At Indianapolis the rites of spring are an exercise in speed and a demonstration of a kind of noble savagery. This has been true since the early 1900s, when men jammed their caps on backward, jumped into Marmons and Loziers and such and tooled around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 70 miles an hour. Year by year the rites have become faster and more intense, with a corresponding increase in the possibilities for sudden grandeur—or sudden disaster.
Last week as qualifying trials began for the 50th 500, there was a special, soaring grandeur in the performance of the slight young Pennsylvania driver, Mario Andretti, and mass distress among the other brave men of Indy who meant to equal his extraordinary speeds or smash into a wall trying.
The rules of the Indy game are deceptively simple. The two weekends before each 500 are devoted to selecting the fastest cars and drivers. To qualify for one of the 33 starting spots, a driver must wrestle his car four laps around the 2½-mile track at top speed. The men who make it fastest are closest to the front of the starting lineup. So much for the rules. By 6 p.m. last Sunday—closing time of the first qualifying weekend—one driver had been killed, four cars had been wrecked, two had burned and a few of the Speedway's outstanding drivers had been out in the cold for some uncomfortable hours.
Texan A. J. Foyt, twice a 500 winner and the record-setting pole man last year, aborted his first qualifying run on Saturday. He wasn't satisfied with it. Warming up for the second, be roared off the No. 2 turn, lost control of his car and slashed it along the wall. After the wreckers had hauled the car away—it was battered beyond quick repair—he fidgeted angrily in the field hospital while doctors gave him a checkup.
"He told us, 'Hurry up, you guys,' " one attendant reported later. " 'I gotta get back to my garage and get me another car.' We checked his blood pressure—these accidents can be devastating to a driver—and, so help me, it was lower than normal. He has absolutely no nerves at all."
Watching Foyt and the rest at the edge of—and sometimes beyond—the limit of their abilities gave Indy's enormous crowds (estimated at 280,000 for the two days) the runaway jitters. The buildup for the qualifying was unquestionably the gaudiest in years. There were 69 entries for the 1966 race—cars with blue-blood chassis and engine pedigrees, most of them low-slung, rear-engine models whose lines had been begged, borrowed or stolen from every car designer of note in the world. The year's horsepower surge (it had leveled out at about 495 last year) was stunning. One member of the Dan Gurney racing crew, pointing at a new Gurney-built American Eagle car, whispered, "This thing has checked out at more than 600 horses. We're afraid to tell people what the horsepower really is."
The list of drivers was impressive. Arrayed against the old Indy line—the Foyts, Parnelli Joneses, Rodger Wards—were the four top men from the 1965 Grand Prix road-racing circuit. There was Champion Jimmy Clark of Scotland, who had won the Indy 500 last year and then had let the word get out around Europe that it was easy. There was No. 2 man Graham Hill of England, Scotland's Jackie Stewart, who had placed third, and America's Gurney, who was fourth in the standings. And if the ring of clipped European accents was not enough to unsettle Gasoline Alley veterans, Le Mans winner Masten Gregory, the Parisian from Kansas, showed up during the week and prowled restlessly through the pits in tweed jacket and turtleneck sweater.
Ultimately more unsettling than all this, however, was the 26-year-old Andretti, the new boy in town who raced to a surprising third place as a rookie at Indy last year and then went on to become the national driving champion. For two weeks he had been scaring the other drivers out of their fireproof coveralls with his high-speed practice laps.
Indiana fans needed no further stimulation. On a Saturday morning so cold that the high school drum majorettes were blue-legged, and under darkening skies, an estimated 230,000 filled the Brickyard grandstand and milled restlessly through the infield.
During such times the speedway is an island of hysteria amid the midwestern calm. Only some hidden wellspring of American reserve keeps the crowd from showering roses on the fast drivers or from pelting the slow ones with beer cans. It could be, in fact, that May is the biggest thing ever to happen to Indiana. It is like a Grant Wood painting at speed.
