What the organizing band of motor-sports magicians achieved at Long Beach last weekend was nothing less than a full-bore miracle. In a mere six months since they reintroduced America to big-time racing through real city streets with their Formula 5000 race last September, they achieved two more equally impressive automotive feats: 1) parity with the Grand Prix of Monaco as a status event and 2) instant controversy.
The fascination of Americans, obsessed as they are with color and quick history, was readily explicable. Long Beach is a city of the old and the oily, a clean, well-lighted place that nonetheless rings with dark reverberations of the past. It is a tough old wildcatters' town, a Navy liberty port as wicked as any on either coast, a place blessed by sunlight and cosmetic architecture and history. It differs from Monaco mainly in its specific gravity, which more closely approximates blood than vin du pays. In short, it is a grand locale for anything rich and dangerous, particularly a Formula I motor race.
The controversy grew from the environment. Long Beach's 12-cornered, 2.02-mile road course is tight and demanding, as ruinous of suspensions, drive-trains and brakes as it is of human tempers. Only 12 of the 20 cars that began last Sunday's U.S. Grand Prix West managed to finish. The machines that failed were literally bumped out of contention in crashes that fortunately resulted in no injuries worse than a strained neck (for Team Lotus's Gunnar Nilsson) and a gasoline-seared derri√®re (for Team Tyrrell's Jody Scheckter). Third-place finisher Patrick Depailler, driving another blue Tyrrell 007, almost ended up as blood-red as the victorious Ferraris of Clay Regazzoni and Niki Lauda. Young Depailler rashly shut the gate on England's James Hunt on the fourth lap of the 80-lap event, thus preventing a true test of Ferrari's staying power and precipitating an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation after the checkered flag, the likes of which this usually gentlemanly sport has rarely witnessed.
"You cocked up, Patrick," said Hunt after the race. Sipping angrily at a beer and puffing a cigarette, he stared the Frenchman in the eye, as hard and mean as any Englishman of the Horatio Hornblower era. "If you didn't know I was trying to pass you, then you must learn to drive."
April 5, 1976
"I am sorry, James," stuttered Depailler, "but I did not see you."
"Rubbish," answered Hunt. "Oh, what's the use of arguing?"
But there was good reason for argument. Had Hunt remained in the race for the whole distance, it is possible that the pressure on the Ferraris would have caused breakage. During practice and qualifying runs earlier in the week, Ferrari's world champion Lauda managed to shear two drive shafts, proving that the highly touted "traction" of the Italian cars was as susceptible to destructive overtorque as any others. Still, the Hunt-Depailler-Ferrari question only added spice to the peppery weekend.
Fittingly for the occasion, nostalgia also was abundant. Qualifying day, which saw Regazzoni take the pole with an agile, long-geared run at an average speed of 87.51 mph, also witnessed the most poignant roaring of the week. A vintage-car race served up many of the sport's best surviving drivers as happy participants. Dan Gurney, one of the Grand Prix West's originators and driving forces, won the seven-lap event in a 1959 BRM. Juan Manuel Fangio, five times world champion and the sport's most revered figure, finished third but ran the fastest lap, 70 miles an hour, in the Mercedes with which he had won the 1955 Argentinian Grand Prix. Watching the old master in his yellow polo shirt and flimsy helmet, his head bent to the corners and his thick forearms working the wheel as vigorously as of old, was a time trip of Wellsian magnitude. Jack Brabham, Denny Hulme, Maurice Trintignant, Carroll Shelby, Rene Dreyfus and Richie Ginther also finished, while such other oldtimers as Phil Hill (SI, March 22) managed only to break their antiquated cars, as in times gone by—and as if to preview the modern race to come.
With a crowd of fully 100,000 on hand, the race began under a cool, breezy sun and with little apprehension. Long Beach is a safe course. That it was also exciting was about to be demonstrated. Blowing down the Ocean Boulevard straightaway from a standing start, Italy's Vittorio Brambilla and Argentina's Carlos Reutemann bumped in Turn One, for the day's first shunt. Brambilla, a practitioner of the collisionist's art, ended up against the worn-tire barrier, while Reutemann made it down the car-eating Linden Avenue drop, only to choke out shortly beyond. Regazzoni, always a good drag racer, beat everybody down the 12-degree bobsled run of Linden Avenue. But Hunt was already challenging from his third-place spot on the staggered starting grid, opening a good lead on Lauda as the cars sped down the 190-mph Shoreline straight. Depailler, who had started second on the grid, was already showing signs of weakness—in the form of bad brakes, as he would later explain.
As the leaders began the fourth lap, Hunt felt the time was right to move up. He dove on Depailler down the Linden Avenue ramp as fiercely as a Spitfire on a Stuka. In Turn Two, a 90-degree wrenching lefthander just at the bottom of the hill, the Frenchman bumped his right rear tire on the wall. Hunt set up to pass him on the right, but Depailler held close to the outside through Turn Three. As the two cars approached Turn Four, a sweeping horseshoe to the left, Hunt shifted over to the other side of the track, assuming that Depailler would let him by. Not so. When the two approached the hairpin bend at the Villa Riviera Hotel, Depailler suddenly cut in front of Hunt, braking hard and far too early. The unexpected maneuver stuck Hunt into the wall as he hit his own brakes. The front end of his McLaren was crumpled by the 80-mph impact, bent beyond possible repair.
Hunt stood in the road as corner workers fretted, waiting for Depailler to pass again. Other race cars whipped past, like bulls at a matador's knees. His blond hair wet with sweat, his usually placid, almost small-boyish features twisted with anger, Hunt waited for Depailler. Then he shook his fist at him.
Regazzoni led from start to finish. Mario Andretti, who had started 15th in his Parnelli Jones machine, made a valiant charge to seventh place before a water hose burst, drenching both him and his chances. South Africa's Jody Scheckter, in his Elf-Tyrrell, ran up to third place from 11th, but then locked his brakes and ticked the wall in the escape road out of Ocean Boulevard. The impact ruptured the gas tanks and Jody received liquid gasoline burns on the place where he sits. He went into a convenient pub, pulled off his pants, wrapped himself in a blanket and had an angry drink.
Lauda, meanwhile, kept close watch on his teammate's flank, preparing to stave off enemy attacks, although less obviously than Regazzoni had done for him during last October's U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. Depailler held on for third. And that was it.
After the race, which verged on full-bore boring after the fourth lap, Hunt came into the press room, loaded for Frog. He drew a beer from the journalistic tap, bummed a cigarette from a journalistic friend and vented his spleen.
"He saw me. I could see his eyes on me in his mirror. He knew I was trying to get round him and he bloody well shut the gate."
Could Hunt have given Regazzoni and Lauda a run for the winner's share of the $265,000 in prize money?
Was there any sense in protesting Depailler's moves?
"None at all."
Still, it had been a fascinating weekend, full of Americana and European panache, good organization by the sponsors and odd developments both on track and off. Pity that the race hadn't been more exciting after the fourth lap. That was bad luck, wasn't it, James?
He dragged on his smoke, sipped his beer, thought perhaps of the way fortune tends to run against men at certain times. His pretty-boy features turned grim. Bad luck?
"Not really," said James Hunt.