As the speed fraternity gathered at Indianapolis last week for the annual qualification rites that precede the 500, drivers found it hard just to get onto the track. Rain was the reason. Great glowering tornado fronts boiled up over the plains and grumbled toward town like the ghosts of Indy past, then pelted the track with whiplash loads of water. There was but one front-engined roadster on the grounds, Jim Hurtubise's white Mallard, and whenever Hurtubise rolled out the cynics would yell, "Here comes the Mallard—duck." But the 150,000 raincoated spectators who showed up Saturday for the first day of qualifying gave both man and machine a nostalgic round of applause. By now, of course, the rear-engine revolution has become Establishment, technical innovation has fallen off and once again Indy is more a driver's race than a contest to sort out contrasting machines. As far as speed is concerned, stagnation has set in. The existing lap record of 171.953 mph was set by Joe Leonard in the STP turbine car, and that was two years ago. This year drivers predicted qualifying speeds up to 175 mph, but it never happened. Pole winner Al Unser, in his Johnny Lightning 500 special, averaged only 170.221 mph, squeezing out another Johnny named Rutherford.
Not too many years ago Rutherford was known as "Wreckaford," but he provided about the only surprise—and the closest thing to a thrill—that the Indy qualifying phenomenon had to offer. Unser beat him for the pole, and its $20,000 in prize money, by 9/1,000 of a mile per hour. That works out to 2½ feet in the 10 miles run.
This year most of the early conjecture centered around "Mario's fatal flaw" and "A.J.'s psychic sandbag." On his first day of practice Mario Andretti, the defending champ, broke an axle half shaft and spun out as he entered the main straightaway, bounced twice along the inside wall during a 658-foot slide and left red Day-Glo paint hovering in the air like psychedelic snowflakes. He emerged morose but unhurt and wondering if this was to be another year of mechanical snakebite, as so many of his Indys have been. Mario's sponsor, Andy Granatelli, the granite-bellied little guy who likes us to call him "Mr. 500," had abandoned Mario's 1969 Hawk-Ford in favor of a pair of German-built McNamara-Fords. He and Mario started the tedious business of readying their second machine.
Meanwhile, Mr. Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. of Houston was rummaging through his collection of fine old sandbags in search of a psychological edge. As usual, A.J. bestrode the Brickyard as if he had built it. In his Coyote-Ford, Foyt toyed with Leonard's 1968 lap record as if he could break it at will. During one practice run he coasted down the main straight and still clocked a speed in excess of 170 mph. Foyt also had numerology going for him. By the rule of threes he was due for a superb year, having won Indy in 1961, '64 and '67. And when lots were drawn for qualifying runs, Foyt's No. 7 car got the seventh spot.
No Indy, of course, is ever a two-man show, or even a 10-man show. There were the Unsers—not only Al but his older brother Bobby, who won the 1968 race—and when their mother doled out her homemade chili one day along pit row, chemical warfare was added to Foyt's psychological variety. Next day everyone ate lots of ice cream.
Lloyd Ruby was on hand with his "silent majority special," a red, white and blue star-spangled beauty. Boyish Mark Donohue, driving with precision, turned lickety-split laps in the blue Sunoco special prepared by Roger Penske. Though Denny Hulme scorched his hands in a freak fire (gasoline from a sprung fuel cap in his McLaren-Offy ignited on the exhaust and Hulme bailed out, unable even to trigger his fire extinguisher), the quick New Zealander was replaced by Peter Revson, who whipped off a 166-mph lap his first time in the car. Then there was Dan Gurney, in a new blue Eagle, the black-hatted bridesmaid who has to win it sometime, they say. Dan finished second in 1968 and '69.
The daily rain, complicated by a simultaneous drought in funds from Detroit, made for anxious preparation and gingerly runs. On the night before qualifying, Granatelli's boys were still replacing the engine in Andretti's car—he was to qualify with less than 75 miles on it—and other wrenches squeaked all along Gasoline Alley, counterpointed by the splash of the midnight monsoon.
Saturday broke cold and dank, but still the crowds thronged to the Speedway. It's weird about Indy qualifying crowds—they will put up with any kind of inclemency in order to do their annual number. Take Ron Edwards, a 29-year-old Chevy salesman from Toledo, for whom this was the sixth Indy trip. Stocky, beery and up to the minute on Indy racing statistics, Edwards orbited the Andretti pit like a veritable Pete Conrad (who himself orbited the Lloyd Ruby pit, saying things like "dum-dum-de-dum" and grinning a lot, as if he were back on the moon). Edwards was hoping for the chance to shake his hero's hand. "Mario may be Italian," he said, "but he's awfully good. A Ferrari in Ford's clothing."
Fortunately for the crowd, the track was dry enough by noontime Saturday for the qualifying cars to take practice. It was finally splendid racing weather—cool, relatively windless and empty of glare. The turbocharged engines—42 Offenhausers and 30 Fords in the field of 84—sucked it up hungrily, and qualifying speeds for the day ultimately averaged a respectable 167.557 mph.
Before A.J. took the green flag, everyone was sure he would break the qualifying record. But then the sandbag broke and Foyt came out only gritty. His first lap of the requisite four was a heartening 171.103, but, inexplicably, his speeds fell off—to 170.132, followed by a brace of low 169s. The crowd groaned and so did Foyt. "I don't think I'll sit on the pole," A.J. said in a sad, sick voice after his run. A little wind had kicked up, making the faster cars just a bit squirrelly through the chutes. But when Al Unser went out a few minutes after Foyt, it was clear that he must be a fine squirrel shooter. Only 12/100ths of a second separated his fast and slow laps, and with the checkered flag it looked like Unser was home free.
But the Unser fans had reckoned without Wreckaford. All through practice the Texas-born Rutherford had looked tough, and he was getting better day by day, as if the rain was making him grow. His first lap was the quickest of the day—171.135—and the crowd that makes the No. 1 turn a pipeline of people and pork sausages yelled with puzzled excitement. Then Rutherford slipped on the second lap to a 169.907. "He scared himself on that first lap," they said. If he had taken his last warmup lap as his first qualifying lap instead of waiting another turn before raising his arm to signal his readiness, Wreckaford would have won the pole. That warmup lap was turned at 170 plus, while his last lap of the four "legal" ones went at 169.747.
All in all it was a day of qualifying that promised a good, tight race on May 30. There was a speed gap of only two mph between Unser and the eighth-fastest qualifier, Andretti. Between them, in order, came Rutherford, Foyt, Roger McCluskey, Donohue, Art Pollard and Bobby Unser. By the time the rains came again, 17 cars had made the starting lineup. Sunday added 10 more, topped by Revson, who turned 167.942 mph. Ruby spoke a bit loudly to his silent majority special and used up three—count 'em, three—engines, but will doubtless be back to qualify this weekend. As for the 27 drivers safely in, Jim Hurtubise and his Mallard were not among them, even though it had been fine weather for ducks.