Here he is now, America's emerging new racing hero, all blond and lean and tied together with pure sinew, with all the conscious bravery of a bullfighter and one of those good, solid New Mexico names that really means something. Like Bobby Unser. Here he comes, around the Indianapolis Speedway in the big showdown between turbines and piston-engined race cars. It is motoring's own Bobby Unser, wheeling an old-fashioned piston car with one of the gears gone haywire, holding it in gear with one hand and steering with the other. Racer Unser is about to say something important, one of those historic quotes that the racing world will long remember and maybe engrave on belt buckles everywhere. "O.K.," says Bobby. "You had better hold on real good, all you sum-'bitches, because here I come."
As everyone knows by now, Bobby Unser came on and on and on, in a racing drama too impossible and cornball for this elegant age. He beat just about everybody who is anybody in auto racing; he beat everybody who was gutty enough to get out there and mix it up with him, and he won the Indy 500—which is much better than three Olympic gold medals and roughly two rungs above the presidency of the United States.
He did this at a record average speed of 152.882 mph, in three hours, 16 minutes and a few seconds—13.76, to be slavishly exact. He did it through a gathering pile of wreckage—11 cars finished out of 33 starters—and several curious happenings that stirred up the race more than in any year before.
The 1968 Indy 500 was a turning point of some sort in racing, although it may take months for the authorities to stop jangling long enough to make a sober analysis. Still, certain items are already clear: 1) the race proved that the jet age is something still limited to the friendly skies of United, 2) the piston engine has not yet joined the buggy whip, and 3) Bobby Unser is some fancy young driver, indeed.
June 9, 1968
After the race Unser had a quick analysis of his own, which seemed cogent enough. He rolled out of the ruins, pulled off his red crash helmet, kissed the wowee trophy queen and said, "I had everything all hung out all day long. Hell, I've never run a full 500 miles before, and I wasn't even sure I could last all that time under that abuse. But I did it."
He did, indeed. When the race began there was no real, oldtime assurance that anything but the turbines would do it. Just by running fast in practice, Unser had the piston-hero role sort of thrust into his arms. He had started the 500 five times and had finished among the top 10 just twice. All during May the turbines had run faster in trials than is decent. The piston cars were struggling to keep up, and none of them had had enough workout time because it had been raining in Indiana ever since anyone could remember.
Unser had qualified his turbocharged Offenhauser-Eagle third fastest (at 169.507 mph) and was sitting right out there in the front row. But parked just inside him were two dandy new turbocars built to a brand-new engineering principle called Early Doorstop. The capable Graham Hill, onetime Indy winner and all-round racing man, was in one of them, and on the pole was Joe Leonard, who had qualified at a scary 171.559. The third turbocar, piloted by muscular Art Pollard, was lurking in the fourth row.
You know how Indy is. Tradition demands that there is much parading, there is the blast of bands and balloons and introduction of almost-celebrities—who ever heard of Werner Klemperer?—while the drivers all pace nervously around their cars and wish either the race would start or they could go to the bathroom.
Then it began. The field came howling down to the start, and there was Joe Leonard out in front, whooshing along as expected. There was Unser, complete with four gears and roughly the pickup speed of a guided missile. And there was Hill, letting cars pass him while he dropped back into a strategic sixth. Hill had not planned to be quite that strategic, but still, "We had not planned to race," he said later, "until the last few minutes."
"One of my secret tricks," said Unser, "was that I had four gears and nobody knew it. I had two for the pits and two for racing. The third gear was especially for running with a full fuel load; it would pick up rpm real fast to get the car lifting quick. The fourth was for running near empty."
Unser's marvelous, secret gears began breaking halfway through the first turn, or about 499 miles too soon. "Hell, I had to hold the car in third gear with my right hand," he said. "But then I decided that was stupid, because I ended up driving with my left. And pretty soon I got a blister on my palm and then another blister on top of that one. So finally I just left the shift there sort of jiggling around and drove the rest of the race with both hands on the wheel."
Because there had been a 10-mph difference between the lead-off cars and those second-string clunkers way in back, the field opened up quickly into several little dramas, like a high-speed theater-in-the-round, and suddenly 250,000 people didn't know which way to look.
On the third lap they saw the turbines running first, fifth and seventh—with the race already careening along 4 mph over last year's record. And then, look over there. On the eighth lap Unser alone suddenly began holding up piston-engine tradition by whooping past Leonard as they roared down the main straightaway, past the pits and past what had to be the most historic roar ever roared along Gasoline Alley.
"Man, I couldn't believe it at first," Unser said. "I had already discovered that the third turbine—Pollard's—was gutless, and I figured somebody had just plain made a mistake with that one and I wouldn't worry about it. I didn't know yet what Hill could do in his turbine. But I know Joe Leonard don't make no mistakes, and when I could pass him so easily I figured the STP-Lotus-Granatellis had all made a fantastic mistake and I had better start making hay.
