All during the Indiana springtime—in the unsettled weeks leading up to the 50th edition of the Indianapolis 500—there was every prospect of a high-winding, heart-stopping race. The reasons were basic: the cars were faster and the purse bigger (upward of $700,000) than ever before. Even so, no one quite expected, or could have forecast, how forcefully this 500 would establish itself as unique. Only seconds—and a few hundred yards—after the race started, an explosive smashup filled the air with flying tires and chunks of disintegrating cars. Only seconds after the race ended there was confusion over who had actually won it. And in between there was as crazy mixed-up an afternoon as racing has seen.
Thirty-three cars started in crisp Memorial Day sunshine, rolling out in glittering parade before a crowd estimated at 330,000. Only seven cars finished the race. At least nobody was killed—which was a wonder and the only clear, unconfused fact of the day.
To England's Graham Hill, the former Grand Prix world champion (who was called a rookie at Indy because this was his first 500), went the winner's trophy and the victor's kiss from the speedway queen—in fact, kiss after kiss after kiss, for Hill was in rare osculatory form. But Scotland's Jimmy Clark, the defending 500 champion—and, indeed, the current world champion—had reason to believe that the trophy and the kisses belonged to him. The only thing that kept him from pulling into the victory circle was the fact that Hill was already there.
The official results of the race are not posted until 8:00 a.m. on the following day. Anyone with a protest must make it at that time—or, in any case, by 8:30. The betting Monday afternoon was that it would take Andy Granatelli, the rotund, volatile man who is Clark's sponsor, no more than five minutes to utter several thousand words of protest. During the last laps of the race Granatelli's pit crew was signaling to Clark that he was the leader. When the checkered flag came down first for Hill and only second for Clark, the Granatelli pit was as rich in enraged gesture and outraged grimace as Terry-Thomas foiled again.
The germ of the dispute was an announced shift in the lead from Clark's fellow Scot and another Grand Prix driver, Jackie Stewart, to Graham Hill, when Stewart's car stopped dead out on the track. Granatelli's boys clearly thought that Clark was then the leader. Their stand was based on personal unofficial charts of the race kept in their pit. In their view, Hill had been credited with one lap more than he had actually run. If that were true, Clark would indeed have been the leader.
But as evening came and Granatelli gave the situation more thought, he became less emphatic. No longer did he plan to enter a fiery protest at the first opportunity. Instead, he said, he wanted to review the official speedway records and compare them with his own before making a final judgment. Hill, who certainly was not in a mood to protest anything, said only, "I haven't a clear view" of the dispute (meaning he was busy driving and not counting laps).
As for the other drivers, they were thankful just to have lived through the start. The 500 began with bands and beautiful girls. Just before the traditional call of: "Gentlemen, start your engines!" a tentful of colored balloons billowed up into the air. Then came the field of sleek and fantastically expensive cars growling along behind Benson Ford, who drove the Mercury pace car. At 90 miles an hour he swerved aside to turn them loose, and everyone hit the throttles. The first two rows flashed past the stands. Suddenly, in a blur, while the cars at the end of the field were still getting the green starting flag, the massive accident was triggered at the approach to the No. 1 turn.
The track became a jungle of spinning cars. Tires and hunks of axle and engine flew like shrapnel through the air—part of the debris falling among the spectators. Within seconds car after car was wiped out.
"We all accelerated," said Driver Arnie Knepper, who was in the mess and whose car was smashed to junk in a flash. "Then I saw a car up in the air and there were bits of wheels, radius rods, bits of metal. I almost made it. Then a car landed on me. A 1,400-pound auto can be pretty heavy when it's asittin' on yer head."
Clark, starting the race from the middle of the front row, was clear and safely on his way as the shrapnel settled. But Hill, looming up from the fifth row, rolled smack through the crash scene.
"I was very fortunate," he said after the race, his Hairbreadth Harry profile looking exactly right for the setting. "I just wandered in and out in there and made it through. Things seemed to be descending from the sky—tires and things. I had to look up in the air as well as on the track."
In the stands there was incipient panic. Fortunately there were no serious injuries, and only one of the 14 spectators who were hit by flying debris required hospital treatment. Nor was any driver badly injured, probably because the cars had not yet revved up to racing speeds.
