Two weeks ago, when the place was empty, Race Driver A. J. Foyt, twice winner of the Indianapolis 500, wheeled out of the No. 2 turn at the Brickyard and into the backstretch straightaway. As he put his throttle foot to the floor the rear suspension cracked. In the next few seconds his Lotus-Ford ran wild, smearing a thick, 1,000-foot trail of rubber along the track like black crayon, at one point slashing a concrete wall. The left rear wheel snapped off at the axle and rolled up over Foyt's shoulders and across the top of his helmet. When the car finally stopped it lay hunkered down on the infield lawn, its splendid sharp nose shattered and oil spilling into the grass.
In another moment Chief Steward Harlan Fengler pulled up. Foyt was stamping around the wreckage, kicking up divots and shaking his head. "Am I all right?" he snapped. "Am I all right? Man, I thought that blank-blanker would never stop spinning. I was in that long, long spin and, man, I was reaching up and unhooking my shoulder straps at the same time. Then that old tire came rolling up over my head—shoom—and I thought to myself, 'Well, this car is going to catch on fire for sure, but one thing it ain't going to burn up is old A.J.' When it started to slow down I stood up in the seat and bailed out of her."
Foyt had only a small cut from the windshield on the inside of one knee, but he was shaken and he was angry. Mostly he was angry. It was this wonderfully mean mood that propelled him into last Saturday's first qualifying trials, and it made him the one man to beat in the Indy 500.
When Foyt rolled out to qualify in the same car—it had been swiftly repaired—210,000 swinging, cheering fans rocked the speedway with noise, and A.J. gave them a stunning 10-mile show. Racing to a brilliant new mark of 161.958 miles an hour on the first of his four qualifying laps, he won the pole position for the 500 at a record average speed of 161.233 mph. This was the climactic run on a day of speed such as Indy had never before experienced, unleashed by men who will be gunning for shares of a lavish $600,000 purse on May 31. Into the No. 2 starting position sizzled Scotland's Jimmy Clark, the 1964 pole winner, qualifying at 160.729 mph. Then came Californian Dan Gurney (158.898); the sensational Italian-born rookie, Mario Andretti (158.849); and the 1963 winner, Parnelli Jones (158.625).
With these five fastest qualifiers all in Ford-powered racers—Clark and Gurney in new English Lotuses, Foyt and Jones in beefed-up 1964 Lotuses and Andretti in a Brabham-inspired American chassis—only catastrophic ill luck can prevent Dearborn from winning the 500 in its third year of trying.
Ford could count five other cars that qualified on the first trials weekend with the new 495-horsepower four-camshaft V-8 engines. Last year, when Ford won everything but the race—Bobby Marsh-man sheared an oil plug after taking a big lead and Jimmy Clark suffered tire failure when he looked unbeatable—most of the V-8s burned gasoline. This year most of the Ford users have chosen alcohol, partly for its higher horsepower yield and partly because a lot of Indy people just do not like gas, especially since the tragic 1964 gasoline fire.
In view of the Ford qualifying success, the revolutionary swing to rear-engined cars, which had its feeble beginnings in 1961 with the little Grand Prix Cooper driven by Jack Brabham, is an accomplished fact. Touchy Indy patriots like Foyt may call them "funny" cars and have a few lingering qualms about deserting the traditional Offenhauser-engined roadster, but only a miracle could bring another victory for that lovable dinosaur. The fastest roadster qualified only 14th.
While most people connected with the Ford qualifying assault were in a celebratory mood, one was not: Rodger Ward, a graying 44, the marvelous old fox of the speedway whose foot and shrewdness had brought him home first in 1959 and 1962. Ward's week was an Indy bust. He had a new, low, long, sharklike rear-engine racer built by the roadster wizard A. J. Watson, a man younger but grayer than Ward.
"We have never built a pretty car before," said Watson. "This one is. The design seems right. The engine is perfect. We are having a little trouble with the handling, but we have another week to correct that."
Ward was not in a mood to wait. On Saturday he fought the shark around the speedway at nearly 156 mph—fast enough to qualify but not fast enough to satisfy the perfectionist Watson. Ward ultimately squandered two of the three qualifying attempts available to him—Watson flagged him in before either could be completed. On Sunday, Rodger was a little slower in practice runs than on the day before and made no attempt to qualify, although his stablemate Don Branson did get into the lineup in another Watson-Ford.
