The last message that Al Unser received from his pit crew as he drove toward victory in last Saturday's Indy 500 was a siren song scrawled in chalk on the communications board, PARTY TIME, it said, and those who got the message applauded joyfully. For there was a real lack of entertainment in the 1970 running of the Memorial Day race, much of it due—ironically enough—to the wonderful workings of Unser and his gleaming, blue-and-gold Johnny Lightning Special. Both man and machine were perfectly prepared for success, but en route they demonstrated that old sporting truism: superb performances, by their very effortlessness, can also be superbly boring.
Not that Unser himself was bored. By winning at Indianapolis, the youngest member of the Unser racing clan—he turned 31 on Friday—fattened his personal bankroll by $271,697.72 of the Speedway's first million-dollar purse, plus a victor's bonus of $30,000 from his employer (Topper toys), plus a huge wad of points toward the United States Auto Club drivers' championship. Still, for all those pluses, the Indy crowd—perhaps 300,000 people—had some minuses to count too. What had shaped up during qualifying (SI, May 25) as a tight race among relatively equal machines and equally ambitious drivers turned into a runaway.
But not before Unser and his car were thoroughly tested. Unser led the field for all but 10 of the day's 200 laps, staving off challenges by everything from weather to Lloyd Ruby to bad luck. The lightning that struck Al Unser at Indy after five years of trying (including a second-place finish in 1967) was self-generated, a fact that electrified Al but unfortunately not the customers.
Over the decades, the big-car buffs who flock to Indy for the world's toughest, best-paying automobile race have come to expect thrills, wheel-to-wheel duels and perhaps even a few brushes with death as their due (Indy has claimed 47 lives in its previous 53 runnings).
June 7, 1970
The city itself offers somewhat less in the way of excitement. There is the Gatling Gun Club downtown at Illinois and St. Clair streets, and the Duck-Inn Tavern, and a vacant, bulldozed lot in the heart of town which bears a sign reading "Zebrowski Was Here." For eats, one can try "The Racer's Wedge," a kind of pizza available at most of the city's ubiquitous drive-ins, or sample the steaks at St. Elmo, an atmospheric dive where the waiters wear 19th century tuxes and the shrimp sauce can etch granite.
With such compelling scenes to avoid in the city proper, it is little wonder that most visitors to Indianapolis during race month spend their time guzzling beer at the Speedway and waiting for drivers to bash the walls. Such behavior, however, can lead to befuddlement, as in a recent case where an elderly racing fan—asked if he would prefer Bud or Miller—answered: "Yeah, gimme a Budmiller."
As the race approaches, things are livelier. Indianapolis is famous for its traffic mixes—intricate amalgams of stalled cars and flying beer cans. At times, with the tacit encouragement of Speedway officials, whole fleets of Corvettes or Mustangs appear in the middle of the night to serenade would-be sleepers with the music of their lightly muffled engines revved to a peak. As one Indianapolitan puts it: "When I was a kid, we called the place Nap Town, but you can't really say that anymore."
Still, there is a visceral thrill to Indianapolis during race week. The prospect of dangerous competition enhances every appetite—even if the danger to spectators is only vicarious. Rumors whip through town like tornadoes (which also whip through town now and then): so-and-so's top mechanic walked out today because he couldn't get the valves he wanted; it wasn't really a broken half-shaft that sent Mario Andretti into the wall during practice, just the fact that his crew didn't lube the hub before he went out. Mystery and a deadly calm pervade Gasoline Alley at night, while mechanics monkey-wrench around in the tidy, green-and-white garages and the customary evening rain makes everything smell clean and roomy and doomy.
By the time the sun rose murkily to herald the arrival of Memorial Day, Indianapolis and everyone residing there were in a state of high excitement. Although the pole-winning speed was not a record, the overall field was the fastest ever; no one could predict a winner with confidence. O.K., Al Unser had the most consistent speeds of the month—in excess of 170 mph whenever he wanted to turn it on—but A. J. Foyt was ultra-ready and the track was aquiver with hungry drivers.
Dan Gurney had trimmed the wings of his Eagle and was looking tough in practice. There was always Roger McCluskey, or Joe Leonard, or Jim McElreath, who had qualified late on the last day in a car he'd picked up from Foyt. Word was circulating that Lloyd Ruby would make this his last pursuit of the victory that had eluded him for a decade. At 42, he was the most frustrated driver on the track. Then there was Johnny Rutherford, barely edged for the pole by Unser—and of course Al's brother Bobby, the 1968 winner, who could not be counted out. And what about Mark Donohue? Surely his car would hold together under Roger Penske's meticulous supervision, but was Mark quick enough? Art Pollard in his Car Wash Special could possibly clean up.
