The city was Indianapolis, the event was billed as one of the really major auto races of the season, and, sure enough, a really major racing crowd was there. Among the entrants were the two star-quality drivers of the moment: A. J. Foyt, the big-shouldered Texan who has won the 500 three times, and genial little Mario Andretti of Nazareth, Pa., who has won almost everything else—including the U.S. Auto Club national championship for Indy cars for the last two years running. Of course, there were also the usual big-car camp followers—the heavy-wallet car owners, the hero-worsh ping hangers-on who know considerably more about piston displacement than they do about any given U.S. President, the trackside Lolitas in stretch pants and shades, the representatives of the big auto-accessory manufacturers who annually invest a rajah's ransom in the careers of major drivers.
But despite the high-octane content of the contestants and the crowd that followed them to Indiana last week, there was in the air an unmistakable smell of hay (not quite new mown) and livestock. The two buildings nearest the track were marked in big white letters with the words SWINE and HORSE SHOW, and as the spectators swarmed into their grandstand seats, more than a few had to admit that the last time they had been there was only the week before when the big attraction was not Foyt-Andretti and their cacophony of Offenhauser engines, but none other than Lawrence Welk and his cacophony of Champagne Music Makers.
This particular Indianapolis race was called the Hoosier Hundred, and it was held at the Indiana State Fairgrounds—in the same environs that had only recently seen heated competition in preteen hot-dog-and watermelon-eating, children's freckle-counting, hat-making, wool-spinning, Brown Swiss cow-milking, gladiola-arranging and rooster-crowing. But this race, a 100-mile dash around and around a one-mile oval track, had to outdo all the earlier state-fair foofaraw for even the most avid gladiola arranger. For one thing, the purse of $67,000 plus was bigger than that of any USAC race outside the 500 itself. Beyond that, Foyt and Andretti were engaged in the tightest contest in years for the big-car driving championship. The title, which is worth around $12,500 in cash from USAC, is based on points collected over a series of 19 races—two points per mile for the winner, 1.6 for the runner-up and on down. The Indianapolis 500, for example, gained 1,000 points for Foyt this year. Before last week's race the count was Foyt 2,280, Andretti 2,180.
Now make no mistake, the Hoosier Hundred is not the 500. The State Fairgrounds track is nearly eight miles from the grand old Speedway, and except for being in the same state there is no resemblance. The Speedway is a historic sprawl of bleachers and brick-based asphalt track that is an auto racer's Valhalla on earth. The fairgrounds layout is a sturdy little grandstand that can handle not only Welk and his Champagne players but also such entertainments as hell-driver thrill shows, rodeos and harness racing.
The Fairgrounds track is made of "dirt"—meaning that it has a base of a foot or so of gravel, covered with several inches of powdery clay mixed with some sand. That makes a normal footing for racehorses, and once upon a time it was about the only kind of surface that U.S. drivers ever set tire upon. Dirt is still very big around the country-fair jalopy circuits, but in major big-car competition it is an exception rather than a rule. Indeed, the Hoosier Hundred is only one of four of USAC's 19 championship races that are still run on dirt tracks. Sad as it may seem to racing's cloud-of-dust traditionalists, the good old dirt ovals will likely continue to give way to parking-lot surfaces.
The promoter of Indianapolis' Hoosier Hundred is Joseph L. "Thanx-A-Million" Quinn, 63, a jovial Irish racing enthusiast so smitten by the sport that he habitually wears black-and-white checked sportcoats, black-and-white checked bow ties and even black-and-white checked socks. "The main reason dirt tracks exist at all," says Joe Quinn, "is because they are also good for horse racing. When that stops paying, then pave 'em over. To make my point, I might tell you that we had a night of harness racing this year—non-pari-mutuel, of course—where the purse was $121,000 and, by God, the gate was less 'n $20,000. Of course, it's a state-fair promotion so, whatever the loss, it comes out of the taxpayer's pocket. But it is interesting to note that Milwaukee paved over their dirt track a while ago, and they are now gettin' the biggest crowds outside the 500."
