Near the end, when the victory that had to be was finally in sight, the key participants could scarcely believe it. The Indianapolis 500, that white whale of a race that had spit back their harpoons year after tantalizing year, is not supposed to be so easy to win. Chief Mechanic Clint Brawner, who is 52 and looks older, limped up and down in front of the pits, a battered straw hat on his head, a purple handkerchief draped over his tender, sunburned neck. He had been trying to win at the Speedway for 18 years, and he remembered 1961, when his driver, Eddie Sachs, was forced to pit to replace a shredded tire with a 17-second lead and three laps to go. Car Owner Andy Granatelli refused to accept congratulations from anyone until the checkered flag waved. Instead, he sat mutely in a folding chair with his feet propped up on the pit wall to ease the pain of his chronically bad back and nervously chewed an STP sticker, remembering the anguish of his turbine near misses and the heartbreak over his beloved Novis in past years.
On the racetrack Mario Andretti was only too conscious that he had seen most of the last three 500s as a spectator—and thus drove his last 95 laps, all of which he led, at a supercautiously slow pace. To be sure, when he did take the checkered flag—and a purse of $205,727.06—he had established a 500 record of 156.867 mph, but that was because the race was remarkably accident-free. The yellow flag came out to slow the field to 125 mph only twice, and for a total of just 14 minutes. Andretti's speed during those final laps often dipped as low as 155 mph, or nearly 15 mph slower than his qualifying speed and some 10 mph slower than he was capable of running under race conditions. Behind him on the track only 10 cars were still alive. Second finisher Dan Gurney was two laps behind and third-place Bobby Unser another lap and a half behind Gurney.
If the last part of the race had lacked pizzazz, there was compensation for spectators within view of the carrying-on afterward, beginning when Granatelli erupted in joy and headed down the pits to Victory Lane in one of the most magnificent hundred-yard dashes ever run by an overweight, up-from-the-slums Chicago paisan. (Brawner ran, too, but was so benumbed by tranquilizers he could hardly speak.) Delirious like a fox, no sooner had Granatelli given Andretti a big kiss than he slapped an STP decal on Mario's shoulder and delivered a plug for his book, They Call Me Mr. 500. Andretti was keeping cool for a native of Italy, but, then, he had to: next thing he knew, Granatelli hoisted him up on his shoulders and carried him to the pace car, in which they were to take a celebratory lap.
Anyone with a tinge of Italian heritage had to have a heart of mozzarella not to get a kick out of the scene, and not merely because the winners had been some of Indy's hard-core hard-luck cases. They had had plenty of scares going into this year's 500.
June 8, 1969
In early May, Mario had come to the Speedway with a four-wheel-drive racer fresh from Colin Chapman's Lotus works in England. He quickly established himself as the fastest driver on the track, but in practice three days before the first day of qualification, as he was moving fast through the fourth turn, the right rear hub carrier of the Lotus broke. The wheel sheared off, and Andretti hit the outside wall of the turn so violently the bodywork flew off and the car caught fire. Mario was lucky to get away with no more damage than second-degree burns across his upper lip, cheeks and nose. He could have driven another Lotus, but his accident caused concern about the safety of all the Lotuses, though they were probably the best cars at the Speedway under the proper conditions.
"I'm as brave as the next guy," said Mario, "but only if I'm satisfied the car is safe. My crew doesn't want to bolt me into just any old tub. I don't either."
(The other Lotuses, to have been driven by Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt, were withdrawn.)
Andretti chose to drive his backup car. It is a Hawk chassis, whose semi-wedge shape Andretti described as "swoopy," designed by Brawner and his co-crew chief, Jim McGee, and powered by a turbo-charged Ford. With only two days' preparation, Andretti put it in the front row alongside pole-sitter A. J. Foyt.
So far so good. The car had won an earlier USAC championship race in Hanford, Calif., and except for a few modifications was essentially the same car Andretti had qualified last year. But on Wednesday of last week, barely 48 hours before the race, another problem developed. On Tuesday afternoon Chief Steward Harlan Fengler had told Andretti he would approve an external radiator that Brawner and McGee wanted to add to the car directly behind the driver's head. There is a USAC rule stating that no external changes may be made to a car between qualification day and the race, but until this year it had been loosely enforced.
