There are those few fatalists whose first act, when they arrive at Indianapolis for the annual 500-mile race, is to open their motel-room Bibles at random and stab a finger into the holy writ in search of omens. One such seeker last week hit upon the following quote from Job 10:8, "Thine hands have made me and fashioned me together round about; yet thou dost destroy me."
Aha! the fatalist exulted. It's a car talking—an Eagle, maybe, or an Antares, or any of the new winged bombshells that are threatening to make this Indy the fastest and most dangerous ever. And indeed, all through the week preceding the race the words of Job seemed to stand as an ominous epigraph to a pending automotive disaster. The cars were obscenely fast—not a one of the 33 qualifiers had failed to beat last year's record pole-winning speed of 178.696 mph. All of them were winged fore and aft, the better to hug the road through the corners, yet mightn't those very appendages cause unforeseen turbulence in traffic that could result in a monstrous chain-reaction crash? Or, what if one car nicked another and a wing flew away?
But when the grim day rolled around, and the cars rolled around and around and around with it, the worries became wasted. It proved indeed to be the fastest Indy ever, with a winning average speed of 163.465—nearly six mph faster than last year's record—but also one of the safest. There was only one bad crash, Mike Mosley hitting the wall in Turn Four at nearly the same spot where he had been so gravely injured the year before. And although Mike's car once again caught fire, he managed to jump out with his overalls ablaze, roll the flames out on the track and escape with second-degree burns as well as a badly bruised arm—the same one he had broken in the 1971 wreck.
There also had been those who feared, regardless of accidents, that none of the cars would be able to finish for mechanical reasons. Fully 60 engines were broken in one way or another during practice and qualifying; how many would blow during the race itself? And even those engines that survived the heat and pressure of Indy at high noon on race day might conceivably have used up all of their allotted 325 gallons of fuel before the 500 miles had been run: the hot cars like Bobby Unser's Olsonite Eagle and Gary Bettenhausen's Sunoco McLaren were getting about 1.55 miles per gallon. At that rate, running wide open all the way, the fastest machines could count on only 503.75 miles of racing—a margin of error that measured a scant .75%, less than that which is built into an Apollo moonshot. Well, once again no need to have worried. Almost half the starters finished—14 cars of 33—and those who failed did not run out of gas.
June 4, 1972
But if the gloom-and-doom contingent needed any further evidence to dispel its pessimism, it needed only to look at the face of the ultimate winner. Mark Donohue had been thought by some to be the Job of contemporary motor sports. At last year's Indy, though he was driving the fastest car by far—a McLaren M16—he managed somehow to lose the pole to Peter Revson in another McLaren, then to break down during the race itself, when he had an almost unbeatable lead, and finally to see his car destroyed in a freak accident in the corner, where he had parked after the failure. In this year's NASCAR Grand National series, Mark has been saddled with an American Motors Matador that is not only "dirty" aerodynamically but about 50 hp weaker than its competition—no way he can win among the stockies. As if that were not enough, Mark found the pressures of racing too harsh for a happy marriage; he has separated from his wife and two children. Now, when he is not racing Indy cars or stockers or testing his Porsche Can-Am car, Mark sleeps on a cot in Roger Penske's Philadelphia headquarters. A saddening image when one realizes that Donohue is one of the top five or 10 racers in the world.
Yet all of that sadness was erased—replaced by elation both on Mark's part and that of his sympathizers—when he won the big one last weekend. Fate tends to be unkind to racing drivers more often than not, and sometimes it kills them, but Donohue's victory somehow rekindled a feeling that is rapidly eroding in this strange century, a feeling that perhaps the deserving can indeed be rewarded. "Gee," said one Donohue fan after the race, "Charlie Brown finally won a ball game."
Unfortunately, many of the 300,000 race enthusiasts who watched Donohue win probably could not appreciate the nuances implicit in his success. Fire, blood and the prospect of death too often make up the magnetism of Indy for the multitudes. Because this race had promised to be dangerous and then proved otherwise, the crowd sat on its hands. Yet outside the boozy infield scene, encompassing it in a clean web of precision, sound and danger, the cars turned their laps and the drivers took their 200-mph chances. When one considered the investment of time, money and—most importantly—spirit that goes into any Indy car, it became tragic to witness the disregard the fans felt about failure, much less success.
Weather was no problem with this race. The day's stagnant hot air could only add to the burdens which the engines would have to endure, the pessimists moaned, but at the same time there was no threat of an anticlimactic rain. Every driver knew on awakening—and the Penske drivers, Donohue and Gary Bettenhausen, awoke at three a.m.—that this was the day, all right.
As soon as Tony Hulman, the Speedway boss, had ordered the starting of the engines it became clear that things would not ever again be the same at Indy, not with the new technology of the wings taking effect. A. J. Foyt could not get his engine started, a bad omen for the oldtimers since this was Super Tex' 15th outing at the Speedway and he was a medium-longshot favorite to win his fourth Indy. No one had ever won more than three. Nor would Foyt.
