They have seen the future—at least the first 500 miles of it—and not all of it works. The future, that is, of Indy-type racing by the U.S. Auto Club's championship cars, those misbegotten missiles of the Brickyard that constitute America's most exciting contribution to motor sports. All forms of racing are in some degree of trouble this year, mainly because of the timidity of sponsors in the face of the energy crisis, but USAC championship racing is in double trouble. Last week, in the wake of the season's first outing, the California 500, fans, drivers and owners alike had a chance to assess their progress.
Ironically, the chief problem is one that flared long before the fuel shortage. It sprang from the rash of fiery wrecks that marred last year's Indianapolis 500, killing two top drivers and critically injuring another, killing a pit crewman and burning a clutch of spectators. That horror show provoked outcries that the cars were going too fast and loose, that the 75 gallons of fuel they carried turned them into the four-wheeled equivalent of so many napalm bombs, and that the wide, inverted wings mounted on the rear of the cars were causing more turbulence than trailing traffic could handle. "Ban this murderous mockery of a sport!" howled some editorialists. The less hysterical demanded a slowdown.
The USAC response was a set of half measures that satisfied no one completely. First off, they clipped the rear wings nine inches and later cut them again, reducing maximum width to 43 inches. Trimming the wings, it was figured, would ease the downforce in the turns and thus lower the speed of the cars. Smaller wings would also generate less turbulence, reducing the potential for crashes.
Second, and more important from a public-relations standpoint, was the handling of the fire-hazard situation. It is not good business to cook your customers. Since championship races are run counterclockwise and the cars always turn to the left, the right side fuel cell is most vulnerable to rupture and fire during a crash into the retaining wall. USAC ruled that cars could carry fuel only in their left side tanks. That cut the onboard supply to 40 gallons—still a sizable amount of starter for a trackside barbecue, though a little less of a hazard. But this move also doubled the number of high-speed, heavy-traffic pit stops the cars would be required to make, thus doubling the chance of a major conflagration in the pits.
March 24, 1974
Further, officials reduced the amount of fuel per car in each race to a total of 280 gallons, fully 60 gallons fewer than the machines previously had been running on. The turbocharged, alcohol-guzzling engines had been barely squeaking by at 1.4 miles per gallon, and this reduction brought screams from owners, drivers and mechanics. They would be required to "de-tune" their highly sensitive engines to get 1.8 miles per gallon. "It's not racing anymore," said Parnelli Jones, track president, team manager and former Indy winner. "It's a gol-durn economy run!"
But Parnelli's main worry in the California 500 had less to do with race driving than with race watching. As the new part owner (along with Indy's Tony Hulman) of the Ontario Motor Speedway franchise, Jones was engaged in a heroic effort to save the huge $25.5 million white elephant from its third attack of financial seizures in only five years of life. The Ontario Speedway is beyond doubt the handsomest, most modern racing facility in the U.S., but the fans stay away from it in droves. The first California 500, on Labor Day weekend of 1970, drew a respectable 183,000 spectators, but the trend has been downward ever since. In 1973, fewer than 100,000 showed up. This year, Jones and Hulman switched the date to early March, making their race the season opener. While the Labor Day weather had been so hot that the delicate turbocharged engines blew like popcorn—leaving only 12 cars still running at the end of last year's race—the earlier date promised cool, clear, ideal racing weather, with an average temperature of 64°, according to a 10-year study by the National Weather Service.
It sounded good on paper, but reality brought two weeks of intermittent rain. On the day before the race, with the skies slowly clearing, Jones stood in the stands in front of the $30,000 sponsor suites that are still going begging, watching the fans trickle in for the qualifying sprints. They weren't trickling very fast, and Parnelli ran his hand anxiously over his new forward-swept "baldy special" haircut. ("I've only got one hair left," he mused, "but it's 40 foot long.") The main topic of pre-race conversation was A.J. Foyt's vast superiority over the field. Super Tex won his 100-mile qualifying race going away, at a speed of 190.617 mph—nearly five miles an hour faster than anyone else. His speed was partly the result of superior aerodynamics—Foyt's orange Coyote is so low to the ground, most notably the nose, that it looks like a stomped tomato—but the main advantage came from his V-8 Foyt engine.
"The Offenhausers powering most of the field are four-cylinder motors," Jones said. "But with this fuel reduction we have to run the turbochargers at a lower boost, and that gives the advantage to an engine with more cylinders, like Foyt's. I don't like the fuel cut one bit. What if a guy discovers halfway through the race that he doesn't have enough fuel left in the pits to finish? What does he do? Pull in and quit or go out fighting?" The image of Kamikaze racing loomed beyond the words.
The best that Jones' own "super-team" of Al Unser, Mario Andretti and Joe Leonard could produce in qualifying was a spot in the third row of the 33-car field. Indeed, the rest of the 36 cars that showed up for the race ran the qualifying sprints so poorly that the last two spots on the grid had to be filled by invitation. "I don't think it's going to be much better for Indy," Jones said. "I can only think of three more cars that will show up there than we got here. The sponsors are staying away."
