The elements that make for good motor racing are decent weather, an enthusiastic and sympathetic crowd, hard-eyed officiating, plenty of lead changes, sharp pit work and, finally, a minimum of crashes. Last Sunday, for the first time in many a May, all of those elements came together at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The result was an Indy 500 so clean and fast, so dramatic and exciting that all by itself it erased the horrors of the past few years.
Though the crowd favorite, A. J. Foyt, failed to win his hoped-for fourth Indy, he was in the running most of the way, drawing cheers every time he took the lead, moans every time he lost it, and an almost audible gnashing of teeth when he finally dropped out with a damaged engine. Still, broken hearts are preferable to broken heads in this most dangerous of sports.
Victory went instead to another tough Texan, Johnny Rutherford, who came surging up from the 25th starting spot, and to his Anglo-American crew of Team McLaren, headed by the inimitable Teddy Mayer and Chief Engineer Tyler Alexander of Boston and Great Britain. With England's David Hobbs finishing fifth in another McLaren, the race was a powerful demonstration of the superiority of the clean McLaren chassis over anything rolling out of American shops this season.
This was vintage racing, a year that should be bottled and prized. The driver did not merely inherit the trophy, as has been recent custom along the 500-mile championship trail—he went out and won it by crisply passing everybody else on the track. Not since 1936, when Louis Meyer roared home out of the 28th spot, has anyone won after starting from so far back in the field.
This year, too, the winning ride transcended individual or team glory. It returned a goodly share of success to the event traditionally called "the greatest spectacle in racing." People had been wondering in recent years just what sort of spectacle was meant.
The race almost got red-flagged by legal action before it could get started. The owners of five cars that did not have a chance to qualify at the end of the truncated, two-day time trials sought an injunction from the Marion County Superior Court, asking for a shot at the grid and threatening a delay of the race. Fat chance. The judge, who might have been tarred and feathered had he granted the delay, threw the case out, maintaining that the five unfortunates had not exhausted all other means in dealing with the Speedway and the United States Auto Club, the sanctioning body. When the owners tried to exhaust those means, USAC said sorry, look here at the fine print: you missed the deadline for a protest by 24 hours. And that ended that.
In the meantime, the field had qualified at a less than spectacular average speed of 182.787 miles an hour—more than nine mph slower than last year's 33-car lineup. Indeed, the difference between pole sitter A. J. Foyt and the last man in the pack, Larry (Boom Boom) Cannon, was nearly 18 mph—a potentially dangerous situation when it comes to passing in traffic.
Even spookier from the safety standpoint was the fact that two truly hot shoes were parked in the ninth of the 11-row grid. Rutherford and Al Unser, both of whom lost their places in the starting line on the first day of qualifying, had posted speeds of 190.446 and 183.889 respectively, but were nonetheless situated toward the back of the pack. One wondered what would happen when they came charging up through the slower cars at the start—always the most dramatic and dangerous moment of the race.
But Indy's new chief steward, Tom Binford, firmly answered that question. Anyone bullying his way uptrack before crossing the starting line would be penalized a lap for his pains. Binford, a bespectacled, soft-spoken but firm-jawed chap, reiterated his feelings at the drivers' meeting on Saturday. Nobody snickered. Last year's flaming, abortive start had been caused by just such pushy driving and nobody wanted to relive that scorching episode.
The only remaining question, naturally, was weather. But, glory be, race morning broke cool, partly cloudy and with the wind well within safe driving limits. The old gut-wrenching nervousness was evident throughout the Brickyard as the cars took to the front straight shortly before 11 a.m. for the parade and pace laps. Indy's hardened regulars discovered they had grown a bit gun-shy, thanks to the disastrous starts of recent years.
The word was out that the STP team, with Wally Dallenbach in the front row, Gordon Johncock in the second and Steve Krisiloff back in Row Five, planned a hare-and-hound strategy aimed at forcing A. J. Foyt to run flat out from the drop of the green flag. Their goal was to push Foyt so hard that he would either pop his motor or consume too much fuel to finish, even if that meant one of the red STP cars doing the same. After all, they outnumbered Supertex three to one.
Sure enough, when Starter Pat Vidan flapped the green from the new starting tower (which restricted his traditional dance a bit but made the start much safer), Dallenbach smartly blew Foyt off—diving out of the middle of the front row into Turn One with at least a three-car-length lead. Meanwhile, from the back of the pack, Rutherford gobbled up the slower traffic as expected, but he kept deep to the inside and endangered no one. When the swarm safely cleared the hairy first corner, an eerie whoop of relief arose from the crowd. The prerace shakes disappeared, and instantly Indy was a happy event once again.
