A RECKLESS DASH TO DISASTER

A review of Indy's first-lap smashups and some extraordinary color photographs reveal that a few drivers who took alarming risks jockeying for position were responsible for piling up half the field
June 12, 1966

The safest part of the Indianapolis 500-mile race is the moment when the band plays Back Home Again in Indiana. After that, when 33 cars try to make it around the first lap, it gets a lot less folksy. And this week, back home in the world's most expensive junkyard, there were growing indications that the old routine would never be the same again.

As always, the race had begun with 33 cars arranged in 11 rows of three each. But while cars at the back of the lineup were still getting the green starting flag, most of the others were spinning out of control. Drivers began whomping each other on the main straightaway, and the sky was falling with tires, suspension parts and pieces of engines. A scrap of automotive shrapnel arched at Driver Cale Yarborough and sliced through his crash helmet like an ax. If it had fallen slightly lower, it would have killed him. A few feet away a runaway tire bounced off the helmet of Arnie Knepper, and he thought—understandably—that a car had landed on his head.

When the panic settled, the crowd looked down on 11 cars lying helpless with backs and bellies broken and five others that would have to go to the pits for minor repairs. None of the drivers was killed. This was not a miracle, as was emotionally suggested at the time, but a tribute to modern chassis, which wrap around drivers like tubular envelopes. But debris winging into the crowd had injured five spectators who were not as well protected.

The disaster seemed all too familiar to Indy. Two of the last three races have gone bad at the start. Two years ago, a first-lap crash killed two drivers and demolished seven cars. In 1958 Driver Pat O'Connor was killed. Fifteen cars were involved on that ominous first lap, and eight could not continue.

The fiasco at this year's Indy was followed by impassioned argument over which driver had done what to whom. Several movies made on Memorial Day have since settled the question. They clearly show that a number of drivers, contrary to explicit instruction and common sense, were trying to win a 500-mile race in the first 500 yards.

The United States Auto Club's spokesman, Jim Smith, reconstructed the accident this way: Pole man Mario Andretti brought the field down toward the starting line at about 110 miles an hour. "I think I crossed the line at about 125," Andretti says, "and I was still in low gear. I have a gearbox that will take me up to 135 before I pop it into high."

Behind Andretti, Drivers Billy Foster (fourth row) and Johnny Boyd (fifth row) both swung to the inside as the field roared up to the line. Driver Gordon Johncock (second row) lagged badly at the start and was passed by four others: Jim McElreath and Chuck Hulse, from the third row, plus Jackie Stewart and Jerry Grant from the fourth row. As they crossed the starting line, Foster appeared to be half a car length ahead of Johncock and Boyd, running between them. Hulse was riding directly in front of Foster, roughly in the center of the track.

As Hulse cleared Johncock, he moved toward the outside, seeking more running room, thus leaving a hole up the middle. Both Foster and Boyd went for it, Boyd veering in sharply to his right to get into the spot. Foster apparently reacted instinctively. He swung hard to the right to avoid Boyd, cutting in front of Johncock and slamming into the outside wall. The impact sheared the nose cone and two wheels from Foster's car.

As Foster churned along the wall, it appeared for an instant that the field—now accelerating fast—would make it through. But then Mel Kenyon (sixth row) began a deadly inside spin as he swerved to miss the nose cone. The spin threw him into the path of Don Branson (third row), who had started directly behind the slow-moving Johncock. Branson tried to swing inside and ran underneath Gary Congdon (sixth row). Thus, with Foster coming back off the wall on the outside, with Kenyon spinning down the center and Branson and Congdon piled up on the inside, the track was effectively blocked. The other drivers came pouring in on them.

"Keep in mind," said one of the survivors, "that the accident was getting ready to happen long before the cars crashed. Jockeying around before the race starts is illegal, remember?"

Standing in his garage after the pile-up, wearing a warmup jacket over his oil slick, Billy Foster said, "There was an opening. I don't know who it was, but whoever was on my left moved up, and I had to swing out to avoid hitting him. That's when someone bumped me in the right rear and I spun into the wall." Had he hit Johncock in the process? Foster shrugged. "I don't know. I hit him. He hit me. What's the difference?"