Foyt complained to USAC, claiming that he had labored long and hard to rig up an extra internal radiator on his car before qualifications, and he wasn't about to let Andretti get away with adding one after. Tuesday night Fengler met with USAC president Charlie Brockman, USAC competition director Henry Banks and a Speedway vice-president, Joe Cloutier, and decided Mario's radiator had to go.
Andretti was informed of the decision early Wednesday morning and was furious. At first he threatened to withdraw the car and at a later meeting with Fengler, the steward reportedly said to Mario, "This Speedway made you what you are today." Mario retorted, "If I had to depend on this place for a living I'd starve."
The conversation deteriorated from there, but the radiator came off amid predictions that Mario's engine, plus the other powerful but delicate turbo-charged Fords, would be out of the race inside 50 laps because of overheating, or, if that didn't happen, that they would use fuel at such a rate that the 325 gallons allotted to each car would not be enough to finish 500 miles.
The day arrived humid and a bit hazy, and after the pastel-tinted crowd of 275,000 had more or less got seated, after the traditional Back Home Again In Indiana had been sung, and after Tony Hulman had told the gentlemen to start their engines, Andretti beat Foyt in the trophy dash to the first turn and led the first five laps with Foyt and A.J.'s teammate, Roger McCluskey, bare car lengths behind. Then Andretti glanced at his temperature gauge. Already it read quite a bit above normal. He slowed slightly and on the sixth lap Foyt charged to the lead. On the 11th lap McCluskey moved up behind the Texan.
The race was barely 50 miles old before two contenders in four-wheel-drive Lolas powered by turbo-charged Offen-hausers were in serious trouble. Bobby Unser, the 1968 winner, was forced to make a tire change on the 23rd lap because something in his suspension setup was causing his right rear tire to overheat. The trouble continued throughout the race, and that same tire was changed four more times during the afternoon. At the end of the day Unser was exhausted. "After the tire heated up," he said, "the rear end of the car slid every time I tried to turn. Boy, is this cat tired. Physically, this is the hardest race I've ever had." It is a credit to his stamina that he hung on and finished third.
Mark Donohue was in the other Lola-Offy that had early difficulty. A too-rich fuel mixture was, in effect, causing his engine to flood and cut out every time he got back on the accelerator after braking. He ran the entire race with a dead engine for 400 yards of nearly every lap, but despite this—and a magneto failure—he finished seventh and was named Rookie of the Year.
By the first of the three pit stops planned by all the cars—at approximately 50, 100 and 150 laps—Foyt, McCluskey and Andretti were still engaged in their own private race for the lead. A second group, including Lloyd Ruby, who had charged from way back in 20th starting position to fourth in less than 100 miles, Joe Leonard, Wally Dallenbach and Lee Roy Yarbrough, was roughly 15 seconds farther back.
The first of Andretti's strongest contenders to come a cropper was McCluskey, who ran out of gas on the 48th lap and, coasting to the pits, dropped out of the top 10. After all the leaders had pitted the first time, Foyt had an eight-second lead over Ruby, who in turn had a slight margin over Andretti. Ruby had moved up so smartly in part because Mario had taken 43 long seconds for his first stop (because of improper fuel flow), in part because he was driving a supremely skillful race and at 41 was as victory-hungry as Granatelli.
Then, between the 79th and 127th laps, occurred an amazing series of mechanical mishaps that eliminated every challenger who dared to contest Andretti. It was on the 79th lap that Foyt, who had led for 66, suddenly found himself without full power and began falling back. On the 102nd lap he pitted for 24 minutes to reweld a cracked aluminum fitting around the intake manifold. He might well have parked his racer then, since it was obvious he had no chance to win. But instead he chose to continue, and eventually finished eighth.
Meanwhile, a classic confrontation was shaping up. When Foyt fell back, Ruby moved into the lead to the first sustained ovation of the afternoon, and there was every reason to believe that this was the car that could push Andretti, possibly to the breaking point. Andretti regained the lead on the 87th lap and kept it through a caution flag brought out when the right rear suspension on Arnie Knepper's car broke coming out of the fourth turn on the 88th lap and slammed the car violently into the wall. The car bounced into the middle of the track, and Knepper had enough presence to stand atop it and direct traffic.
