Happy endings are as rare in motor racing as five-second pit stops, but for Bobby Unser and his boss Dan Gurney the rain-lashed conclusion of the Indianapolis 500 was a delight. For Unser it was his second Indy win—his first came in 1968—and for Gurney, whose best finish as an Indy driver had been a brace of second places in 1968 and 1969, it was the end of a frustrating nightmare. But for everyone else involved the race was a mélange of confusion, disappointment, sweat, fire and ire.
When the 500 was red-flagged at the end of 174 laps—with 26 left to run—the most disappointed man on the 2½-mile oval must have been A.J. Foyt. This was supposed to be Supertex' year, what with his splendid pole-winning qualifying run two weeks earlier, his California 500 win in March and the prospect of an unprecedented fourth Speedway victory just around and around and around the bend. Foyt managed to lead the race for 47 laps during the early going, but his slick Gilmore Coyote could not stand the pace when Wally Dallenbach turned loose his Sinmast Wildcat and A.J. ended up in third place. (And when the race was over, in the hospital. Injury was added to insult because of an errant piece of metal in Foyt's cockpit; it had broken loose and become lodged under his rump, causing what the hospital called "contusions of the upper hip." But A.J., ever determined, had refused to take the time to get out of his car to remove it.)
Second in the Disappointment Derby, though not in the race itself, was Dallenbach. His Day-Glo red Wildcat, prepared by the old master wrench, George Bignotti, was clearly the fastest car on the track. Dallenbach started from the seventh row and quickly charged to the front, taking the lead away from Foyt on the 59th lap and more or less maintaining it with ease for the next 100 laps. Then he burned a piston and dropped out, only very slightly consoled by $14,400 in lap-lead prize money.
Confusion was this year's lot of last year's winner, Johnny Rutherford, wheeling a green-and-white Gatorade McLaren. When the rain came slashing in from the west to end the race and send cars swirling out of control through the corners like so many bright leaves spinning down a gutter, Rutherford was approaching the finish, desperately squinting through the downpour for Unser, who he thought was just ahead of him—and for the checkered flag in case Unser wasn't. Bobby did indeed have the lead, however, and Rutherford had to be content with second place overall. As the thunder cracked and lightning stitched the dirty gray sky, Unser eased his blue Jorgensen Eagle across the finish line at a walking pace—it more closely resembled an automotive dog-paddle—to become Indy's 59th and most recent hero.
An eerie quality pervaded the entire race. It started the night before with a total lunar eclipse visible through the thickening clouds. The hooting, brawling crowds on 16th Street outside the Speedway grew strangely quiet as the eclipse progressed. The weather was hot and humid on race morning: temperatures in the mid-80s and the air thick enough to spread on a piece of toast.
A major concern of the 33 racers preparing for their day's deadly work was the track temperature, which reached 130° just before the start. A hot track could cause rapid heating of the slick racing tires and a resultant loss of grip through the corners. Gary Bettenhausen beat the heat problem by dousing himself with water just before the start, but unfortunately could not do the same for his tires. Toward the end of the race, the right rear wheel of his Thermo King Special collapsed as he entered the main straightaway. Keeping his cool, Bettenhausen bounced the car along the wall, peeling off paint and speed, and managed to come to a safe halt in the infield grass of Turn One.
For the second year in a row the start of the race—always the most dangerous moment—came off letter perfect. Gordon Johncock, in the second Sinmast Wildcat, leaped into a quick and commanding lead before he had even reached the first corner, with Foyt and Unser falling in behind him. By the third lap John-cock had opened up a 2½-second gap, while his teammate Dallenbach was gobbling up the slower machinery between his 21st spot on the grid and the front of the pack. Rumor had it that Dallenbach was picking up as much as 150 extra horsepower via a concoction of nitrous oxide being injected directly into the Wildcat's cylinders. Certainly the car was outrunning them all on the straight-aways. By the seventh lap Dallenbach had rolled into fifth place with Johncock still in the lead. And then, two laps later, Foyt made his move.
As Supertex nipped past Johncock on the main straight a joyful roar erupted from the stands. It was followed by an equally heartfelt moan a short time later when another old favorite, Lloyd Ruby, retired on the backstretch. Luckless Lloyd, in the second of the Team McLaren cars, had done it again.
Then it was Johncock's turn to break a few hearts. He came limping around Turn Four on the 11th lap and coasted into the pits. All Bignotti's mechanical magic could not help him this day. He was out of the race. By now, however, Dallenbach had worked his way up to fourth place—behind Foyt, Rutherford and Unser—and was obviously just waiting for traffic to thin so he could make his run at the leaders.
