During the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, something is always overworked. Usually it is engines, frequently it is mechanics, often it is drivers. Last week it was the word "unreal." Throughout the practice sessions that precede the running of America's grandest 500-mile automobile race, people kept grinding their gears with repetitive clichés. "Mark Donohue is unreal," they said. "It's unreal, man, he's running 174 mph." Donohue merely grinned and tucked himself back into his blue-and-gold McLaren M16 racer and kept on going faster. "Wow, he just hit 177—unreal." Grin and run. "Jeez—179." Later, fresh phrases emerged, immortal lines like "181—unreal." Statistically speaking, it was indeed unusual, but nowhere near as unreal as the unpoling of Mark Donohue last Saturday before a crowd that was, well, pretty big: 250,000.
The previous record for a single lap at Indy was set by Joe Leonard in the STP turbine car back in 1968—an unreal year in its own right. The turbine was subsequently banned, and for two entire Indy races its qualifying record remained inviolate: 171.953 mph. Then along came Mark, and with him the efficient Roger Penske Racing Establishment, a Philadelphia outfit that has out-Ferraried Ferrari in sports-car competition and is currently sharpening the American Motors Javelin to a fine cutting edge on the Trans-Am circuit.
By applying science and elbow grease, the Penske-Donohue consortium seemed about ready to turn Indy into a simple exercise in speed arithmetic. Then came the race for the pole and Peter Revson, applying some new math, whupped Mark Donohue. He did it in another McLaren M16, one that belonged to the actual, British-based Team McLaren. Moreover, he did it with a said-to-be-sick engine that had never before pushed the car faster than 120 mph.
In the process Revson evened some old scores. Back in 1969, during their rookie years at the Speedway, Donohue and Revson had both performed admirably. Revson started last in the 33-car field and finished fifth. Donohue did a lot better that year in qualifying (fourth) but worse in the race, finishing seventh—and yet he won the Rookie of the Year award. The two men teamed up to drive Javelins for Penske, but Donohue—as Penske's No. 1 protégé—always got the better car and consequently won more races in the Trans-Am series. This year the situation seemed roughly similar. Donohue once again profited from the excellent Penske preparation, while Revson had to make do with the second car in the Team McLaren stable—the first and potentially faster machine going to New Zealander Denny Hulme, Bruce McLaren's countryman and traditional teammate and himself a veteran of Indy as well as countless Grand Prix races; he was the world champion of 1967.
All week long, while Donohue was wowing the multitudes with his superfast laps, Revson was a mere semiwow. His top speed in practice was 176.1. At best, he could end up only second, the smart money said. So then he simply blew Donohue off the road. His fastest qualifying lap of 179.354, although more than 1½ mph slower than Donohue's best in practice, upped the official one-lap record by 7.401 mph. Rev-son thus achieved the greatest single advance in big-car speeds since Jim Clark shattered Parnelli Jones' record by 7.53 mph back in 1964. Moreover, he did it with a four-year-old Offy engine installed just a few hours before his qualifying run. Unreal enough for you?
Well, the whole Indy scene has become unreal. There was A. J. Foyt with a brand-new car—he called it the Coyote II—that he hoped would give him his fourth win. Foyt's racer started out wingless—without the rear-mounted airfoil that keeps down-pressure on a car through the wrenching corners and thus permits it to go much faster. Ultimately A.J. had to add a wing just to keep in competition and at that he only ended up sixth on the starting grid.
Last year's Indy winner, Al Unser, in the slick Johnny Lightning Special, could do no better than fifth, but his older brother Bobby, who won the race in 1968, did manage to struggle past Hulme to put one of Dan Gurney's well-prepared Olsonite Eagles on the outside of the front row and in among the three swift McLarens.
Mario Andretti, Lloyd Ruby and the old fast-lap record holder, Leonard, had to settle for places farther back. And so to some it looked as if the old names had lost their magic.
Actually, what had happened was that designers and mechanics were working some new magic, and the particular magic of the weekend was the legacy of a dead man: three McLarens in the first four qualifying spots. Last year, during his first Indianapolis endeavor as a car designer, Bruce McLaren learned a lot about the Brickyard's rugged demands. Though his two cars—derived from his invincible Can-Am sports-car design—finished no better than ninth and 22nd, Bruce thought he had the answer for the future. En route to England after the race, he outlined his scheme to Gordon Coppock, his chief engineer. It was to build a winged monocoque car with tubular framing fore and aft, a departure from the heretofore successful wedges and full monocoques, and a design that combined the flexibility of the tube frame with the strength of the monocoque. McLaren died in a crash during Can-Am testing at Goodwood just days later, but the idea for the new car had been born. It is a credit to Roger Penske that he recognized its virtues right away. Last fall Penske struck a deal with McLaren's successor, the American Teddy Mayer, to buy the first of the new cars in exchange for Roger's own considerable engineering advice.
Late in March, Penske brought his McLaren to Indy for tire tests. "We found ourselves running well in excess of the lap record," Roger said, "and we knew we had something going. We didn't know what the factory McLarens could do, but we set out to make our own version the fastest car on the track. We decided not to run it in the earlier big-car races—Argentina, Phoenix, Trenton—but to save it for the really big one. Indy."
The racing public quickly realized that a new record was in the offing. All through the chilly days of early May the Speedway was jammed with eager watchers. Each of Donohue's practice runs—not a one of them slower than the old record—drew the cheers of a rapidly growing throng. Few of the spectators, though, realized that the other two McLarens—the cars driven by Revson and Hulme—had an equally swift potential. As for the Brickyard's traditional heroes, it was glumsville all around. "I've never seen Foyt look fiercer or Mario look sadder," said one veteran driver, his own face hardly an ad for ecstasy. "Penske's promotion says he has an 'unfair advantage,' and I don't think they're lying."