But the race was off to an exceedingly bad start, and the speedway officials surely knew that they could no longer merely exhort the drivers to take it easy in the beginning when the cars are bunched. A new and more civilized way of starting was clearly necessary.
Surely the time has come for Speedway President Tony Hulman and his aides to find a solution. Several possibilities were being debated even as the wreckers were at work: a two-by-two start with more space between the rows of cars; a standing start, Grand Prix style, given the gearing to make this possible, so that the cars would be un-bunched before reaching top speeds; even a single-file start, if that is what it is going to take to end the first-lap chaos.
As the smoke from a burning wreck and dust from the firemen's chemical sprays began to blow across the stands toward downtown Indianapolis, 16 cars—nearly half the field—were counted as having been damaged to some degree. Of these, 11 were out of the race.
Texan A. J. Foyt, a two-time 500 winner, had landed in the center of the melee. He climbed out of his car, looking unshaken and suffering only from a smashed finger and a bruised knee. As the theater television audience noted, Foyt climbed the fence between the track and the spectators to put some distance between himself and any further smashups.
Dan Gurney, another favorite and an international racing figure, was in the middle, too, but got out unhurt. However, his Eagle racer, one of five Gurney-built cars that qualified for the 500, was just about a total wreck. An embittered Gurney had some scathing comments for drivers who seemed to him to have everything but brains.
The precise trigger-pull that started the first-lap disaster may never be known. It appears that Canadian Billy Foster, out of necessity or by design, attempted to squeeze his Offenhauser-powered racer into the space between Driver Gordon Johncock and the track's outside wall. The space suddenly disappeared and Foster's car lost two wheels. The Mixmaster began to rotate.
The race thus had to be stopped—the second time this ever has happened for an accident. (The first time was in 1964 when Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald were killed in a blazing smashup.) An hour and 20 minutes later, after the wreckage had been cleared away, the runnable cars pulled out again. This time they were in single file and under the yellow caution lights.
The racers' wheels kicked up puffs of white as they rolled across the chalky fire-extinguishing compound which covered the track at the crash scene. Now there were only 22. On the sidelines stood the stranded drivers, arms folded, faces grim.
When the green "go" flag finally waved, Mario Andretti, (SI, May 30), the 26-year-old Pennsylvanian who had won the pole position at a speed of 165.889 miles per hour, held his lead—for another half lap. Behind, driving on motorized tiptoes, carefully and far enough to the rear to be safe, came Clark. But back on the first turn there was another crash. Driver Johnny Boyd, losing control, slashed against the wall, wrenching two wheels off his car. The caution lights came on again.
The enormous crowd had been on the grounds for hours and not a single legitimate racing lap had been run. People began to wonder if one ever would be. They hoped so, for the crowd's sentimental favorite was still in the race. That was Andretti. Only 5 feet 4 inches tall and with legs so short that he has extensions built on his brake and gas pedals, Andretti is the kind of little man who arouses the hugging instinct in women of all ages.
As the green light came on again—several laps later—the real race at last began. It was a race of hopes uplifted only to be dashed. First up and down was Andretti, whose Brabham-Ford had looked just fine on the slow caution laps. He zipped out into the lead—and immediately began trailing plumes of ugly smoke. Clark passed him at once, and Andretti was retired with valve trouble after completing only 27 laps.
Then it was Clark's turn to be up. And so he was until he twice spun on an oil slick in the fourth turn. Though he recovered each time with masterful driving, he ultimately lost too much ground to the laconic veteran from Texas, Lloyd Ruby. Ruby, the ace of Gurney's Eagle-Ford group, was clearly going to win laughing—until he, like Andretti, commenced to trail oil smoke behind him. Then for some 43 laps it was the baby-faced Jackie Stewart on the lead—until his oil pressure dwindled away. And so, with only eight laps to run, Graham Hill started his brief but lucrative drive toward the checkered flag and the lips of the speedway queen.
The United Kingdom was richer by some $200,000, and by that time the numbed speedway crowd did not much care whether the winner's share went to the Englishman, Hill, or the little Scot, Clark.