Meanwhile, as Dallenbach dallied, it was time for the latest episode in the tragicomedy of Mario Andretti, racing's snakebite victim. Andretti had qualified on the second weekend of time trials, because of a Formula I commitment in Monaco (where he ran a luckless eight laps), and started the race from the ninth row. He worked his way smoothly up the middle of the pack and then on the 22nd lap came in for his first routine pit stop. It was a quick one, true, but when Andretti pulled back out into the pit road his engine died. Crewmen raced down to him and shoved him back to his pit, just under the scoring tower. Vroom! went the hand-held starter; hackety-hack, went Andretti's motor, and out he went—only to stall again near the end of the pit road. Only on the third try did he manage to regain the track, leaving weary red-shirted Viceroy crewmen panting in his wake. Some 30 laps later Andretti lost control in Turn Three and clipped the wall, taking himself and the car out of the race for good. At that, it was an anticlimax.
In the serious part of the race, Rutherford was dogging Foyt's tailpipes. When the yellow caution flag came out for the first time, alerting the racers to Mike Hiss' tangle with the wall in Turn Three, the two leaders quickly pitted and nipped back out with no change in their positions. This was obviously going to be a race won by errorless pit crews—or so it seemed before Dallenbach turned up his boost. Dallenbach's first target was Rutherford, and he blew past his opponent handily to take second place behind Foyt. As the two cars entered the backstretch on the 60th lap, Dallenbach's Wildcat ate up the Coyote as if it were a hunk of kitty kibble. When Dallenbach opened up his lead to as much as 22 seconds over the next 250 miles, it looked like all A.J. could hope for was that the Wildcat would break down. His car simply could not run with Dallenbach's.
Farther back in the pack another drama was about to unfold. Young Tom Sneva, driving the Norton Spirit McLaren prepared by Roger Penske, was running a steady and smart race. Wheeling with a full load of fuel during carburetion tests on the Thursday before the race, the 26-year-old former junior high school principal had turned the fastest lap of the day—190-plus mph. And now, as the race neared the midpoint, Sneva was lying in fifth place, obviously planning to conserve his car for the distance while remaining in striking range and hoping the swifties would break or make a mistake. But the Indy 500 has a nasty way of turning the tables on even the canniest of drivers. The mistake, it turned out, was Sneva's.
As he poured through the short chute between Turns One and Two on the 127th lap, Sneva's left rear wheel drifted into Eldon Rasmussen's right front. Suddenly the Norton Spirit flipped end over end, its engine and rear wheels ripping away as the car broke to pieces against the wall, then came to rest in flames. It was as ugly a wreck as any the track has spawned, and only swift work by corner men—and the innate toughness of modern racing cars, not to mention their drivers—saved Sneva's life. When he was pried from the wreckage and staggered to his feet the crowd sighed with audible relief. Medics later reported that Sneva suffered burns on both hands, his face and his chest. "It's a helluva bad wreck—worst I've ever seen here," said Bobby Unser, who was just behind Sneva when it happened. "I couldn't tell the engine from the chassis. I made a split-second decision to go down low to avoid the debris and it happened to be the right one. God knows I've made some wrong ones in my time."
Fortunate as Sneva was, his crash caused considerable misfortune for at least two other drivers—and Foyt may have suffered the worst. In running over some of the debris left by the smashup, A.J. realized he might have damaged his tires. That necessitated a lengthy 45-second pit stop and put Foyt nearly a lap behind Dallenbach, Rutherford and Unser. No way now that he could hope to catch the leaders. Dallenbach, too, suffered severely. In ducking down onto the infield grass to avoid the wreckage, he may have picked up some junk in his intakes, for just 36 laps later he burned a piston and thus ended his chance of rolling away with his first Indy victory in 10 attempts. As Dallenbach came down the main straight his car let out a piteous bleating noise, like some huge mechanical sheep with a bellyache, and once again it was time for the crowd to groan. The Colorado charger has many friends among the washed and the unwashed. And now it was getting time for everyone to get washed.
The Indiana sky, which had been a dirty blue through most of the race, began to blacken. A fresh west wind whipped up great tan streamers of dust in the parking lots, and the flags on the Tower Terrace stands stood out straight. Unser, having driven a low-profile race, began to stand on it, charging past Rutherford, who had pitted for fuel in preparation for his final dash at the checkered flag. Opening up a substantial lead on Gentleman Johnny, Unser felt confident that he had the speed to outrun his rival in a closing duel and now he, too, pitted briefly to top off his tanks. "There was no contest, really," he said later. "I outran Johnny earlier in the race when I was running with less boost and less power. My car was faster and there was just no doubt about it."
Still, driving through the darkness after getting the red flag, Unser had checked in on his crash-helmet radio to make sure he had won the race. "Is this it?" he crackled from the backstretch to Gurney in the pits. "You bet it is!" the boss replied, totally soaked, the rain plastering his hair down over his forehead. To radio and television interviewers rushing up with ready microphones, Gurney yelled, "He's O.K. He knows he's won. He's out there somewhere." And he pointed off into the storm.
Of course, we will never know if Unser's car really was faster, as he said, and that is the sadly inconclusive nature of any race ended by flukey weather. Who knows what might have happened over those last tension-wracked 26 laps? Certainly no one can begrudge the Jorgensen team its hard-won glory (or the $250,000 that the victory procured). It is just that it would have been a far more satisfying win for everyone concerned if it had been the Indy 500 rather than the Indy 435.