Through the morning a dense, 6,000-foot overcast was moving in from the southeast, blotting out the sun and carrying with it the smell of rain. Fists and voices were raised against the threat of a washout, yet when Trumpeter Al Hirt mounted a stepladder to serenade the national anthem, the echoes of his honeyed brass seemed to call down the rain. A quick little shower doused the back straightaway, and Chief Steward Harlan Fengler decided to hold beyond the noon starting time. Then, as if racing willpower were some sort of meteorological anticoagulant, the skies began to thin and at 12:25 p.m. Fengler permitted the singing of the last prerace rite, Back Home Again in Indiana. A few minutes later, Tony Hulman bellowed, "Gentlemen, start your engines." It was all properly dramatic, but anticlimax was just around the corner.
As the racers flowed through Turn Four on the pace lap, Jim Malloy's white machine, which he had qualified in the third row, snapped a torsion bar and clipped the wall. The yellow flag flew before the green flag could even be unfurled. Malloy was out of the race. It was the first time since 1957 that a full field did not start at Indy. (Incidentally, it was Hulman's son-in-law, Elmer George, who collided with another racer during the parade lap to reduce the '57 field.) But the delay in restarting the race permitted the skies to soften even more, and by the time the green flag fluttered, at 1:07 p.m., the weather was fine for racing—cool, if threatening.
And for the first lap, at least, it was an excellent race. As the pack thrashed into the first turn, Johnny Rutherford slipped ahead of pole-sitter Unser, and the crowd oohed in amazement. This might be something else. But Unser quickly reestablished his lead on the backstretch, and when the cars came streaming down the main straight it was clear that Unser had matters firmly un-control.
By the third lap the field had split into two distinct groups—the first and fastest consisting of the Unser brothers, Rutherford, Foyt, Donohue, McCluskey, Pollard and Andretti. The second flight, however, contained excitement in the form of Lloyd Ruby's red, white and blue "silent majority special." Ruby, after blowing six engines during practice and qualifying, had taken the 25th starting spot with a scorching 168.895-mph clocking, and now he was moving up through traffic. A sentimental favorite even without his patriotic colors, Ruby drove like a man possessed. Weaving through the crowded straights, sliding like a stocker around the corners, Lloyd made it to seventh place by the 22nd lap and was charging for the lead. By that point the first dropouts had already occurred, among them George Follmer in the STP Hawk-Ford with which Andretti had won last year. The engine simply failed, as if those 200 laps were all that could be expected of the car.
By the 27th lap Art Pollard had taken third place and the crowd had something else to consider. But then Pollard burned a piston—there was a spurt of blue smoke followed instantly by a yellow flag—and retired. The yellow lasted only two minutes, but many drivers took advantage of it to pull into the pits and shake down minor problems. One who came in with a problem far from minor was Mario Andretti. "The half-shaft on the right rear seized during the 10th lap," Mario explained later. "The best I could do—flat out—was about 162, and I felt I could have had an accident at any time." Nothing could be done in the pits without dropping the car entirely from contention, so Andretti returned to the field and tried to hang in there. As Mario pulled away, car owner Andy Granatelli's face was in somber contrast to his flamboyant pink shirt.
When the yellow flag lifted, attention shifted back to Ruby. Passing Bobby Unser in a great wash of cheers, Ruby took third place and set his sights on Rutherford and Al Unser. As the 50-lap mark approached, cars began to pit for the first of the three mandatory fueling stops. This was the first real test of the kind of efficiency that wins Indy more effectively than simple brute power. And it was here that the Johnny Lightning crews demonstrated their superiority. For one thing, Parnelli Jones & Co. had devised a new fueling system, derived from midair refueling by aircraft. No gas cap over the tanks, just a permeable membrane into which a nozzle was thrust. Additionally, Chief Mechanic George Bignotti had chilled his fuel with dry ice, reducing the volume and permitting more to be loaded at each pit stop. During this first stop Al Unser cleared the pit in 20 seconds—a low figure that he came close to repeating on stops two and three. Rutherford, in contrast, had trouble. The clutch in his yellow Patrick Petroleum Special would not disengage when he hit the pits, and he stalled the engine. Total elapsed time before he returned to the battle: 53 seconds.
Few in the crowd were watching these developments, for Ruby was the center of attention. Then on the 54th lap the back of his colorful car burst into flames. Studs that had loosened during the wild ride earlier in the race had permitted oil to seep out of the engine and ignite on the hot exhaust. Ruby screeched to a halt in the infield grass and retired. An hour later, with a straw cowboy hat cocked down over his morose face, he lamented to Carroll Shelby: "Shel, it just ain't meant for me to win at this place. I don't think Indy likes me. Every year I try to change her opinion, but every year she wins." Would he be back next year? "I dunno," allowed Lloyd. "Getting into a race car for me now is just like going to another day's work. Except this is a little bigger."
