If a racetrack can be characterized in human terms, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is mean and unforgiving. Perhaps it is like an ogre, the ultimate dirty old man, proudly and nastily guarding his domain. Last week, threatened with an attempted violation of his privacy, Old Indy showed just how mean he could be. Not only did he fend off the would-be violators, he killed one of them—a fine human being named Art Pollard who happened to be a racing driver.
The attempted violation was one of those number-things that fine human beings concern themselves with—this time the 200-mph barrier at Indy. Actually, 200 is a rather unimposing number. Jetliners and rockets go much faster all the time, and even so cheap an item as an assassin's bullet is quicker by far. But Old Indy was jealous of the magic number 200.
Racing drivers, those impudent pipsqueaks, had already gone past 200. They had done it at the expense of high-rolling Texas World Speedway and to impecunious Ontario Motor Speedway in California. Now they planned to try the same trip on the Speedway, which didn't like the idea one little bit. After all, the old man carries the names of 34 victims on his bloodstained record, each of them commemorating in its wicked way the passing of a good, tough driver.
And now Old Indy had it all figured out. He had his defensive weapons of long years—his hard, unforgiving wall, his coarse pavement that sucks up oil and rubber and soon becomes a skid row, and the winds that he could call up at a moment's notice to blow cars into perdition. Beyond all of that, he had the best of weapons: time was on his side. "Ain't no way," he growled to himself, "that they can get ready in time. No way they can set their wings and tweak their engines high enough. Not without the price going way up."
May 20, 1973
The goal was 45 seconds—three quarters of a silly little minute to wheel around the 2½-mile oval. Work it out: 200 mph. The math wizards grabbed their handheld computers and started playing progression games. It was 1919 when the 100-mph barrier was broken for the first time, by the French driver René Thomas in a Napoleonic-blue Ballot Roadster. Legend has it that Barney Oldfield turned a lap of 102.6 mph back in 1914 in a Christie car with only 1,500 cc. of engine displacement. But that fact was never confirmed, and Thomas' lap speed during qualifying of 104.70 mph stands as the first official century lap. "He went into the No. 1 turn at a speed that made spectators gasp for breath," wrote one newspaper reporter of the day, "and electrified his fellow drivers." Considering the skinny tires of the period and the high, unstable chassis of those horseless carriages, it was indeed quite a feat—and it was not until 43 years later, in 1962, that the next meaningful increment was attained. Rufus Parnell Jones slammed his Willard Battery Special around the Brickyard in a shade less than a minute to break the 150 mph barrier.
Now, only 11 years later, the big 200 was in sight. Thus the progression ran. Working it out, the math freaks figured that by 2:59 a.m. of Sept. 29, 1977 an Indy car would crack the sound barrier. A lap or so later it would reach the speed of light. Absurd, of course, a simple numbers game. Parnelli had the right response. Advised of this mathematical truism over breakfast one morning, he squinted hard and grumped: "Yeah, but if USAC has its way they'll change the rules. Never happen."
As for the first 200, as boss of the Super Team (Al Unser, Mario Andretti, Joe Leonard), Parnelli was as likely a manager as any to achieve the goal. After all, Andretti had turned laps in excess of 210 at the Texas World Speedway, and had pushed close to 200 at Indy itself back in March, when the weather was cool and the track still "green." But Indy in May is another whole, weird world—a killer ribbon of asphalt that bends around on itself and scares drivers and watchers alike. And there was a good, practical, economic reason that the 200 would remain elusive: "An Offenhauser engine costs $31,000," Jones said. "Last year they were blowing like popcorn. This year they aren't."
What he meant was that no racer who could balance a checkbook was nuts enough to squeeze his engine to the breaking point this early in the expensive contest. Roger Penske, whose driver, Mark Donohue, won the 500 last year, summed it up succinctly during practice one afternoon. "The name of the game is defense," said Roger. "We cannot make a single mistake."
That, of course, was exactly the attitude Old Indy wanted to instill in his tormentors. And from the moment the racing teams arrived early in May that was precisely their approach, with but a few bold exceptions. One of them was Swede Savage, the former protégé of Dan Gurney who was now driving for Andy Granatelli's three-car STP team. The amnesia which resulted from Savage's near-fatal crash two years ago in the Questor Grand Prix (SI, April 5, 1971) may have been a blessing. The crack on his head that almost killed him also erased most of his conscious memory of racing. "Later I saw a racing car and I knew what it was," he says, "but I didn't know what to call it. My word center had been blasted to bits. I saw a racetrack and I knew what to do with it, but I didn't know what it was. If I'd been 10 years older when I hit that wall at Ontario, I would never have pulled through. But fortunately my brain—at the age of 24—was still growing." Fortunately for Indy fans, one particular part of his brain retained the splendid eye-hand skills that separate the average freeway klutz from the racing driver. After regrowing several million brain cells, he was better than ever.
Savage showed it a week before qualifying when he "stood on it," and went all out for the 200-mile barrier. He turned a lap of 197.802 mph that proved to be the fastest of the month—until qualifying-day. Meanwhile, the best that such hot shoes as Andretti, Donohue, Bobby Unser, Peter Revson or Gary Bettenhausen could do was a relatively measly 195 and change. A. J. Foyt had a hard time clearing 192, a fact that cost his crew plenty of skin off their, uh, eardrums. The excuses for these performances were as loud as the motors that caused them. "There's not enough rubber down on the groove," argued some, contending that more rubber would make for more grab through the corners. Foyt and Andretti took the opposite route: there was too much rubber in the groove, and it was making the track slippery. All were agreed, however, that Old Man Indy's wind was making it very tough to control cars that, in the words of Englishman David Hobbs, "are engaged in the art of low-level aviation." Hobbs, for one, had to stiffen the springs of his machine to keep it from bottoming out through the corners. He did not care to fly quite that low.