The relief was all too short for Gary Bettenhausen, Mario Andretti and even the high-flying Dallenbach. On the opening lap a bum magneto blew a valve the size of a half-dollar through the side of Bettenhausen's spiffy McLaren. On the third lap Andretti burned a piston and retired, shaking his head in painful wonderment. How could a man once so lucky have fallen on such evil times? Has some former countryman put the mal√≤cchio on him? And then it was Dallenbach's turn. After leading the first two laps at speeds close to 190 he dropped a valve and was through. So, too, was the hare-and-hound strategy.
Foyt snapped up the lead and looked as if he was going to run away from everyone, smartly setting a new 10-lap record average of 185.079 mph, with Bobby Unser tagging along in second place but losing ground. But then the crowd became aware of Rutherford's sleek McLaren—the only car in the field that could run with Foyt by the clock. Even before those 10 laps were down, Johnny had swept his way from 25th to fourth. By the 21st lap he was hot on Unser's tail pipes as the two came through the main straight. As they hit Turn One, Rutherford dived inside and took second place. Then he set his sights on Foyt.
Gradually, over the next dozen laps, Foyt's lead was eroded—four seconds, three seconds, 1.7, half a second—and finally Rutherford was drafting in A. J.'s wake. The pressure was on, not just on the track but in the pits. On the 48th lap the two leaders pitted, and Foyt won the first duel of the crews, emerging in 16 seconds, in contrast to Rutherford's 21.
Experts had long known that with this year's fuel restrictions (cars could carry only 40 gallons on board, compared to 80 gallons before last year's fiery wrecks), and the consequent doubling of pit stops, crew sharpness, or the lack of it, might well determine the outcome. And that is why experts and fans alike were astounded a few laps later to see both Gordon Johncock and then Krisiloff drift in around Turn Four, out of gas. Their team manager, George Bignotti, is among the best in the business, so the fueling error was doubly unnerving. Very un-Bignotti-like indeed. But Johncock, at least, went on to redeem himself. Once the fuel crisis had been solved, he roared back into the race and, with some hot laps toward the end, managed to finish a solid fourth.
Then A. J., too, flubbed. With Rutherford still storming at his tail, the race's first caution period occurred on Lap 62. Foyt took advantage of the yellow flag to pit for both fuel and tires. Rutherford had replaced his rubber on the second stop, and was out in 14 seconds this time. Foyt, in a mixup with his crew, took 54 seconds. A. J.'s crew had intended only to replace his right-side tires on that particular stop, and thus only right-hand tires had been lifted over the pit wall when Foyt screeched to a stop. A flow of barked, garbled words followed, plus a bit of stumbling about, accounting for the delay.
When the green flag came out again, Rutherford had a 16.5-second lead over Foyt, which he gradually built to more than half a minute. Nothing Foyt tried could close the gap.
On one pit stop, during which it seemed that Foyt would regain the lead, the yellow flag came out just as Rutherford stopped. Everyone on the track, including A. J., had to slow to 80 mph during the caution. And again Johnny held onto the position.
Then, with the race nearly three-fourths over, Jerry Karl hit the wall in Turn Three, bouncing away with a minor leg injury, the only one of the race. In the five caution laps that followed, Rutherford pitted and nipped out again, still ahead of Foyt by a hair. But when the green light came on, Foyt saw it first and outdragged Rutherford into the second turn. Once more A. J. was in front, and for a magic moment it seemed that his unprecedented victory No. 4 was at hand. The crowd responded with a heavy, heartfelt roar, but hardly an instant later Foyt's orange Coyote began to smoke. Binford black-flagged him and A. J. pulled in for a technical checkup. Seconds later he was out again—but just for one more lap. It was all over.
Without stopping for empty interviews and condolences Foyt wheeled the car straight into Gasoline Alley. The disappointment he kept to himself.
With only 150 miles to go, Rutherford eased down the boost in his turbocharged motor and stroked it the rest of the way home untroubled, except briefly when Bobby Unser made one last dash at him. For the 36-year-old from Fort Worth, it was the 11th shot at the big one. Rutherford's best previous finish came last year, when he ended up ninth after winning the pole with a stunning 198.413 mph run that still stands as the track record. His winning speed this year was 158.589 mph—not a record but quick enough to hold off Bobby Unser, who rolled home second. Behind Unser came young charger Billy Vukovich. In all, 14 cars finished. One noteworthy non-finisher was David (Salt) Walther, the Ohio speedster who had been critically burned in the flaming smashup at the start of the 1973 race. In his two previous Indy tries, Walther had not managed to finish a single lap; this time he cranked out a creditable 141 for 17th place and the crowd loved him for it.
Johnny Rutherford began driving with his father's encouragement, an outgrowth of Rutherford pere's career racing motorcycles and midgets. This year's victory, in addition to the estimated $235,000 it won for Rutherford and his crew, was doubly gratifying in that Johnny's father is dying of cancer. This is the first of his son's races he has missed. "I want to dedicate this race to my father," said Rutherford in Victory Circle. "By golly, we did her, Pop."
They also did her—and proud—for Indy itself and everyone who was worried about the future of the world's greatest auto race. Yes indeed, it's all together again.