linkage jammed. This was the latest in a series of such throttle hangups in new Ford-powered cars.
"We have licked everything in racing but these damned imponderables," said a Ford spokesman. "We have an engine that turns out 475 to 500 hp, as compared with 440 or so for the Offies. In theory the Offenhauser cannot outperform us. There is no way they can outperform us. But look at today."
Foyt, while running, had broken the track records at 10, 20 and 30 laps. But no Ford had finished, and you can't very well beat the Offies that way. Ford certainly did not view Trenton as an Indy preview, but as a bug eradicator, and with such superstars as Parnelli Jones and Scotland's Jimmy Clark ready to join Foyt and Ward in Ford-powered racers in the Indy lineup, Dearborn should be the heavy favorite on May 31.
The boys with the flit-guns haven't a moment to lose, though. There's life in the Offy yet, and from the look of the wide smile on McElreath's wide face at Trenton, big Jim has a little maroon bug that will take a powerful lot of spraying away.