Qualifying day proved as windy as the rest, with gusts up to 20 mph jumping in unexpectedly through the gaps in the grandstands. No one knows for sure whether it was wind or a suspension failure that did it, but at 9:37 a.m. on Saturday as he was entering Old Indy's favorite ambush site, Turn One, Art Pollard lost control of his car at about 190 mph, and smacked straight into the wall. The car exploded, skidded 1,450 feet through the short chute separating Turn One and Turn Two, rolled over through the grass and then hit the wall again at the second turn's exit. A witness saw Pollard looking back through the flames during the skid, searching perhaps for dangerous overtaking traffic. Or maybe for the face of Old Indy, who was killing him. His right arm and his head were both broken during the final, fatal tumble into the far wall. He breathed flames, too, and that finished him. He was pronounced dead at 10:40 a.m. Art Pollard was 46 years old, a veteran driver but not yet beyond his potential. He was one of the few men on the Championship Trail who could explain, in clear, human terms, exactly what was happening inside a race car, and inside a racing driver's mind. No one who admires good men will ever forgive his sport for killing him.
Pollard's death cast a surly, sullen pall over the track. Bettenhausen, one of the early qualifiers—and a man whose father had died at the hands of Old Indy—turned a four-lap average of 195.559 just before the news of Pollard's death was announced. It was a splendid run, but Gary's grin faded when he heard the word. Soon after, he and Bill Vukovich, his good buddy, left to play golf.
Still, Bettenhausen's quick time gave hope to the quarter-million fans that perhaps the big 200 could yet be beat. After all, Gary's blue McLaren was not considered a match for a Dan Gurney Eagle of the sort that Bobby Unser was driving. That hope was boosted higher when young Steve Krisiloff, a skillful longhair from Parsippany, N.J., cranked out a 194.932 average after running no quicker than 190 in practice. "It was time to get it up," said Krisiloff.
Then out came Savage in his red Eagle. His first lap broke Bobby Unser's track record of 196.678 with a clocking of 197.152. His average for the full 10 miles also was a new record—196.582 mph. Both Savage and his chief mechanic, the nonpareil George Bignotti, grinned like a couple of happy bears. They thought they had the pole.
Sorry, gentlemen. That honor was to go once again to Team McLaren, whose manager, Teddy Mayer, was wise enough to hire veteran Johnny Rutherford for this season's campaigns. Rutherford, a sprint car superstar, is one of the fastest qualifiers in the racing business. Back in 1970, driving a less than adequate piece of machinery, he nearly bumped Al Unser from the pole at Indy. At 35 Rutherford is still the hard-charging dude he was 15 years ago when he entered the sport. His favorite word is, literally, "banzai." Today, though, he was not feeling that way. His best friend in racing was Art Pollard. "I'd decided not to go out and banzai it," he said after his run. "It wouldn't hurt my feelings at all if they slowed these cars down by 20 mph or even more."
Not that Johnny slowed too much when his chance came up. His first lap was 198.676. He cooled it a bit on the next one, but then—with Old Man Indy's wind going slack for a moment—he pulled out an incredible 199.071. That was just 45.21 seconds around the big, square-shouldered circle. Or, roughly, 16 heartbeats short of the big 200. His final four-lap average was 198.413, and it won him rights to the pole come May 28.
"It's the dirtiest track I've seen in 11 years of racing here," Rutherford said later. "There was the wind, and then there was all that paper the fans were letting blow onto the track. Hot-dog wrappers, beer cups, toiletries—stuff like that. And they kept leaning out and waving at me. I remember thinking it was either jubilation or else they saw something was falling off my car. At any moment I expected the engine to lunch or the suspension to break or something nifty along those lines. Still, it was a very comfortable ride."
Bobby Unser could not say the same. Rutherford had come close to 200 without even knowing it—his pit mates flashed him signs indicating 197 throughout the ride—but Bobby U. understood perfectly well what was expected of him. After refusing his first chance at the mark due to trouble in his turbocharger, he waited at the back of the line for the wind to die down and his moment to arrive. In between times his crew kept calling the weatherman at Indy's Weir Cook Airport, hoping against hope that the Dirty Old Man would relent. He didn't. Bobby went out at day's end and knew he could not do it. His fast lap was only 198.588, and his average 198.183. That put him second to Rutherford in the first row and ahead of Donohue, who came through with a solid 197.412 average to be third.
One of the other drivers not unduly psyched by the Old Man was, predictably, a newcomer. New Zealand's Graham McRae, boss of the Tasman Series and a hard charger in Formula 5,000 cars, talked his way into a new STP Eagle and noted, "I run about 193 in the straights in my 5,000 car, so there is no reason I can't do the same here." After only 10 laps in the Eagle he qualified at an average speed of 192.031 mph to sit in the fifth row.
The second day of qualifying produced no surprises. Indeed, USAC's national champion, Joe Leonard, could not even pull 190 out of his Parnelli. Still, the field of 30 cars that made the grid during this first and toughest weekend averaged 192.572 mph—8.561 mph faster than last year's starters.
Of course, no one will come close to 200 during the remaining days of qualifying, and not during the race itself, when fuel loads and suspension settings and turbocharger boosts are reduced for the full route. But then again, maybe the Dirty Old Man will nod off one of these days, maybe the wind will die down, maybe Foyt will get one of his engines running the way he dreams it can....
But you better not count on it.