Still, for all the gloomy forebodings, the race itself proved to be one of the most exciting in recent USAC history. The day broke chilly and overcast, but by race time the sun had come through, glinting on the Ferris wheel and whirly rides of the little carnival in the infield. The carny touch was the idea of Jim Cook, Parnelli's general manager, who felt that a little bit of Le Mans would not be at all harmful. It wasn't. Another good notion was to permit overnight camping in the infield for the first time in the race's history. Motor racing, for all its high technology, is not a purely linear sport and the fans come as much for the color, sound and community as to see who wins. Campers are an important part of the scene: plenty of potables down there in the cooler and a good perch on the rooftop from which to watch the streakers go by.
They streaked, all right: from the start, when Bobby Unser blew past Foyt to lead the first lap, it was close, competitive racing. On the second lap, Foyt turned up his power a touch and made Unser feel as if he were standing still, but on the 22nd lap of the 200-lap race Foyt ran over a hunk of debris on the track and ripped an oil line. Before he could shut off, he had cooked the engine and was out of it. That turned the race into a battle of equals; if Foyt had finished as he started he would have denied the 100,000 fans who finally showed up the closest finish of a 500-miler that USAC has ever provided.
Most equal of the equals turned out to be the Unser brothers. Bobby and Al swapped the lead 11 times, running at speeds up to 184 mph and whipping through their pit stops. The drag races down pit row, exciting as they looked to the fans, underscored the fears that many had expressed over the fuel-reduction decision. There were a number of near misses as cars screamed in and out under the yellow caution flags for fuel and tire changes. Early in the race, Gary Bettenhausen collided with Joe Leonard in the pits and spun him completely around. Both drivers rolled on, but the hard knock cracked a right front upright on Bettenhausen's Penske Products Special and dropped him out of contention for the lead. But Mark Donohue, in his first full race as pit boss, would not quit. His crew repaired Bettenhausen's nose out on the apron inside Turn One, then towed the car all the way around the 2½-mile oval to put on a new bonnet, and off Bettenhausen dashed to finish 20th.
No one was watching the rear-end Charlies at that point. With 48 laps to go, Leonard T-boned the pit wall near its exit, incurring a compound fracture of the left leg and precipitating a 20-minute caution period while rescue workers cut him free from the wreckage. When the green light came back on, the Unsers continued their neck-and-neck duel like a couple of stock-car showmen. The margin of victory was decided in a final pit stop on Lap 178, which Bobby won by half a second. He outdragged brother Al back onto the track and stayed ahead to win by .58 seconds. It was his first 500-mile victory since his Indy win in 1968, and indeed only the second in his career, despite the fact that he and his Dan Gurney Eagle have been the top qualifiers at nearly every race for the past two seasons. "We've had a long dry spell," said Bobby in Victory Circle, "and actually this time we made a mistake. Dan called me in for one pit stop too many." What did Dan say when he realized the mistake? "Well, he said something mild like 'Shame on you, Dan, for doing that.' "
Largely because of the long yellow while Leonard was being extricated from his bent car, the average speed for Bobby's win was 157.017 mph, more than three miles an hour slower than the average (and still record) speed for the inaugural race five years ago. Those whose love of championship racing derives solely from speed, speed and more speed were bound to be disappointed. Still, Foyt's qualifying dash was only 10.7 mph slower than the track's qualifying record, not nearly the 20 mph difference that the doomsayers had been predicting. And by the motorized month of May, when the hot dogs pull into Indy with their improved versions of the machines that ran at Ontario, it is certain that the gap will have been closed even further. Anyway, the difference between 190 and 200 miles an hour is undetectable to the human eye—they both look like zip.
What the California 500 proved, on the plus side, was that fuel restrictions do not necessarily mean half the field running out of gas before the race is over. The 16 cars that finished the race set a record for Ontario, where the best finishing field previously had been 13. That the reduction in speed caused by the wing-clipping and lighter loads produce fewer accidents also is no longer arguable. There were seven yellows during the race, but only one bad accident, Leonard's encounter with the pit wall. All told, the USAC rule changes have undoubtedly led to safer, closer racing on the track.
But the traffic situation in the pits may more than outweigh those improvements. Ontario's pit road is an Interstate compared to Indy's narrow cow path. Though Hulman & Co. are working to widen the Indy pit road before this year's race, it remains to be seen how much that will help. A kind of madness descends on everyone at Indy, a madness that cannot be matched at Ontario or Pocono or any other racetrack in the world. That, coupled with cronyism in the appointment of Indy officials, has produced most of the bad accidents of recent years. One can only hope that the halfway measures USAC has taken so far to extricate itself from its racing troubles—measures that have certainly been at least halfway successful—will extend all the way by Indianapolis 500 weekend. Otherwise it will be another Memorial Day everyone would like to forget.