While A. J. pushed his car up to the end of pit row and strove for ignition the rest of the field took the first of what was supposed to be a three-lap warmup. But after the second lap, while Foyt still fiddled and then finally got ignition, starter Pat Vidan flashed the green flag. Vidan, a physical culture enthusiast, was perhaps a bit overtrained—at least for the guys that handle the caution lights at Indy. "I saw the pace car pull into the pits and I saw the starter pull out the green flag," said Peter Revson, who was in the front row. "But when I looked up the yellow caution light was still on at Turn One. I backed off and five cars damned near ran me over."
The foul-up at the start, however, may have been a major factor in the safety of the race—not through the Speedway's conscious doing but through sheer good luck. As a result of the ragged start the field was strung out rather than packed into treacherous groups. Bobby Unser in his pole-sitting Eagle took wing right from the outset, and at the end of the first lap already had a two-second lead on the rest of the field. No question but that Bobby was wearing the right car—every time one looked up he seemed to be passing by.
Then the battles began, sentimental and mechanical at the same time. Revson recovered from his bad start and made a dramatic charge past Donohue and Bettenhausen to take second place—for a moment. If one realized that Peter has become a considerable racing driver in almost the wink of an eye, if one realized that Peter is finally living up to his potential and demonstrating a resolve, if one realized that he is no longer the "Revlon heir" but an honest and true and dedicated racing driver, it was thrilling in the best sense of that word. But then Revson cracked his gearbox, and he was finished. To those who commiserated he had a telling reply—"Next year"—and he meant it.
With Revson's withdrawal, Bettenhausen moved up into second place. No one who is really serious about Indy can believe for a moment that the pole-sitter will win the race, not in this era of fragile technology. Nor could the serious fan sincerely believe that the son of an almost mythical and long-dead father could win it either—at least not this year. Yet many of those serious fans were hoping.
Bobby Unser broke next. It was a typical racing failure, a cheap part—a distributor rotor. The white Eagle with the rainbow trim coasted into the pits, and the driver—a man who looks and acts in many ways like a muscle—got out. He accepted this fate: he did not kick his helmet. That failure put Bettenhausen in the lead, and the steady young man from Tinley Park, Ill. stayed out front for another 125 laps. It was not an easy dominance. When Mosley hit the wall coming out of Turn Four on the 57th lap, shedding wheels, spraying both terror and the flames of his burning car onto the course, Gary ducked Coolly under the debris. He took his instructions from Penske with the solid intelligence of a platoon leader. He pitted quickly and never panicked when his engine cut out during the stops, thus costing precious seconds. Jerry Grant in the purple Mystery Eagle, the second of Dan Gurney's supercars, was riding only seven seconds behind Bettenhausen. To the smart money it was predictable: the favorite had to be the second-year car, Bettenhausen's Penske-prepared McLaren, but the really smart money could not exclude the possibility that Grant's Eagle would confound the odds and pull out the victory.
Oh, elusive victory. Jerry Grant, age 37, is an overweight road racer from Seattle who had almost won Le Mans with Dan Gurney back in 1966, who had won 24 straight SCCA races in a Ferrari back in the days when road racing was for amateurs, a man who had not gotten a ride in a championship car for nine months and who had given up beer in favor of diet cola in order to get back into the literal thick of things. If anyone deserved victory, why not Jerry?
But that is a sentimentalist's question. Victory in this race would go, certainly, to a man who had worked for it, but in what way? Bobby Unser had been sidelined by fate. Peter Revson had shown his stuff, no need to weep over his failure. Gary Bettenhausen would be a worthy winner, but maybe it would be too soon; he is only 30. Then, during the 173rd lap, with Bettenhausen holding that seven-second lead over Grant, the yellow light flashed on—a chunk of metal on the back straightaway. Slowing to the compulsory 80-mph yellow caution speed fouled Bettenhausen's ignition. When the green light came on, Gary did not; his engine coughed, backfired—and Grant took the lead. Bobby Unser, mistakenly figuring Grant was a full lap ahead, jumped out onto the track with a cigarette in his mouth and admonished Jerry to "cool it."
But Grant was running low on fuel, while Donohue had taken an extra pit stop during the yellow to top off. Mark was closing, with the sort of studied steadiness that amounts to victory in this sport. Donohue had chosen to run with a "weaker" engine than the fast guys—Bobby Unser, Revson, even Bettenhausen—and although he suffered in the early going through a 50-hp disadvantage in the straights, he had kept his car healthy and well fueled throughout. At the last moment Grant had to pit—either for fuel, as Penske suspected, or for a frayed front tire as Grant indicated when he charged into the pit. Coming out, Seattle Fats was a lap behind Donohue. Penske, about to explode with elation under his headset at trackside, flashed Donohue a sign that read: EZ.
It was even easier than Penske figured, for that dramatic pit stop was to play a fateful role in deciding the second spot. Grant had slightly overshot his own pit and pulled into teammate Bobby Unser's zone (which is legal), but the excited crew had topped off using fuel from Unser's tank (which is not). The move brought a protest, and next day Grant was dropped to 12th with Al Unser moving to second.
The rest really was easy, though for Mark Donohue nothing is or ever will be easy. Those who watch him race, however, are justified in hoping that despite the difficulties of being a graduate engineer from Brown University who is caught up in an absurd sport, Mark may find more success and maybe even another $250,000 like he won fast week at Indy. Perhaps someday it may be said of him: "He maketh a path to shine after him...." Job 41:32. Or as Charlie Brown might say, "Phooey to fate."