For months now a nagging fear has been troubling the American Midwest—that the good old Indianapolis 500 might be turning into an engineering sideshow. The race cars were assuming a too-perfect, slide-rule look, and the drivers were getting so far down into them that nobody could recognize anybody anymore. And then some smart aleck turned up with a turbine car that sounded like a shrunken whisperjet. Who knew what terrible innovations would come next? It was with some anxiety that a crowd of 225,000 assembled at the Speedway last Saturday to see what science had wrought.
Noisy and spectacular things began to happen almost at once. A rookie driver smacked into the concrete wall and smashed his car, as rookies will do. Then America's sweetheart, Dan Gurney, got out there in his flashy new deep-blue car and went around four laps at a record 167.224 mph. And before Gurney could get his helmet off, little Mario Andretti threw a 168.982 at him. All was well. Science will never take the color and clout out of Indy.
What happened was that this gang of sturdy drivers and engines blasted each other silly, just as they have done for years. They also beat the stylish fiberglass pants off the new car—kept it off the pole, anyway—and got most of the places filled for what promises to be an old-style knockdown 500-mile race on Memorial Day.
Understand, what they were all doing last Saturday was just for openers. They were beginning to set up the 33-car field that will shape the race. It was a painful ritual, perhaps the deadliest weigh-in in sports.
Eighty-six beautifully finished cars were at the Speedway—a record number—representing an investment in machines and men about the worth of a National Football League franchise. Old Gasoline Alley had been expanded for the occasion, with new garages that looked an awful lot like the old garages. Some things you can change at Indy, but you dare not tamper with the American Gothic look of Gasoline Alley. Tony Hulman had tacked on another grandstand or two, bringing sit-down crowd capacity to 201,000. A cadre of eight foreign drivers had come to Indiana for some of that ready American cash: more than $700,000 in prizes this year. And if all this pointed to the richest race in history, it also made for a spectacle that left everybody limp.
A year ago, young Andretti hit 168 mph in practice and later qualified at 165.899. By last weekend, 20 cars already were over the 163-mph mark in practice, and 16 others were within striking distance, turning laps at better than 160.
Further, in the rush to higher speeds, 11 drivers had slammed their cars into the speedway walls. These included an embarrassed Graham Hill, who, after winning last year's 500, had remarked coolly on how easy it was to get around the track.
Amid the speed and spins, the inventive Andy Granatelli, who is the roundest known automotive pixie, tuned up his new million-dollar turbine car. To drive it he had signed—reportedly for a $100,000 fee—none other than Parnelli Jones, the 1963 winner.
The turbine car is a 550-horsepower, 1,750-pound monster with a side-mounted Pratt & Whitney engine that is capable of running nicely on anything from kerosene to Aqua Velva. Many Indy men had assumed that it would be turned aside at the main gate, since it did not have a reciprocating engine. But there it was, in eye-smarting day-glow orange-red, perfectly legal and looking more menacing than anything the town had ever seen.
Builder-Driver Dan Gurney produced 12 new American Eagles for the race, sold nine of them for $30,000 each and brought the other three for himself and Richie Ginther.
Andretti also came to town with a new car; well, really a one-race-old car, but it had won that one. It was blue and white on the outside and early Jack Brabham on the inside, with something like 85 coats of wax—Mario likes his car to shine—and a blue, leather-padded steering wheel and maybe 500 horsepower in the Ford engine.
To get things rolling on Saturday, Indy Veteran Lloyd Ruby, who almost won the 500 last year, flashed around the track in an Offenhauser-powered job—yes, Virginia, there still is an Offy—at a four-lap average of 165.229. That was dandy, but not dandy enough. By the end of the day Ruby had been forced back into seventh position in the lineup and faced the prospect of picking his way up through a fearsome field.
Rookie Ralph Liguori (actually, he is a 40-year-old driver with much experience, but everybody is a rookie at Indy until he gets into the race) did not make it through his warmup laps. He lost control at the end of the main straightaway and plowed into the wall.
Joe Leonard was the first driver to push Ruby back a notch, rolling up to the line in one of the 55 Ford-engined racers on the ground, then blasting through the clocks at 166.098 for the 10-mile trial. Leonard is a man of few words. "I hope it stands up," he growled when he finished, acting as if he did not think it would.
It did not, of course, but it survived an unusually anemic attack by Scotland's Jimmy Clark, who won the race in 1965 and qualified at 164.144 a year ago but managed to reach only 163.213 this time. He shrugged, "There are still a few problems to sort out." One of the problems may have been the un-Scots color of his car, also entered by Granatelli. It was the same hue as that of the turbine racer.