With but one try remaining for the shark this weekend, the final chance to qualify, Ward was tense but far from panicky. He had two other mounts in the barn—and, potentially, three qualifying chances in each. One was a stubbier, plumper Watson with an Offy in the rear, the other a Watson roadster with a Ford engine residing up front where an Offy used to go—a car that could shake the rear-engine men to their half-shafts if it turned out to be fast. Nor does the Offy in rear-engined chassis seem competitive. The swiftest of these last weekend, that of Canadian rookie Billy Foster, was down in sixth place on the qualifying list. Seventh—hallelujah!—was a Novi, the favorite hard-luck engine of all Indianapolis fans, its supercharged banshee scream now escaping from an English Ferguson four-wheel-drive chassis.
For all the foreign hardware, the Indy mood last weekend was 99 44 /100% pure Midwest American picnicking, beer-guzzling whoopdedoo. So strong is the May migratory instinct, there is every reason to believe that the party would go on if nobody raced at all. In the days before qualifying weekend, Magistrate Charles T. Gleason issued a stern warning that anyone arrested on race day would automatically be held in jail until 3 p.m. before being allowed to post bond, thereby missing the race—a form of punishment any Indy fan would consider inhuman. "I haven't missed a race in 10 years," said Magistrate Gleason, "and I don't intend to miss this one."
In the speedway infield on Saturday, shapely girls were marching about in T shirts emblazoned with "Go Go Parnelli," and one citizen was passing out copies of a letter he had written to Queen Elizabeth demanding knighthood for Jimmy Clark—on the basis of his Indy prowess, naturally, not his eminence in Grand Prix racing. One downtown Indianapolis tavern proprietor put his customers into a special bus for the track, thoughtfully taking along fried chicken and 48 gallons of beer.
On the straightaway in front of the main grandstands corn-fed girls in pink-and-white-striped dresses were paraded in open convertibles, hundreds of barelegged boy scouts marched in ragged review and a college band played the Hoosier anthem, Back Home Again in Indiana. One grizzled oldtime Offenhauser pitman stalked about in a straw boater with "Roadsters Forever" printed on the hatband. The sun came out strongly and a clutch of balloons was released, each balloon carrying free tickets to the big race. They were promptly carried aloft by a strong upper wind to drift off in the general direction of Newfoundland.
What the Saturday crowd enjoyed most, however, was speed, speed, and then more speed. Keyed to a festive pitch by the bands, the girls and balloons, the enormous gathering cheered and stamped through a day of extraordinary excitement. First it was generated by Parnelli Jones, whose gold-on-white car flashed by at 158, then 159 miles an hour, finally averaging 158.6. The run had capped a week of frenzied activity in the Jones garages in Gasoline Alley; the night before qualifying, mechanics had worked until 2 a.m. "It is finally starting to feel like a racing car," Jones said when it was all over. "On race day you can bet we're going to go faster than that." In his exuberance sponsor J. C. Agajanian nudged Tony Hulman, the crisply dressed millionaire president of the speedway and said, "Tony, if you can get a few dollars together, come on up to our room tonight and we'll play a little gin rummy."
Then the rookie, Andretti, a 25-year-old who had passed his driver's test only a few days before, burst around the track at 159.4 mph to break the single-lap record and went on to average 158.849 for 10 miles, eclipsing Clark's 1964 speed of 158.828 as well. As he rolled across the finish line his crewmen held up his pit board with the speeds chalked on it. Also printed on it was "e sempre avanti." He was forever ahead for a few minutes—until Jimmy Clark came along in a swirl of British racing green.
"One hundred sixty point seven," intoned the public address system, "a new track record," and the crowd produced a roar that could have been heard in Terre Haute. The next lap was 160.9 mph, another record. And Clark rolled in with a new record average speed of 160.7. "I'm a bit disappointed," he said, sounding not at all disappointed. He had not reckoned on Foyt, still in that pugnacious mood.
For Foyt the crowd had reserved its best brand of hysteria. Pulling out of the pits as the people began to scream, he passed Rodger Ward strolling toward his car, head down and hands jammed into his coverall pockets. Foyt gave him a flashing smile and an affectionately vulgar gesture. In another moment, running through a tunnel of bedlam, he had the car up to 161.9 miles an hour. He held it at a speed so dizzying that the car flashed by the stands in a white blur, running well ahead of the howl of its engine. It was all over in four minutes; Foyt had his record and, of course, the pole, and it seemed clear there wasn't a car in the world that would approach that mark.
By Sunday evening 21 cars had qualified. Another weekend of trials remained to fill out the 33-car starting field, but the preliminaries belonged to the angry Mr. Foyt.
After his qualifying run, Foyt sat in his car at the finish line and talked to the crowd. Was he glad that he had won the pole position? Well, now, he sure was. And was he glad to have beaten Jimmy Clark? "Well," drawled A. J. Foyt, "Ah just wanted to return the record to the You-nited States."