This is how it will be on Memorial Day when they run off the Indianapolis 500, an event that once was a parade of dinosaurs and now resembles a competitive moon shot: 30 piston cars will come clanging down the straightaway, growling and spitting just as they always have since the days when 75 miles an hour could get you a trophy and a lot of oil on your face. But this time tradition will be on the edge of its seat, because all those cars will be chasing three fast new turbines and that ethereal something known as the future of automobile racing.
The battle lines for the showdown were drawn last weekend in a preview that brought approximately the entire population of the American Midwest into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and left the place an emotional shambles. When the smoke lifted, there sat Joe Leonard and Graham Hill in a pair of hot-red turbines that had gone better than 171 mph to win the pole and the No. 2 qualifying position. There was Art Pollard safely in the field in a third turbine. There was owner Andy Granatelli in a spasm of joy. And all about them were piston folks with hot-green faces.
Understand now, the process of qualifying for the 500—with only one car on the track at a time—ought to be about as dull as the relay race at the Grange picnic. In fact, in bygone years qualifying was a ceremony attended largely by those who had the time after the hogs were slopped and the cows milked, but these are days of innovation and everybody knew that big things were afoot.
On Saturday morning enough people crowded into the Speedway—some 260,000—to make two Superbowl football crowds and one Kentucky Derby mob. Through a day of smog-free sunshine interrupted by occasional bursts of rain, they sat in patient hysteria, watching the most important part of the 500 starting lineup take shape.
May 26, 1968
The starting order is 11 rows of three cars each, and it isn't much fun to be stuck in the rear. There were 74 cars at the track gunning for those 33 starting spots on May 30, and in practice leading up to qualifying nine of the cars hit speeds over 167 mph and 12 went over 166. A couple of the piston cars, trailing the rich, pungent smell of nitromethane, were running on the ragged edges of the 170s. The piston establishment had been rocked last year by one turbine; this year there were these three new turbocars to contend with, the survivors of what had started out to be a nine-turbine attack. Two of the jet cars bettered 170 mph in practice.
The people sat down and pulled the rings on their pop-top beer cans, and Driver Bob Hurt rolled out. Hurt bravely wrestled a Lola-Ford around the track and then decided, wisely, to take it back to the garage for a heart transplant. Hill was next in line, slouched into his STP-Lotus turbine, the car all duded up in Day-Glo red and more STP stickers than a rolling gas station, the man wearing his dapper London Rowing Club crash helmet. Hill whooshed through the first turn simply by easing his foot off the brake in easy stages, then stepped on the throttle, and it was up, up and away. The car poured down the main straight going so fast it looked 25 feet long, leaving a red blur in the air and no sound except a faint, rolling sigh of power. It was a 171.887-mph sound. And anyone in the crowd who may have blinked and missed the car as it went past had only to turn his head to see it coming again. When Hill averaged 171.208 for the four laps even the car's designer, Colin Chapman, looked dazed. Chapman had left Indy in grief after Mike Spence crashed one of his turbines in practice and died, but he could not bear to stay away.
Hill relaxed with a can of Coca-Cola and said it had been rather easy, hadn't it? "I'm not really satisfied with the speed," he said. "It sounds churlish, really, but we can actually go a bit faster. Of course, I don't expect to drive quite so wildly for 200 laps in the race. But being in the turbine is like riding a wonderful wild thing out there. One can feel its wheels sort of claw at the track when one steps on the throttle and it is really quite amazing."
There was still more turbodrama to come, but between the acts, in quick order, some of the leading lights of racing had a run at Hill's speed and missed by a mile. By several miles. By a year, the time it will take them to get turbines of their own.
The closest was a lean, intense New Mexican named Bobby Unser, who drove up in a turbocharged Offenhauser—ah, there, remember the Offy?—full of mysterious plumbing and horsepower. He averaged 169.507 mph and won the third front-row spot. Lloyd Ruby wheeled to an average of 167.613 in another turbocharged Offy; Roger McCluskey had 166.976 in a turbocharged Offy; and it was apparent that the piston boys weren't exactly wallowing in speed.
A. J. Foyt, last year's winner and America's compleat race driver, had been struggling through the month with his own turbocharged Ford. For qualifying he switched to a standard Ford. Most drivers run through a couple of practice laps before signaling the officials to put the clocks on them. But Foyt, nearing the end of his first warmup lap, gestured for the green flag. Foyt squeezed up as high as 166.976 on one lap and pulled in with a 166.821 average for eighth spot. It was farther back by seven places than Foyt really wanted to start.
"We had hoped to run about three miles an hour faster," Foyt said. "But we have had engine problems." If Foyt was having engine troubles, Mario Andretti, who had led the field last year with a record 169.779-mph lap and a 168.982-mph qualifying average, was limping through even worse mechanical miseries. One Ford engine collapsed and died in his arms in his first attempt to get into the race. Then in record Gasoline Alley time he uncrated a new one, installed it and came back for more. It was a dandy way to break it in. With about 10 minutes of running time on the engine and the price tags still fluttering, Mario hit 167.691 mph and moved into fourth starting position.