"I knew old Joey wasn't going to sandbag in the race. No way. If he had the stuff, he'd use it. After the first lap I still wasn't sure. But after five laps I knew. About a million people out there thought those turbines were going to go adios and that would be it. But they didn't. And that's when I said, look out, 'cause here I come."
Unser's car was plenty capable of coming on. It was pushed along by a son of Offenhauser engine—one of 15 in the starting lineup—the old power plant that Indy made famous. But the new generation had added turbochargers, devices that reuse hot exhaust for added kick. It is delicate work; in its unblown state the engine only turns out a silly little 80 horsepower and "won't hardly even idle," according to Unser. But 4,500 rpms would turn on the blower and at 5,000 rpms the horsepower would start heading toward 500-plus. Then, he said, "it really hits you in the ass."
So while the crowd was puzzling over the surprising lack of power in the turbo cars, Unser and his turbocharger stayed out ahead. Behind him, Leonard was being chased by more traditionalists, such as Gordon Johncock and the veteran Lloyd Ruby, the latter wearing a fuzzy velour-covered helmet that was enough to upset anyone who looked in his rear view mirror.
Visiting Grand Prix Racer Hill, in his hot-red turbine and high-speed mustache, was tooling along calmly behind the first flight, in a pocket of space all by himself, avoiding everyone and, apparently, saving the car for a closing sprint. It was a strategy that was to last him until his 111th lap.
Suddenly Hill careened and slashed into the wall near the second turn, taking a punch that left him aching, his head still ringing more than an hour after the race. "The car gave a big, bloody lurch and went into the damned wall," Hill growled. "Something broke [a postmortem showed it was the right-front suspension] and it gave me a terrible slam. I got out and walked down across the track and picked up a wheel which had broken off and moved it out of the way."
There had been a minor hoo-haw over the Lotus-turbine suspension systems earlier; the U.S. Auto Club had said they did not meet the rule book. Lotus people insisted they actually were better, but lost the case and changed them.
Meanwhile piston cars began falling out, too, trying to keep up the pace. Mario Andretti had one car fail after two laps, took over a teammate's and had that one die at 24 laps. His official finishing position was an embarrassing last. Johncock, who had been as high as third, went out; George Snider and Jerry Grant vanished. Jim Hurtubise coasted back into the pits in what looked for one wild moment like a face-lifted front-engined roadster. Golly, look, it was a roadster. He shrugged eloquently at the groan from the sidelines and pulled off his helmet and his hopes. Within minutes there was so much else going on that there was hardly time to do traditional Indy things like eat fried-chicken box lunches and drink beer.
While running well up, Bobby Unser's young brother Al ran into the wall in the No. 1 turn, punching the nose of Arnie Knepper's car and touching up rookie Gary Bettenhausen in the process. He climbed out of the ruins and up on the wall, clinging to the wire fence for safety. The Unser pit crews have a brotherly arrangement whereby one will signal the other if something happens, and when Bobby understood that his brother was safe—even if somewhat rattled—he nodded coolly and went on about his mission.
Having discovered that they were not going to overtake Unser, Gurney in fifth place and A. J. Foyt, in sixth, staged a Little 500 of their own inside that rolling 2½-mile fire-fight. Just watching it grown mechanics shuddered.
Ignoring everyone else, the two would come growling down the main straightaway and move side by side into the first turn. "Only two old pros who really respect each other will do a thing like that," groaned one oldtimer, not sure he wanted to watch. Every time around either Gurney or Foyt would lead the way, with the other one slipstreaming, being sucked along inside that tunnel of air. They raced inside the bigger race until both their cars had gone black in the face—sprayed by oil coming off the track—and finally Foyt, on his 87th lap, broke something vital and alive in his car, like perhaps the transmission. He rolled disgustedly into the pits with the power off. Gurney flashed on alone.
Soon there were just four cars on the same lap—Unser, Leonard, Ruby and Gurney—picking their way through the rest of the survivors still on the track. No more of the turbocharged Fords were running, and some of the best-known celebrities in racing were now spectators. When Unser made his last pit stop, at 165 laps, he pulled away painfully, laboring along in that fourth surviving gear—slowly building his speed back up until the turbo unit kicked into action. Ruby and Leonard moved past him with Ruby holding the lead for nine wild laps. Then his car failed; Leonard was waiting impatiently for the job. The turbocar rolled up front, and the stage was set.