Not surprisingly, the concentrated attention of such an assemblage rattles the drivers considerably. By 9:35 a.m. Saturday, after two weeks of accident-free practice, two cars had slammed the wall and one other car had gone into a wild, uncontrollable spin.
Rodger Ward in a supercharged Offy was the first man to qualify—at a so-so speed of 159.468 mph. With steady, grinding swiftness the other drivers attacked Ward's mark, pushing him back into the field. Californian George Snider in a year-old Lotus-Ford burst around the track at 162.984, breaking Foyt's old one-lap record of 161.958. "It feels good," he said, after averaging 162.521 for four laps. "But I'm afraid somebody's gonna beat it."
The somebody Snider was waiting for—everybody was waiting for him—was Andretti, whose Ford-powered car was the terror of the track. Waiting nervously for Andretti in fact, was the pattern of the day. While fans howled "GO! A.J.! Go!" Foyt whirred by the stands at 161.783 miles an hour. It was a respectable speed, but he completed just one lap. Scowling, he pulled back in to wait for Andretti. Dan Gurney ran a dazzling warmup lap, but he also returned to the pits. Clark followed him and ran two practice laps timed by his pit crew at 164 mph. They all knew that Andretti had done 168 in practice that morning, and so they waited.
None of that nonsense for Graham Hill, however. Wait for Andretti, indeed. With square-rigged jaw and mustache braced against the chill, he then went out and qualified at 159.243 miles an hour. "I'm disappointed, rather," he said, in accents right out of Carnaby Street. "There seems to be a bit of popping in the engine."
At last, carried along by an ocean of swelling noise, Andretti drove onto the track. Andretti's made-in-America car, a copy of a made-in-Britain Brabham, flashed by in a long, thin streak of white on white. His first lap was 166.328 mph, the second was 166.113. And then came laps of 165.899 and 165.259 for a record-shattering average speed of 165.899. Those who suspected that no one could now deprive him of the pole position were correct.
"Oh, yeah," said Andretti, with the stinging casualness only a 5-foot-4 man could give it. "Oh, yeah. We been running a little quicker." He grinned. "Those guys wouldn't run before I did. You know those guys. They were waiting to see what I could do. But they may have waited too long."
One who had was Driver Chuck Rodee. Pressing to approach Andretti's record, he careened out of control and into the wall in a frightening slide. It was, the announcer solemnly informed the crowd not long after, a fatal slide. Rodee had died of multiple injuries at a hospital.
But at the track the chase continued. Parnelli Jones in a supercharged Offy blasted his way toward the front of the pack with an average of 162.484. "Not bad," he said. "For an old four-banger."
Foyt rolled out again, ready to practice for a run at Andretti's mark. It was then that he crashed. Within an hour after the smashup he was back in his garage talking speculatively about his new, still-untested reserve Lotus.
Then Gurney returned, but there were just too many horses in the American Eagle. He burned out the clutch, climbed from the car and walked away in disgust.
Twenty-five minutes before quitting time, Clark came back for another run. "A fast one," the track announcer barked after the first lap. It was: 164.204. Clark covered the 10 miles in 3 minutes 39.32 seconds for an average speed of 164.144, which put him in the front row right alongside Andretti. "I could have gone faster, actually," Clark said. "But for some reason or other my goggles fell off in the backstretch and that just about blinded me. It was a bit nasty. But I remembered where I was, counted one, two, then turned left. I'll go faster in the race, of course."
On Sunday, Foyt and Gurney finally made it into the field, at 161.355 and 160.499 mph, respectively, but way back in the seventh row.
And thus the cast for Indy's annual Memorial Day drama began to take shape. There was every prospect the race would be the fastest of them all and possibly the most dangerous, as well. Already records had fallen. One life had been snuffed out, and there was another weekend of qualifying ahead.
The rites would go on with brutal vigor, but until May 30—if then—it seemed certain that no one was going to catch a slight young Pennsylvanian named Mario Andretti.