As the cry of the lonely turbocar faded away at the Indianapolis 500 last year—eight miles from winning—it was clear that turbines would be big news at Indy in 1968. No one could have predicted, however, just how explosive the Indy season actually would be. In swift succession last week the turbine news ranged from gorgeous to tragic to astonishing to conspiratorial:
1) During the many practice sessions that always precede the big race itself, British Drivers Graham Hill and Mike Spence easily outsped all the piston cars in their new STP-Lotus turbines.
2) Spence subsequently crashed and died.
3) Two hours after Spence's death, a pair of opposition turbines entered by Carroll Shelby, which had received lavish advance billing, were withdrawn from the 500.
May 19, 1968
4) Chief Steward Harlan Fengler hit STP's Andy Granatelli (SI, May 13) with a technical ruling that could knock his turbines out, leaving none at all.
There were more stark items on the list; there certainly will be more before the race. However, old Indy already was more shaken than it has been in years, and the air was crackling with unanswered questions.
But of the merits of the STP-Lotus turbocars there seemed to be no question at all. Hill, a former Grand Prix world champion and the 1966 Indy winner, quickly reached a lap speed of 169.045 mph, which was 2.563 mph faster than the best 1967 qualifying lap for Parnelli Jones's now-famous Car 40, and was accomplished under the new turbine restriction limiting the critical air-inlet area. Spence, another road-racing Briton but a newcomer to Indy, was, surprisingly, even faster. His best lap of 169.555 was second only to Mario Andretti's 1967 record of 169.779 among all laps ever officially timed at the Speedway.
So impressive were these performances that Rodger Ward, twice an Indy winner but never a turbine booster, declared on a local TV show: "The Lotus is a fantastic machine. I don't see how it will have any competition in this year's race." In the opinion of the U.S. Auto Club's chief technical inspector, S. A. Silbermann, the Lotuses were "superb pieces of engineering."
Spence had tackled Indy so aggressively that he had trouble, he said, not breaking the speed limits set for his rookie tests. But his cornering was unconventional, and this was a subject of concern to USAC officials. Harlan Fengler, for example, had warned him not to cut the corners as low as he had been taking them.
Last Tuesday, Spence rocketed away to his fastest lap and Hill to his, and between them they set some Indy records: fastest speeds of the year, fastest rookie, fastest turbocars. It was also Indy's first day ever on which two cars had topped 169 mph.
After the death of Lotus Team Leader Jimmy Clark in Germany, the 31-year-old Spence had been signed as a backup man. He had tested the new Lotuses in England for 200 miles, but had no guarantee of a ride. No guarantee, that is, until more trouble befell Granatelli, an old acquaintance of disaster: Parnelli Jones quit him, Driver Greg Weld was unimpressive at the Speedway and Driver Jackie Stewart appeared with his arm in a sling, temporarily unable to practice. So Lotus Builder Colin Chapman put Mike on the official team. Then Weld asked Spence if he would try out his car, shake it down, and Spence agreed.
At 5:12 o'clock Tuesday afternoon. 48 minutes before the track was to close, Spence whistled into Turn One—not low this time but very high. His front wheels crimped hard right to counteract a high-speed skid, Spence slammed into the wall. The car was hammered into junk. Both right wheels were sheared off and Spence's helmet skittered back along the track, its chin strap still fastened. Chapman, hiding his face in his hands, went along to the hospital. At 9:45 p.m. Spence was dead.
A USAC observer, Walt Myers, had watched the Spence car come into the corner at an estimated 147 mph, a speed 6 mph slower than the near-record pace for the turn that Mike had recorded on his fastest lap in his own car. The car was much too high on the outer rim for safety, Myers said. In an automatic racing reflex Myers flicked on the track's yellow caution lights even before the turbocar struck the wall.
Another witness, Firestone's Jim Maguire, said, "He had been coming in high, but this time he was higher than ever, and I saw dust flying. The car must have skidded 150 yards. I saw Spence trying to lock the front wheels, like he was trying to get it back.... I saw a flash of fire and then the [right front] wheel flew over the car. I turned away, but I didn't think much about it, really. I've seen other guys hit much harder and walk away."