Dirt track or not, this year's Hoosier Hundred attracted no less than 28 entries—"and that," says Quinn, "was a very pleasant, but very big, surprise to all of us. I didn't think enough drivers could afford it." Quinn did not mean the entry fee (which is a meager $25), but rather the fact that dirt requires an entirely different car from pavement racing. The engine must be in front (for better traction and driver control) and the chassis must be higher (to avoid scraping the undercarriage when the car hits the morass of potholes and deep ruts that develop on dirt). And no man can produce a competitive race car these days—on dirt or asphalt—for less than $35,000.
Whatever the cost, among the Hoosier Hundred crowd that moved thirstily in on the grandstand vendors' supply of local beer (Stroh's, Falstaff, Weidemann's), there was a lot of talk among Hoosier Hundred fans about the joys of dirt racing. "It just plain separates the men from the boys; there ain't no sissies goin' to win on dirt," said a farmer from Carmel, Ind. A shoe salesman from Indianapolis drawled, "You cain't beat dirt for excitement; it looks excitin'—whether it is or it ain't."
Harry McQuinn, an oldtime 500 driver himself and chief steward at this year's Hoosier Hundred, said, "I admit that dirt makes it easier for a driver to recover his mistakes. He can go wrong and come back in that soft stuff without losin' too much. But, I'll tell you, dirt is hard to work on. It takes a strong man and a real good driver." A lot of knowledgeable racing people had picked Foyt as an easy winner—partly because he is renowned for his hell-for-leather driving, (which is particularly effective in slip-and-skid dirt maneuvering), and partly because he had already beaten Andretti in the only other two USAC dirt-track contests held this year.
The morning of the race A.J. was grinning as he looked at the track. "I think it's fine," he said. "Oh, it looks a mite greasy and it might get a little rough along the way, but I like it like that." The track did look pretty slick; it had rained overnight and, on dirt, that's serious. Dirt is known as a "temperamental" surface among racers, and even a heavy nighttime dew can make it treacherous for high-speed driving. A couple of hours before the race, Joe Quinn stared balefully out his office window onto the track below. Deep tire tracks from his own maintenance trucks had already scarred the surface, turning up heavy chunks of wet clay and leaving inch-deep ruts. "If it don't rain another drop," Quinn said, "we might be all right." Even the 30 tons of moisture-evaporating calcium chloride that his truck crew had dusted over the oval didn't seem enough to overcome the dank wetness of the clouds overhead.
But the rain held off, and the track proved to be in splendid condition—for dirt, that is: nicely cushioned during the early laps, then taking on a jolting corrugated surface as hard as paving.
The race itself was almost an anticlimax after all the anxiety about rain. During the first few laps, the smooth-driving Andretti jockeyed a bit with California rookie Bruce Walkup (who had surprised everyone by winning the pole position with a track-record qualifying time of 104.076 mph). Then Andretti charged into the lead in his No. 1 car (an honor given to the previous year's USAC winner) and held it for 86 consecutive laps. Dirt clods clustered thick on the windshields of the cars, and spectators standing on a roof three stories above the action found themselves sprayed with clay as the 18 starting cars snarled into skids around the turns. But there was not so much as a scraped paint job during the entire race. And no one—not even runner-up Foyt—came really close to threatening Mario's second straight victory in the Hoosier Hundred. So easy was Andretti's win that the crowd actually cheered more for Billy Vukovich Jr., son of the 500 champion who was killed in 1955 with his third Indy victory within reach. Young Vukovich finished a strong fourth and was picked Rookie of the Race over Walkup.
For the chipper Andretti the day brought the richest 100-mile race purse in history—$28,100, including $150 for every lap he led. He also pulled to within a scant 60 points of Foyt in the USAC competition. There are five races to go, and even though many racing people figure the freewheeling Andretti as the odds-on favorite to outpoint the temperamental Foyt, Mario himself says, "It will go down to the last day, I think." That would be the 300-mile run (worth 600 USAC points) in Riverside, Calif. on Nov. 26.
Win or lose in the national championship, Indianapolis was Andretti's for the taking when last week's race was over. After Mario had accepted a kiss from the Hoosier Hundred Rose Queen and a Steuben crystal bowl (symbolizing the Hoosier's 15th anniversary) from the president of the Indiana State Fair Board and a sterling silver cup and a diamond ring and a blue jacket from a variety of other dignitaries, a red-haired bystander, who might have done very well in the state fair's freckle-counting contest, sighed, "Jeez, some guys have got everything." Even the big winners from the swine barn the week before hadn't gotten quite such an accolade as that.