On the 181st lap—with just 19 to go and the fans starting to foam slightly at the lips—Carl Williams' car hit the wall and caught fire on the backstretch and began burning brightly. The fire brought on the yellow caution light—which means everybody must slow down to a mere 120 mph or so while some very daring workmen go out there on the same track with the cars and clean things up. The field all slowed. The idea is to hold position and the same relative spacing and, in the next 13 minutes, naturally, nobody did. In the jockeying Leonard's eight-second lead over Unser was cut to less than five seconds, was opened again to almost 15 by turbine teammate Pollard's delaying tactics, then closed to six seconds again as tempers got hot as exhaust pipes. Finally they all came wheeling around the fourth turn with just nine laps to go, and there was the green flag, and there was everybody standing up howling. Leonard stepped on it. Unser stepped on it. Likewise Gurney and Pollard.
And that's when Leonard's turbocar—the car of tomorrow, the jet wave of the future and all that—died. Clunk. It just died with a sigh, and Leonard pulled it sharply off the track and into the grass and sat there, stunned, his hands still locked in racing position on the steering wheel. At about the same time, on the other side of the track, Pollard's turbine went clunk, too.
"I saw that green flag and I stood on it," Leonard said. "And, boy, we had only nine laps to go, and it was just like a big old jet airplane taking off, and it pushed me back against the seat. And then it went plunk."
Unser flashed on to win, of course, and Gurney rolled in second, finishing 55 seconds later before a glassy-eyed crowd. Mel Kenyon was third, and after third who needs it?
There were loose ends all over the place. The feared threat of the turbines had materialized only in Leonard's fine run—and to a degree in the ease with which Hill, when his car was healthy, kept ahead of Foyt and Gurney. The piston engine had survived its showdown with tomorrow. Furthermore, the old-time Offenhauser engine was back home again in Indiana. Ford Motor Company, after dominating Indy for a few years, suddenly faced that old drawing board again. Goodyear Tires had done it to Firestone for the second year in a row. Turbocar Designer Colin Chapman faced a key question, like: Whither the wedge? Three of the first four finishers were All-American Eagles, which makes Dan Gurney the country's premier race-car builder. There was more.
While some of the crowd was still diving for sunken cars in the infield swamp on Friday afternoon, the day after the race, a group of Indy car owners—fearful that they had not kicked a sick horse quite enough—got together and informally banned the turbine from racing. They hope to make it formal through the U.S. Auto Club, which often listens to what the car owners have to say.
If the ban succeeds—and several non-turbine owners will quit racing if it does not—there will be a yelp of outrage from racing fans everywhere. For if Indy proved anything, it proved the two breeds actually are competitive and can stage future super races. And who would want to watch Indy—or any other race—knowing not all the best cars were involved?
What had happened to the turbines in the race? While the piston-car owners were meeting, Andy Granatelli sat sadly in his bedroom at the Speedway Motel, within a hubcap's throw of the track, and tried to figure it out. For 17 years he has tried to win Indy, and each time the sky has darkened over his pit and terrible, grim, awful things have happened. This race seemed to be a triple repeat of last year's, when Parnelli Jones's turbocar had quit with just eight miles to go.
"To hit those qualifying speeds," Granatelli explained, "we set the car at a fast idle—80% of throttle—which gave us a 3- or 4-mph edge. But for racing we had to cut the idle back to 52%. Then the track temperature went up. Turbines operate most efficiently in cold weather; we were hoping for a colder day. We finally ended up at about 430 hp against the Turbo-Offy at something like 640."
Last year's Parnelli Jones turbocar had run kerosene and did not win; this time Granatelli switched to gasoline and did not win. With either fuel, running slowly under the yellow light interrupts the flow to the motor. This time, when Leonard and Pollard hit the throttles, the fuel-pump drive shafts snapped on both cars. Clunk. Clunk. End of historic confrontation.
"This is it," Granatelli said. "The great showdown came and they won. They have beaten us and now they want to ban us."
Last Friday night everybody showered and went to the annual awards banquet, a badly run, sweaty, overcrowded affair about which the less said the better. Leonard had run enough laps to collect 12th place and $37,403 for his work; Pollard was 13th with $12,833 and Hill 19th with $13,693. Billy Vukovich Jr., 24, son of the Indy notable, was named Rookie of the Year. He had run 198 laps, was placed seventh and won $17,903.
Dan Gurney, demon driver and car builder, collected $64,678 for his own finish and another $26,408 for teammate Denny Hulme, who was fourth. And then came Unser. America's new racing hero picked up $177,523 for defending tradition against the jet age.
It was all over, and racing had a new hero: a talented guy with all the guts and good looks that such a role demands. Indy had seen its best race in years, and the whoopee finish set the stage for another one just as good next year. If the car owners will get away from Gasoline Alley and listen to the great public, Indy 1969 will include pistons, turbines and 33 bold men.