Dan Gurney, a guy whose blue eyes and dimples turn all the girls on, came next. Gurney likes turbines the way J. Edgar Hoover likes Communists. He brought to town an American Eagle from his own California shop, outfitted with a stock block 302" Ford engine—the sort of thing you might find in your Aunt Nellie's Mustang if Aunt Nellie likes to bolt speed things onto it. Gurney had indulged in a few optional extras, such as Gurney-Weslake heads, and there was so much horsepower in the thing that it sat in the garage and trembled a lot.
Before qualifying, Gurney talked about the turbine threat. "I hate the turbines," Gurney said. "Look, it's just as if you introduced a baseball that had some new ingredient in it so that everyone who hit it would sock it over the fence for a home run. You see what I mean? Suddenly the whole game would be changed. Everyone would be hitting homers. It would become dull and nobody would come out to see baseball anymore. The same thing could happen in racing: people love the wonderful sounds and smells of traditional racing.
"If I have to go to turbines to win the race, I'll do it. But I'll tell you one thing, if we do come here with a new turbine, we'll do our very best to hop it up so that it will be better than everyone else's stock turbine. People can talk about turbines being the car of the future. Well, remember, racing is a sport which, like baseball, may not need such trick things to draw large crowds. If you get all turbines in here the people will all go away."
Another beastly thing about turbines, in Gurney's opinion, was that they could race at just about their qualifying speed. That is, with no additives. Historically, the strategy of the piston people has been to qualify with just enough fuel for four laps plus generous pourings of tricky oxygen-rich pep potions like nitromethane to make the cars go faster. "After qualifying they back down on the fuel and on gear ratios," Gurney said, "with the result that with full tanks they run roughly five miles an hour slower in the race than their qualifying speed."
Gurney then buckled himself in and raced away to a 166.512-mph average, first spot in the fourth row and close enough to look over McCluskey's and Andretti's shoulders to see the two turbines up front.
And how were the other piston cars doing? Consider Masten Gregory, a Kansas boy home from the road-racing wars in Europe. He stood beside his Ford-powered Cheetah and growled, "It's beautiful. My quickest lap around this whole damned track is exactly the same speed Graham Hill makes through Turn One."
Through the early part of the day craggy, handsome 33-year-old Joe Leonard, who makes Steve McQueen look like a choir boy, sat behind the guarded doors in the STP-Lotus-Granatelli garages and talked softly with Parnelli Jones. Leonard was taking a cram course in a subject entitled: How to Drive a Turbine Very Fast on Very Short Notice. Leonard, three times a national motorcycle champion, had been hired by Jones to drive a piston racer, but Jones had graciously released him from his contract to let him drive one of the three turbines for Granatelli.
Leonard had had less than 30 laps in turbines, and on one of them he had slammed Parnelli's old Car 40 into the wall and converted it into a pop-art sculpture for the Speedway Museum. Still, of all the newer Indy drivers, Leonard had shown the most promise. In his first year (1965) he qualified 27th and placed 29th. Last year, though, he qualified fifth and finished third.
The class over, Leonard walked determinedly out to the track, and Bill Dredge, one of Granatelli's public relations men, sat down at his typewriter and began writing. "I'm doing a biography on Leonard," he explained calmly, "because he is going to be sitting in the pole position." Oh, sure. By the time Dredge had stared thoughtfully at the ceiling and typed out "Joseph Paul Leonard," Joe was on the track, running through a hurricane of noise: 260,000 voices in full howl, making his car's lack of rumble and roar seem irrelevant.
Four times he flashed by the main stands and then coasted in with the Speedway's alltime fastest lap—171.953—a record 171.559 average, the pole and the thoughtful look of a convert.
"Going from a piston car to this one," he said, "was like driving a Go Kart to California and then jumping into a Cadillac. I used to run wide open around here, scaring myself to death at 165 miles an hour in those old cars. Now everything's so lovely I honestly think I could run a little faster if I had more practice in the car."
By this time, getting the third turbine into the lineup was almost anticlimactic. A few days earlier Granatelli had been searching high and low for qualified drivers. Now he was up to his hips in them—all volunteering to drive the third car. The job finally went to journeyman Art Pollard, who took a few practice spins and then, just before the track was to close for the day, qualified at 166.297 to take the middle spot in the fourth row. That put him beside Gurney, who just might give him a dirty look or two before this thing is over.
On Sunday it was wet and cold, and only one car qualified, the Repco-Brabham of Austria's Jochen Rindt. With one more qualifying weekend to go, 16 cars were in the race: the three turbines, five turbo-Offies, four turbo-Fords, two old-fashioned Indy Fords, Gurney's stock blocker and the Repco. Only one driving notable was still waiting to make the traveling squad—world champion Denny Hulme with an Eagle-Ford.
No matter who qualifies this weekend, on Memorial Day it will be 30 cars chasing three. As the sun set slowly Saturday over Andy Granatelli, he stood at the-track musing over the list: Leonard, Hill and, uh, Bobby Unser.
"It's too bad," he said, "about not getting that other turbine into the front row. It kind of spoils the color scheme."