By now it was clear that Al Unser was on his way. The Rutherford challenge had faded in the pits, and Johnny slipped to third, behind A.J., then to fourth, behind Bobby Unser. At the 200-mile mark, Al and his Lightning were averaging 161.043—a new record for that distance. Mario pitted for the third time, still slowed by the misbehaving half-shaft, changing rubber frantically in search of more speed.
If there was to be a challenge to Al Unser, it would have to come either from Foyt or from Mark Donohue. A.J. has a way of stalking the front-runner until everything is in place, then pulling it all together toward the end of the race and surging to the lead. That was how he generated his three earlier victories, and many in the crowd were waiting for it to happen again. Foyt himself had prepared for an unprecedented fourth victory in every way possible. He was even wearing the same helmet he wore during his last win in 1967. "I'm not superstitious," he grinned to a questioner. "I'm just careful."
Donohue's spic-and-span blue Sunoco Lola was doing precisely what it had been set up to do—endure. And Donohue, in his second appearance at Indy, was more confident than last year, when he won Rookie-of-the-Year honors. Still, it would take a lapse on the part of Unser and his car for either Foyt or Donohue to take him.
When time came for the second pit stop, it was obvious that no such lapse was imminent. Unser cleared the pits in 22 seconds. Foyt, only five seconds behind Unser when he pitted, had the ghastly misfortune not to be able to position his car properly for fueling due to a confusion of cars and people in the area. He rolled back out on the track and raced another lap before pitting for real. That cost him at least half a lap to Unser—and left him 37 seconds behind. Donohue pitted smartly but was still no more than a long chance.
When time came for the third pit stop, Unser was close to lapping A.J. His lead of nearly one minute allowed Al the luxury of drafting his closest competitor, of conserving his own machine while forcing Foyt to brutalize his. Attrition was moving other cars up in the standings. Dan Gurney, after an initial problem with vapor lock, closed to fourth place at the 160-lap mark. Though he posed no threat as yet, there were still 100 miles to run, and in recent years many strange things have happened in those last laps.
No sooner had the pit-row savants reminded themselves of that fact than—yep—something strange happened. Ripping into the short north chute, Roger McCluskey lost control of a car he was driving in relief for Mel Kenyon. It hit the wall and burst into pale blue flames. Though Roger got out without injury, methanol was spilled over the track and other cars could not avoid involvement. Jack Brabham—who had been slowly eroding his way into the top 10—was squeezed out. Bobby Unser pitted to check his tires and fell back ultimately to 11th place. Ronnie Bucknum, also involved in the shunt, was ordered into an ambulance for a hospital inspection. He waved cheerfully at the crowd as the ambulance wheeled him down pit row. Andretti hit the infield grass, felt his half-shaft pop back into its proper place and began turning 165-mph laps, but it was much too late. As for Foyt, in trying to avoid the accident he broke his gearbox. Though A.J. finished the race, he did so at practically a walking pace and ended up—not as a challenger for immortality—but merely 10th.
The caution light for McCluskey's crash lasted 17 minutes and 45 seconds while his foam-smothered car was being picked up and towed off. The trouble certainly cemented victory for Al Unser (see cover), but at the same time it denied him a chance to erase Andretti's 1969 record of 156.867 mph. Unser had been averaging four mph faster than the record. By the time he took the flag, 19 laps after the yellow lifted, Al's average had slipped to 155.749 mph. Still, that was 32 seconds faster than second-place finisher Mark Donohue.
Unser's win was the first victory for a pole sitter since Parnelli Jones turned the trick in 1963. Coupled with his older brother Bobby's 500 victory in 1968, Al's win also gave Indy its first brother champions and introduced theater-television audiences across the country to the matriarch and chief chili cook of the family, Mary Unser. She gave Al a kiss and told the people she enjoyed racing. Like most all Albuquerque men named Unser, her late husband had been a Pikes Peak Hillclimb champion. So had his two brothers. Al and Bobby have raced up to the Peak countless times. But even in the middle of all that joy, it was difficult to forget that another Unser brother, Jerry, had lost his life practicing for Indy in 1959, after surviving a wild, over-the-wall crash in 1958. Nobody was talking about that, though, when Al took the checkered flag. Unser allowed as how it was really Parnelli Jones who had engineered the victory. "Parnelli told me to take it easy and don't try to break the car," said Unser. "That's all I did."
Before Al Unser returns to the big-car wars, he has a date with a bike. Last year he broke his leg in a motorcycle spill just before qualifying began, and this year was forbidden from riding. Now the ban has been lifted. With all the goodies being handed him at Indy, Al could finally say, with Arlo Guthrie, "Well, I don't want a pickle/Just wanna ride on my motorsickle." Which he promptly did.