With 11 cars out for good and five others in the pits for repairs, only 17 cars were lined up to restart, this time in cautious single file. After five slow laps—to show everyone that cars could get around the Indy course—the green flag came down again. In the next instant Boyd careened into the wall, skidding on a trail of oil dropped by another car, and two more wheels burst off. This time the field did not stop—it never stops if there is room to pick a path through—but rolled along slowly under yellow caution lights for 10 more laps. On the 22nd lap, Drivers George Snider and Chuck Hulse sideswiped; on lap 162 Al Unser, within striking distance of the leaders, skidded out of control coming around the final turn and bashed into the wall, spilling one more wheel, and walking away uninjured. Meanwhile, mechanical troubles spotted throughout the race took out 11 others.

Through all this came a fine touch of motorized irony. First, the smashup snuffed out some potential race winners, leaving the field relatively clear for cars which would not otherwise have had much chance. Then the slow restart took its toll among the hot cars left. The methanol fuel mixture burns best in a high-winding engine, tends to turn soupy at sustained slow speeds. Pole man Andretti, whose car was fastest, said, "When I finally got to step on it, it was like stepping into a tub of Jell-O." As a result, his car later retired with a dropped valve.

In addition, there was a certain confusion for 99 laps—almost half the race—over the exact positions of several of the leading survivors. And when the race ended, three hours and 28 minutes after the restart, only seven cars were left running. Not running well, just running. It was the alltime low for a 500.

When England's Graham Hill, a 9-to-1 entry on the Memorial Day line, finally took the checkered flag, it was clear that he had not so much won the race as inherited it, driving steadily at an average speed of 144.317 miles an hour and leading the last nine laps after half a dozen swifter cars had dropped out of the running.

One who might have beaten him even in the late stages—Scotland's Jimmy Clark—had been rolling along under considerably less than full steam, not taking chances on the oil-slippery track, because he figured he was ahead of Hill. The mistake—not Clark's—conceivably cost him $79,305, the difference between first-and second-place money.

Next day the official speedway tapes showed that Hill had moved up during one of Clark's pit stops, a maneuver many people missed. Hill received $156,297 for a drive he admitted—even insisted—was not brilliant. "One finds it hard to concentrate on what one is doing," he said, "when one is simply going around and around out there."

Now that Indy's 1966 debris has been carted away, there is a cry for change in the way the 500 operates—and with reason. It is apparent that the race has rolled through a period of sharp change in which technology has outrun temperament. Championship cars have evolved into sophisticated machines that are surprisingly delicate, for all their speed. The result is that there now are more fancy cars than there are competent drivers.

The cars also are substantially more expensive than they used to be—adding to the driver's burden of responsibility. The average Indianapolis car represents an investment of more than $125,000. This starts with a chassis that costs $15,000 to $25,000. It includes a basic engine that costs about $23,000—and each engine is outfitted with some $7,000 worth of personal refinements. Each car must have a spare $30,000 engine sitting ready in the garage; drivers coaxing the cars to top speed have a tendency to blow them apart. (Jackie Stewart, warming up for the 500 qualifications, blew $90,000 worth of engines before he got the system figured out. "I must be the most expensive damn driver in history," he said.) To these hard figures must be added the cost of mechanics and expenses for the lengthy Indy preliminaries.

But tradition dies hard at the Speedway. The image of American racing was forged at Indy, and it is still The Great Race—a magnet for Grand Prix, sports car and dirt track drivers from all parts of the world.

The Speedway course is 50 feet wide and, except for the smooth asphalt pavement over the old brick track, is about the same as it was in 1911 when Ray Harroun ran 200 laps in a Marmon Wasp at 74.59 mph and picked up all the money. It is still a reasonably adequate track for the 500—providing the race can be started.

The sharpest criticism of last week's ghastly start came from two of the most experienced drivers. They had an excellent view; they were in the middle of it. Driver Dan Gurney, builder of the American Eagles (SI, April 11), who moves in the separate worlds of Indy and Grand Prix racing, was one. Houston's A. J. Foyt, twice the Indianapolis 500 winner and perhaps the best driver on the track, was the other—and he was going to stay shouting mad for a long time. While the crash still boiled on, now and then zinging a crippled racer past the place where his own car lay crushed against the wall, Foyt had climbed out, taken a quick look around and scrambled over the fence and into the stands. The accident had not injured him, but climbing the fence he banged up both knees, and the next day they were badly swollen.

