The reasons for losing a championship automobile race can be nearly as complex as the big cars themselves, but last week, in keeping with its fledgling tradition as America's freakiest race, the California 500 added a new and classically simple way of losing; illiteracy. Ridiculously enough, the victim was the championship trail's only Ivy Leaguer and certified intellectual, Mark Donohue of Brown University and the Roger Penske Graduate School of Advanced Automotive Superscience. When it comes to reading scholarly works on aerodynamics or friction differentials, Donohue is primus inter pares on the racecourses of the Western world. It's just that he can't read words like "in" and "fuel." As a result, Donohue whipped his Sunoco McLaren—clearly the fastest Indy-style car the sport has ever seen—past the frantic signal board of Team Manager Penske not once but three times, then ran out of gas on the backstretch. Ultimately, victory in the final race of the season's "Triple Crown"—the first two being Indy and Pocono—went to the bright yellow Samsonite Special of Joe Leonard, an old survivor of the motorcycle wars whose intellectual endeavors ceased at the age of 16 when he ran away from home to become a bike nut. Joe's crew kept the signs simple—"E.Z.," "O.K." and finally "$" when he crossed the finish line and collected 132,039 of the latter. In big-car racing, that is about all the vocabulary a winner needs.
Donohue had won the pole position handily with a record qualifying average speed of 185.004 miles an hour (for four laps) in a 33-car field that averaged 174.500. But for Donohue and Penske, as for such other frontline drivers as Mario Andretti, A. J. Foyt Jr., the brothers Unser and Peter Revson, the race was an exercise in aggravation. In pushing his car to the grid after a warm-up in the garage, Penske inadvertently laid his left hand on the manifold. Instant blistersville. "You learn something new about Roger every day," said one driver. "I reckoned he was too cool to burn." Came race time and as the green flag fell and the field surged into Turn One, Mario Andretti's kumquat-colored STP Special merely coasted. Mario completed about a quarter of a lap before retiring. Nobody is calling STP's Andy Granatelli "Mr. 500" anymore—not without adding "yards" under his breath. "My distributor shaft snapped," Mario shrugged back in the pits.
Under a new ruling, the pack was permitted to bunch up behind the pace car under the yellow caution light. In effect, this made the race a series of sprints on the order of stock-car competition. It also encouraged drivers to duck into the pits under the yellow in order to refuel and such without losing too much time.
When the yellow flashed on Lap 30, Donohue had a six-second lead on the field and was moving out nicely. While other drivers pitted, Mark kept right on running. "We figured that there was no way anybody was going to make the three required pit stops on the yellow flag," Penske rationalized later. "So the bigger the lead we had before stopping, the better off we were." The tactic was sounder in theory than in practice. Donohue was snaking his way through heavy traffic when the time came for his first fuel stop on Lap 50. Up went the "in" signs, but straight by went the busy Donohue. And again. And again. A moment later he was out of gas. By the time he got a tow and a push to the pits he had lost a dozen laps.
Then Revson fell out, Foyt broke a transaxle, Bobby Unser hit a wall, brother Al's gearbox failed, and who was out there in the sunshine but Joe Leonard?
Chief Mechanic George Bignotti had replaced Al Unser's Ford power plant with a quicker Offenhauser, but Leonard's car, also prepared by Bignotti, still mounted the slower Ford. "I wouldn't tell Joe he didn't have a chance, but I think he realizes it," said Co-Owner Parnelli Jones before the race. "Of course, the other hot dogs may break while Joe keeps running."
Thus did Leonard in his four-wheeled suitcase win the biggest race of his 21-year career. Granted, he backed into Victory Circle on the largesse of other drivers' failures, but no one could begrudge Leonard his moment of glory. Over the years, he had come to be called "Lenny the Loser." At Indy in 1968, as the "Kerosene Kid" driving the now-outlawed turbine car, Leonard had come within nine laps of fame and fortune only to become an also-ran when his STP Lotus broke. At Pocono this year he skillfully outdrove Donohue but finished second simply because of the McLaren's greater speed. The California victory gave Leonard a 350-point lead over Al Unser for this year's USAC driving championship, with only two races to run—and a total of $219,056 in prize money for the season. Not bad for a dropout who spells "fuel" with two o's—and not so E.Z., either.