The pressure built up by Donohue's fast runs took its toll during practice. Mike Mosley, the quick young USAC driver who won the Trenton race, broke an oil line during one attempt to increase his speed, and Denny Hulme spun out on the resultant slick—an incident that psyched Denny right up until qualifying day. Lee Roy Yarbrough, a good old boy from stock-car racing, hit the wall in Turn One during practice, slewed 660 feet down the track and vaulted from his burning Eagle with another bad case of psych. Even the veteran Roger McCluskey had a close call: two days before qualifying he suffered his first Indy spin-out in a long time, missing the wall but quickening a few pulses on the way.
The heat was on, sure enough, and when Donohue turned a lap of 180.977 two days before qualifying, it seemed to have reached the boiling point. "I know—I just know—that he's got a couple more miles in there," said Dan Gurney. "Too bad Bruce isn't here to see it." Though Bruce wasn't, a quarter of a million car freaks were on hand when qualifying began. The crowd began gathering during the night, slurping brandy and beer to fend off the chill. But the Middle West's cold spring took a vacation for the weekend, and Saturday dawned clear and warm. "They must have imported the weather from the Ontario Speedway," said Rodger Ward, the retired Indy double winner. It was indeed a California kind of day. But the heat—72° at starting time, with track-surface temperatures of 108°—could only handicap the delicate racing machinery, which prefers cooler weather.
The first cars onto the track for pre-qualifying practice were the orange McLarens of Revson and Hulme. They were soon joined by Lloyd Ruby, who topped out in practice at 176 plus in his gaudy, flag-striped "Silent Majority Special," and Bobby Unser, who also clocked a high 176. But when Donohue rolled out in the sleek No. 66 and whipped off four laps in the vicinity of 179 mph, it looked like the pole was already planted in the Penske pit. Revson was a study in frustration. The afternoon before, he had dropped an exhaust valve in the sluggish Offenhauser engine powering his McLaren. A quick negotiation with the Goodyear good guys (the tire company is a heavy financial supporter of Team McLaren) procured a replacement—a four-year-old Offy test engine that was installed in the dark desperation of the night. "I took the car around eight or nine times," said Revvy later, "and I couldn't get more than 120 out of it. Then just before qualifying began, we put our heads together and made a stab at a solution. I can't tell you what we did, but it seemed to work." The key man with the wrenches was Goodyear's Herb Porter, an old Indy hand who, in those moments, must have given even the eminent George Bignotti, Al Unser's crew chief (see page 40), something to think about.
The first two cars on the grid refused the green flag and fell back to the end of the waiting line. Then Mike Mosley went out in the first of two G. C. Murphy Specials—this one the same Eagle-Offy that Bobby Unser had won Indy with in 1968. During his first lap Mosley ran fast and furious—only to lose it all nearing Turn Four, spinning twice and nipping the wall to give the crowd its first big thrill of the day. Next came Foyt—the first man who stood a chance of breaking the old qualifying record. Chucking his omnipresent chewing gum and donning his red bandana face mask, Foyt hit the road with his customary dash. "Smoke it, Tex," the customers hollered, "stand on it." Foyt obliged with four quick laps averaging 174.317—a new record, sure enough. But how long would it last? "About three minutes," said Foyt. He knew that Donohue was next up.
Mark was impenetrably calm as he rolled out onto the track to cheers from the fans. But when his first lap proved to be a relatively slow 178.607, the raucous ruckus suddenly went quiet. The second, third and fourth laps were progressively slower, and Donohue ended up with an average of 177.087—a new record, just as Foyt had prophesied, but after the practice runs a bit of a disappointment. How long would this one endure? "In my position," said Mark with a wry flash of humor, "I'm not allowed to think."
While Mike Mosley was wrecking a second car—same turn, similar spin-out, still no injury—Donohue retired to a trailer to ponder his performance. Sipping a beer on the rocks, he shook his head. "I never do well here in qualifying," said Mark. "Never do well. The car changed from understeering to over-steering, because of the heat I guess." Then he added with just a hint of anguish, "I was looking for 183. Seriously, I was."
So, suddenly, was Peter Revson—and his seriousness became evident the moment he took the green flag. Boiling flat out through the straights and chutes, diving deep into the corners and then exploding from the far end, Revson racked up an initial lap of 178.006. The crowd tensed up. Peter's second lap increased the voltage—179.354. "I didn't know how fast I was going, but I could feel it," said Peter later. "The first time I went by, the crew flashed me a 176 plus, but I knew it was quicker, and it was. After the '79 I knew I had it, so I backed off just a touch." With final laps of 178.855 and 178.571, it was a very delicate touch indeed. Revson's four-lap average of 178.696 was pole-making history. "I'd have been happy to run '75," he said sort of apologetically. "We'll have to regroup."
Revson's run provided a moment of high emotion in an event that can sometimes prove deadly dull. No one failed to recognize that his performance had once again underscored the genius of Bruce McLaren. Penske was standing on pit row as Revson completed the record run. Dan Gurney ran up, grabbed Penske by the shoulders and yelled: "Splendid. Isn't it splendid?" Caught up in the mass enthusiasm, not even thinking about the fact that his car had been deprived of the pole, Roger answered: "Man, yes." Bruce McLaren lives.
That was the beauty of Indy. As for its truth, that will only be revealed on May 29 when 33 cars—three of them McLarens—set out to race 500 miles. That is still any man's race.