After the accident USAC impounded all the STP cars for inspection and found no defects in any of them, including the one that crashed. Indianapolis, having gone to bed to the Spence tragedy, awakened the next day to the Shelby resignation. Bill Doner, Shelby's public-relations man, had called Indianapolis wire services and sports editors at 11:45 p.m. to read a statement that was barely in time to make the morning Star. The statement itself stirred things anew:
"After complete and intensive testing," the Star quoted Shelby, "I feel at the present time it is impossible to make a turbine-powered car competitive with a reasonable degree of safety. Therefore, I am withdrawing the Shelby Racing Co. turbines from the 1968 race."
STP sponsor Andy Granatelli was enraged, and a good many other race regulars were upset by the implication that no turbines were safe—an implication made stronger in that it followed so hard upon Spence's death.
Among those distressed by the withdrawal statement were officials of Goodyear, the world's largest tire company, a heavy investor in racing and the major financial backer of the withdrawn cars. "It was badly worded," said one Goodyear spokesman, "and I'm sure Shelby did not mean it to sound the way it did. He's got too much to lose to do anything that might reflect poorly on anybody else in racing. But nothing was going right, and I think it's understandable he didn't want to put anybody in a car he felt wasn't safe."
It is beyond dispute that the Shelby turbines were not running well, despite the fact that Designer Ken Wallis—who had gone over to Shelby from Granatelli—when asked if he was aiming for the pole position, had said, "That's why we're here. I think it will take a good 170 to get it. That's what we're shooting for."
Two big-name Grand Prix drivers, World Champion Denis Hulme and Bruce McLaren, were to race the Shelby cars. Right from the start in practice at the Speedway, however, the drivers encountered brake and handling problems, and McLaren confided to friends that the ride in his car "was the scariest of my life."
In the Granatelli camp Chapman also had had enough. On Wednesday he left a poignant note on the blackboard of the Speedway press room. "I am filled with grief," it said, "at the loss of my longtime friend and associate, Jimmy Clark, and the additional loss, just a month later to the day, of Mike Spence. As an understandable result I want nothing to do with the 1968 Indianapolis race. I just don't have the heart for it. I want to thank my good friend Andy Granatelli for taking over in my stead and allowing me to carry out my decision. As an entrant and owner of these cars, Andy will have an added burden and responsibility since things must go on. I appreciate his action."
The key words were—as they always are at Indy—things must go on. But Granatelli's troubles had by no means ended.
For one thing, the turbine cars, in their year of new promise, needed top drivers. There were not enough good, uncontracted ones left to go around. The STP hopes were down to Hill, whose ability clearly had been proved, and Jackie Stewart, who had yet to practice. But then Granatelli's supply of racers was dwindling, too. On Sunday, Driver Joe Leonard jumped into Car 40, which had been fitted with a new, restricted engine, and crashed it in that unhappy first turn. Leonard emerged O.K., but of Andy's five cars only three remained.
And as the week closed Fengler exploded his bomb, notifying Granatelli by letter that the metal of the suspension arms on the new turbocars did not correspond to the letter of the specifications in USAC's rule book. But, Granatelli protested, Chapman had designed them with better metal than the rule book called for. No matter, said Fengler. Better would not do, he said, in effect. They would have to be changed to meet the very letter of the book. It would take too long, said Granatelli; special equipment would have to be shipped from Chapman's plant in England. Could he first qualify the cars, then change the arms? Yes, he could. He could qualify, said Fengler, but until the specs were met the cars could not race.
The USAC technical committee is made up of car owners and mechanics. Nonturbine car owners and mechanics. The Granatellis had no recourse; they accepted the edict and set to work around the clock in their garage.
The turbines would (would not) be ready for qualifying this weekend. The turbines will (will not) race in this year's Indy 500. Check two.