"I ain't never, I ain't never, ever going to run in one of these races again," said Foyt, "unless I can start from up there in front. You got to be free to drive clean away from those crazy sons of bitches. This is supposed to be a 500-mile race. This first lap ain't no old drag strip, you know."

(Five days after the 500, practicing for the Milwaukee 100, Foyt crashed in Jim Clark's second-place 500 finisher—a Lotus-Ford, which he had just bought from the Scot—and was seriously burned.)

Gurney said: "Those clowns. Ridiculous. I was hit four times in there. Four times. Wouldn't you think that a bunch of grown men, all supposedly experienced race drivers, could drive together down a simple stretch of straight road?"

Is Indy's road too narrow? Most drivers think not, and the fact that they get around the Speedway in good order once the race is started indicates they are right. In any case the Speedway could be widened only about 10 feet.

Reform is most likely to come in an alteration of the three-by-three start, although Chief Steward Harlan Fengler defends the old system. "We have had more good starts than bad starts," he says. That is correct historically—and absurd in the context of the last three years. Tony Hulman, the Speedway president, insists that anything necessary will be done to get the drivers off to a safer start. A standing start as used on many European racing circuits probably will not be adopted because of the large field and the relatively short, cramped course, where a stalled car would become a hurdle for those coming up behind. A run-and-jump Le Mans takeoff, requiring self-starters on the cars, seems equally unlikely.

The most probable change is to a two-by-two starting lineup—with strict control over the anxious drivers in back. The traditional pace lap would not be eliminated. However, there would be an extra prerace lap, after the pace car has pulled out of the way, during which the pole-position driver would get the field up to a higher speed and into the same running gear so that further acceleration would be roughly even.

The drivers themselves agree that their one big fear is that first lap. The pressures of Indy start long before the track opens May 1 and build steadily toward the big moment.

Jimmy Clark, an open critic of this drawn-out system, says, "These boys spend the whole month inside this wire fence They work on their cars around the clock—which tenses them. They meet together constantly. They drink together, eat together and talk about Indy. Talk, talk, talk, until it is an obsession."

"The drivers," Gurney agrees, "are psyched right out of business. But don't let those foreign drivers tell you they are immune. Jimmy was so disturbed one day he threw a wrench at a mechanic. He is affected like everyone else."

But, short of installing slots on the track and running the race by remote control, what is to keep the eager-beaver drivers in check?

"I'll tell you what," says Andretti, speaking as the fastest man of the season. "The people who run Indy must really punish the man found out of position at the start. The penalty has to be severe enough to stick. Say you pull a guy out of racing for six months or a year—suspend him. It is his living, and he'll do like you say. And then you'll see 33 cars come up to the start like they're supposed to be."

Rodger Ward agrees. "Let's assume we could pinpoint the blame for this year's crash on someone," he says. "If the steward was able to say, 'Sir, you will now undergo a one-year suspension,' you would see some drivers exercise a little more caution."

"Unless we put these people under control," says Gurney, "fewer and fewer owners are going to want to race at Indy. They won't be able to afford Indy, to risk their huge investments on an unsanctioned drag race down the main straightaway. They will simply stay away."

The perils of the first lap were enough to make a new elder racing statesman of Ward, who drove through the tangle and decided it would be his last trip. "Maybe it's because my age [45] won't let me gamble," he said when it was over. "But the start of the accident came right beside me. I saw Foster go into the wall. I saw that he had some help getting there. And I simply had to drive in there and take my medicine with everyone else." At the awards banquet the next evening, Ward made a short but effective speech. "I promised myself the day this stopped being fun, I would quit," he said. "Well, yesterday it stopped being fun."

PHOTOJAMES R. ROOTThe trouble begins (above) as Billy Foster, charging hard and crowded by others, hits wall, trailing smoke and flinging wheels. PHOTOJAMES R. ROOTSeconds later cars spin ominously, but ultimate winner Graham Hill (far left) gets through. Behind him accidents multiply (next page). PHOTOJAMES R. ROOTSmoke spews from Cale Yarborough's car, and in right foreground Dan Gurney skids on two wheels as tire bounces toward infield. PHOTOJAMES R. ROOTDrivers flee from disabled cars—A. J. Foyt scrambling up fence at left—as Carl Williams (battered car) and others snake past.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)