When Gurney began his run, the crowd gave him a fine big hand, and when the track announcer revealed that he had topped 167 on his first lap applause descended on the streaking car in great happy thunderclaps. Show an Indy fan some speed and you have his love. Gurney's second lap of 167.942 was his fastest. His four-lap average of 167.224 was, of course, a record. But next behind him waited Andretti, who had been pacing up and down beside his car all afternoon, looking for giants to kill.
"Greatest thrill in alla land," said Mario gleefully. "Listen, every time I heard that speed of Gurney's go up, it was just like someone pinching me. It's nice to have something to shoot at. Soon as I saw he was gunning for that 169 mark, I started thinking 170, you know?"
When Gurney pulled in and Andretti began revving up his shining car, the crowd let go with some real noise. They regard Gurney with a sort of Breakfast of Champions hero worship, but they view the 5'4", 135-pound Andretti as a minisuperman.
"You know who is out there now, don't you?" Gurney was asked.
He smiled. "At least," he said, "I'll have a few moments of glory."
A very few. Running through the gauntlet of sound—nobody raised a chicken leg or beer bottle to his lips in this hallowed moment—Andretti screamed by at 169.205 mph and showed everybody what a high-speed wax job will do. Mario burst by again: 169.014. His third lap was a record 169.779, and after a slow fourth-lap 167.942—"I was trying pretty hard. The back end went out and I damn near lost it,"—Andretti was home with an average of 168.982.
"Believe me," he said, "I went as fast as I possibly could. If someone goes faster than that, there's nothing I can do about it."
There was only one man who might go faster—Rufus Parnell Jones.
Parnelli had been zinging along in the turbine car at practice speeds in the mid-160s, enduring the bitter comments of critics who felt that the beast was un-Indianian. "You guys are making more noise than the cars," he growled. "It's getting so I can't hear myself think out there." Many people felt that Granatelli was holding him back, that they would see some 170s when he unleashed his tiger. Parnelli was not particularly happy with the he's-cooling-it faction, either. "All I know," he said, "is that I'm scaring myself at the speeds I'm running." Breaking a shaft in the gear box in pre-qualifying practice improved his mood not at all. He had to skip his first turn and qualify very late in the day.
When the jet finally came by on Saturday, a ragged streak of hot orange, there was an historic pause at Indy. Everybody listened: no sound came rolling along behind it. No roar, no throb of engine. Just a sighing whoosh.
On cue, the crowd sighed with it.
"He made 166.482," the announcer said. Funny, it had seemed much faster: something like, say, 2,000 mph, except for the lack of a sonic boom. Next trip around, Jones hit 166.482 again, which was unique. Someone turned to Granatelli and murmured, "How do you guys program that thing?"
Andy smiled and shrugged enormously, "I tell him to run it at one hunnert and sixty-six," he said, "and he runs it at one hunnert and sixty-six."
Still glamorous but now stripped of its fearful reputation as an Indy-killer, the turbine car averaged 166.075 mph and qualified for sixth spot in the race.
Meanwhile, two-time Indy winner A.J. Foyt settled for a 166.289 mph average and fourth spot, just ahead of his teammate, Leonard, whose car he owns.
And what of Graham Hill, the 500's defending champion? At 6 p.m., just as the timekeeper was pointing his pistol in the air. Hill got his car on the track, made one dramatic pass at the green flag, then decided not to go. (On Sunday neither he nor anyone else was able to qualify. The day was washed out by rain.)
Down the line, Parnelli Jones stood in flameproof coveralls and blue sneakers and talked like an oldtimer who has seen a new light.
"People been complaining about this car," he said. "They say it spews out wavy air above it and they can't see through it. They say the spoiler-brake in the back blocks their vision. Well, nobody complained about any of those things until I came out here and began to blow them off."
Granatelli was more succinct: "What the rear-engine car did to the old roadster," he said, "the turbine will do to the rear-engine cars. That is called progress." Maybe it will, maybe it won't.
Technology had had its due at the old brickyard, but the men whose will and sacrifice had made the 500 what it is were paramount. One dubious tradition lingered: the crowded three-abreast start. There were attacks on it last year when some of the boys began racing before they even got to the starting line and put 11 cars in the junkyard after a hellish tangle at the approach to the first turn. History says racing drivers will race, and damn the traffic. The Speedway says the boys will be warned to behave, under threat of dire penalties. Well, you can bet that the crowd's cheers and the $10,000 prize for winning the pole were not Mario Andretti's only motivations. When he starts racing on Memorial Day there will be nothing ahead but wide-open track.