Andretti pitted for the second time on the 104th lap and again took an uncomfortably long time—39 seconds. Ruby, now the leader, came in four laps later, confident of increasing his margin by means of another swift refueling. It should have been just another routine stop. Two hoses, locked into place by quick-fueling rigs, began feeding fuel into the car's two tanks. Chief Mechanic Dave Laycock looked into the tanks through top vents to determine when they were filled. Then Laycock closed the vents. This was Ruby's signal to pull out of the pits, which he attempted to do. But one of the fueling rigs had stuck and would not unlock, and when the car spurted forward its momentum ruptured the tank. Fuel spilled out underneath the car. Instead of resuming the race in first place, Ruby suddenly found himself sitting in a dead car in a puddle of highly combustible methanol. He got out—quickly.
Laycock was beside himself. He stormed over to an ice cooler filled with sandwiches and soft drinks and tore it apart. Ruby, who had reluctantly learned to accept such disappointments—he was black-flagged with a 50-second lead late in the 1966 race, and a malfunctioning coil cost him the race last year, again while he was in the lead—slowly removed his helmet and walked with his head down back to the garage area.
"Everything was going well," Ruby said. "I guess it's just not meant for me to win at this place. It hasn't been too lucky to me."
"We're all selfish," Andretti said later, "you've got to be. But deep down inside everybody wants Ruby to win this race. If I had gone out he's the one guy I'd have pulled for."
Andretti regained the lead when Ruby was eliminated, of course, and with Ruby out his margin was up to 23 seconds, or nearly half a lap, over Joe Leonard, now in second place. But 19 laps later Leonard was black-flagged. A piece of metal remaining on the track from Knepper's accident had punctured his radiator and it was slowly leaking water.
Besides the waiting game, the only remaining drama occurred on Andretti's final pit stop, on the 154th lap. Brawner worked one fuel hose, and after uncoupling it he slipped under the left front wheel and Mario bumped hard against him before Brawner could get out of the way. The injury was not serious—just an ugly bruise on his shin and a tire tread on his pants leg—but Brawner was still gimpy as he ran to Victory Lane.
For the last 125 miles the only problem Andretti's crew faced was making sure the little Italian went slow enough to win. He ran slowly, of course, but occasionally, more to relieve the monotony than anything, he cut a fast lap—say around 160—at which McGee, who was signaling Andretti from the outside pit wall, frowned sternly enough so that Mario slowed back down.
The obvious question, of course, is whether Andretti's car would have lasted had it been forced to run hard by Ruby, or Foyt, or McCluskey, or anybody, for the full 200 laps. Andretti is not sure. "We would have been in trouble," he admitted. "We got good mileage until we reached 166 mph, and then it was a problem. We were extra cautious on our pit stops because we were operating only on a three-gallon margin [less than two laps]."
For Granatelli, the triumph of his car was somewhat ironic. The racers that he had brought to the Speedway briefly as a driver, then as an owner, and the turbines of 1967 and 1968 were as closely identified with Granatelli as STP. That is not quite the case with Andretti's car.
When Andretti's former owner, Al Dean of Dean Van Lines, died of cancer after the 1967 racing season, Andretti bought up his cars for the following season. The double burden came to be worrisome, however, and last winter he sought another owner. As Brawner said, "We couldn't promote $250,000 and big Andy has a lot of money." So the deal was made, and Granatelli was forced to win the 500 just like any other owner. "I'm happy," he said, "but it's not the same as it would have been with the Novis or the turbines."
The day after the race the principal actors were still enjoying the euphoria of victory. Jim McGee liked the idea of being one of the youngest crew chiefs of a winning car, and Brawner, who had threatened to retire if he ever won, promptly unretired. Andretti said he would continue on the USAC championship circuit, but he also said he has had his eye on Europe and would like to take a good shot at winning the world driving championship in Formula I cars. As for Granatelli, the first thing he did when he returned to his motel after leaving the track was get a haircut. It seems he's got this new commercial. Something about the racer's edge.