Only the lure of lovely money—and the funny kind of fame that keeps race drivers going—could have made them do it. Another breed of men would have turned away. But there they were, the big ones: Indy 500 studs like A. J. Foyt and Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford, Lloyd Ruby and Jim McElreath. All the top guys, all caught up in this crazy Texas racing promotion.
Crazy? First thing in practice, Foyt bounced his car off the guardrail hard enough to shake the inlays out of his teeth. He looked levelly at his pit crew and growled, "What the hell are we doing here?" A few feet away Andretti stood digging his toes into the mud of the racetrack and said, "Man, this ain't driving. I don't know for sure what it is, but it sure ain't driving."
What Foyt and Andretti and the rest were caught up in last weekend was a phenomenon called the Astro Grand Prix; and when their heads finally clear this week and their ears stop ringing, they won't believe they did it. Take the items one at a time: 1) racing inside the Astrodome, that supersilo on the plains just outside Houston; 2) racing on a rutted red-clay track that was just barely safe to walk on; 3) racing in midget cars, the kidney busters of all time.
Sixty drivers in all showed up for two days of racing for a $60,000 purse—largest in midget history—on a one-fifth mile track sitting on the baseball field. The Astrodome scoreboard kept identifying the place as the eighth wonder of the world, and if this is true the racing had to be the ninth.
March 17, 1969
Twenty-one Indianapolis drivers appeared, many of them men who had not raced midget cars since the days when they were breaking in. The other 39 drivers were barnstormers from the minor circuits who wanted a crack at the big guys, and from the start the production had all the hilarious overtones of the Saint Valentine's Day massacre. "Normally this is a kind of fun thing," said Parnelli Jones, the 1963 Indy winner, who had entered two cars. "I mean, occasionally we get into these little old cars and play. But when you start posting money like this, all of a sudden we take it real serious."
Having assured everyone of a serious all-star starting field, the promoters put together a Texas-style racetrack. From across town, where elegant Neiman-Marcus has built a new store, they took the red clay which had been excavated, trucked it to the Astrodome and molded and patted it into a roughly circular course with six-inch banking on the brief straights and 4½-foot banks at the curves on each end. It was the most expensive temporary track ever built, and also maybe the most treacherous. Right off, the little cars began churning great divots of clay into the first few rows of seats around the track and bouncing so high that their bellies showed.
Most of the drivers had cut their competitive teeth on dirt tracks, but clay-track racing was a whole new thing. The track was wide enough for three cars to run abreast, but not if one of them was" the slightest bit sideways, which, it turned out, was the only way they could run. Between events Lloyd Ruby shook his head and drawled, "Hell, this ain't no race, this is a hole-jumping contest."
A midget race car is a tiny thing that may look like a toy, but then so does a hand grenade. The cars are 90 inches long from nose to tail, weigh roughly 900 pounds, are about 40 inches high and pack 200 hp into four cylinders. They have just one gear. To start them, a truck nudges from the rear and—pow—they're racing. Turned loose on a grown-up straightaway they can do 150 mph, but on a small oval, where they spend most of the time sideways, speeds in the high 50s are respectable enough. The little devils run on straight alcohol, often fortified with shots of nitromethane, which makes their engines punch-drunk and produces an exhaust that renders everyone giddy in the first five rows of seats.
The program was simple enough: the cars qualified just like real big cars do, then appeared Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon in screaming, sidewinding 100-lap main events preceded by a batch of lesser races. Around that bomb-crater track they went, through blizzards of flying clay, flying cars, bursts of red dust from the infield and more excitement than the Houston Astros can ever hope to stir up—even if they do something dramatic, like finishing next to last.
Here came Houston's own Foyt, sitting upright as in the old days, his head and shoulders sticking right out for everyone to see, in this ancient 1946-chassis critter, fighting the car through the pack with a brute strength that made everyone ache to watch. Here was tough old Ruby, suddenly knocked sideways and half-dizzy in the middle of the track, sitting there like a dead midget duck while cars poured down on him, and somehow escaping. There went Unser spinning madly out of control, then snapping neatly back on course full-throttle, inside a cocoon of dust. And there was Sam Sessions, who has been racing for maybe 100 years, surviving a heavy pounding, his car scraped and ocher-stained, and later grinning through a mask of clay, "Man, wasn't that great? The fans had better pull up their garters next race because we're really going to show them something."
What the drivers showed them—31,337 spectators came out Saturday and 18,478 Sunday—was something Indy and Formula I sophisticates will never see. In Saturday's semi-main, starting from the outside of the third row, Foyt came slamming through a slot about the size of a hubcap, beautifully precise, his throttle on full blast, his arms all crossed, his left front wheel hanging loosely up in the air, and then came on to win with a lazy wave of his arm to the crowd. In the main event, starting next to last in a field of 24 cars (he had qualified so poorly that he had to be especially invited into the race by the promoters), Foyt surged through the field, giving off flashes of alcoholic fire from his tail pipes, bouncing off the guardrails here and there and finished second behind Gary Bettenhausen. Up went their names on that showy scoreboard in the Astrosky.
The championship circuit drivers, revisiting an old form of combat, stole the show and made a brave try for the money. Defending 500 champion Unser, driving an old Parnelli Jones Special, won a trophy dash, Mel Kenyon a heat. Andretti, appalled as he was by the whole muddy mess, hung on grimly to place second in one heat and seventh in Saturday's main show.
On Sunday, when they reassembled at the Eighth Wonder International Motor Speedway, racing's foremost collection of bruises, lumps, bumps and aching backsides was on parade. Foyt and Billy Vukovich won heat races, as did the other Unser, the one named Al. But in the main event someone unkindly bumped Foyt right out of the action and halfway into the infield. A gentleman named Lee Kunzman, a 24-year-old used-car salesman from Guttenberg, Iowa, was the winner, and the big-money overall champ of the weekend turned out to be Tom Bigelow, a midgeteer from Whitewater, Wis. who took home $7,650.
Houston had discovered a new way to pass the time between major seasons in the Astrodome, and at the garish Astroworld Motor Hotel nearby people were wrapped up in the mood. The telephone lady, who should have known better, fell for the old gag and paged, "Mr. Oldfield, Barney Oldfield, please call the operator."