Suggest to an Indy driver that he quit while he's ahead and he'll laugh in your face and tell you there's no such thing as "ahead" when dealing with the Brickyard. Put three winners of the Indy 500 together—like, say, a Johnny Rutherford, an Al Unser and an A.J. Foyt—ask them to run four laps flat-out for $20,000 and the pole position for this year's race, then watch them try to outdrive, outpsych and outtune each other until one is less behind than the other two, and you will not see them going for anything less than broke. If Indy qualifying were a draw poker game, the winner would not be the man who held onto his pair of kings instead of going for the royal flush—unless one of the players had been burned before and had learned something about the odds.
Last Saturday's opening day of qualifying presented just that kind of deal for Rutherford, Unser and Foyt. During the first week of practice they had been the fastest trio on the 2.5-mile track—Rutherford at 189.633 mph, Unser at 189.743 and Foyt at 189.633—and there had been a three-way tie in the psyching department. Which brought it all down to tuning on the morning of qualifying. Last year Rutherford (who holds the four-lap qualifying record of 198.413 mph set in 1973, when USAC's rules regarding the permissible amount of turbocharger boost were more lenient) had made some last-minute changes to his McLaren-Offy and qualified a disappointing seventh. This year he held pat, and his hand was good enough for an average of 188.957 mph. Not bad on a track that had changed after overnight rains had scrubbed it clean. In contrast Unser fiddled with the front wing of his Parnelli just before qualifying, which resulted in it pushing too much, while Foyt, who had won the pole the last two years, fiddled with the rear wing of his Coyote and found it sliding too much. The reactions of the latter two while Rutherford scooped up the pot were what you would expect.
Unser: "Sometimes you just guess wrong. We made a change and...[sigh]...suffered."
Track announcer to Foyt as he pulled back into the pits: "Well, A.J., that sure was a real good run."
May 23, 1976
Foyt: "It wasn't really good at all. It was a disgrace to me, my car and the team."
Announcer: "Uh, well, uh, you had one good lap. Uh, tell us about the other three."
Foyt: "The darn thing wasn't handling. If you had your eyes open, you could have seen that."
Be that as it may, many of the drivers of the other 39 cars in Gasoline Alley would neither have suffered from nor been disgraced by Unser's 186.258 or Foyt's 185.261. But those speeds had allowed Gordon Johncock's Sinmast Wildcat and Tom Sneva's Norton Spirit McLaren-Offy to slip into the front row at 188.531 and 186.355 respectively, with Al and A.J. left to commiserate in Row 2. Unser added some suspense on Sunday morning when he wheeled out his backup car and announced he might try again for the pole, but a slipping clutch forestalled any such attempt.
If Unser had been the fast qualifier it would have stood the Brickyard on its ear, which would not have been all that unusual considering that his car is owned by Vel Miletich and Parnelli Jones, and the latter has a history of standing the Speedway on its ear.
It's been nine years since Parnelli Jones, the driver, led the infamous turbine incursion into Indy that was stopped short of altering the look and sound of the 500 for all time by a USAC rule change. It's been just four years since Jones, the owner, unveiled the Parnelli chassis with its dihedral wings, again of short-lived shock value because the drivers disliked them. Then, last year during practice at the Brickyard, Parnelli, the innovator, gave a sneak preview of his latest brainstorm, a petite new chassis wrapped around an English Cosworth-Ford V-8 engine.
This year the Parnelli-Cosworth became the feature subject of qualifying, and neither USAC nor Unser had any complaints. Both the chassis and engine trace their lineage to Formula I, where Jones had fielded a car driven by Mario Andretti the past two seasons. Its heritage makes the machine the closest thing to being the missing link between Monaco and Indianapolis since Dan Gurney. Said Miletich, "We're in the same place where the rear-engine Lotus-Fords were in 1963: leading a revolution 'by one year."
In direct response to the pending Cosworth challenge, Drake Engineering, manufacturer of the ubiquitous Offenhauser-Drake engine, had spent the past year revising the venerable four-cylinder power plant to produce about 50 more horsepower. But when defending champion Bobby Unser blew one of their new $28,000 engines after a mere 1½ laps of practice, an expensive epidemic started: by the first day of qualifying, only the new engines of Rutherford, Sneva and Andretti had not fallen victim. A lubrication problem was suspected, and for the most part the other new Offys, those that hadn't already blown, were replaced with older Offys by wary mechanics.
The wisdom of the precaution was reinforced during qualifying when the final new version to break was the replacement Offy in Bobby Unser's Eagle. (The next day Bobby made the field with an average speed of 187.520 mph.) All three of the new Offys that survived had been assembled by Gary Knudsen of Team McLaren. Obviously he had found the secret to making the engines live, but as qualifying drew closer engine specialist Herb Porter, who all the other new Offy owners were relying on to discover the same secret in his shop on Gasoline Alley, spent a sleep-starved week.
"I'm not the smartest son of a gun in the world, but I've been here a long time and know a thing or two," Porter said. "Still, I can't exactly say I'm brimming with confidence."
The retreat to the drawing board of the foundering Offys meant that most of the equipment on Gasoline Alley was at least one year old. Two prominent exceptions were the pair of Wildcats designed by George Bignotti and powered by his own Drake-Goossen-Sparks engines, which are Offy offshoots. Bignotti was once crew chief for Foyt, and after studying Johncock's machine in Gasoline Alley, one of Foyt's mechanics made it clear what he thought.
"So this is your new Wildcat," he said to Bignotti. "Sure is nice."
"I like it," said Bignotti.
"Only thing is," said the mechanic, pretending to scratch his chin but actually trying to wipe a smile from his face, "looks more to me like maybe you should of called it the Copycat."
Eight rookies had entered this year, but only three passed their tests the first week: Spike Gehlhausen, Bobby Olivero and Vern Schuppan. Of the three, the most highly touted was Olivero, a quiet California sprint car star. He had dazzled USAC officials by breezing through his two-stage test in one day, the first practice day, an unprecedented feat.
Still, the rookie that garnered the spectators' interest was Janet Guthrie, a New York City physicist who is the first woman ever to don a driving suit at Indy. She couldn't so much as go to the bathroom without being followed, ogled and questioned by fans, photographers and reporters. Taunted on one occasion by two drunken young wise guys, who jeered, "Hope you crash in our corner," Guthrie remained composed and gracious. On the track, she was constantly under pressure, too, aware that with one mistake there would be cries of, "See! We told you a girl doesn't belong out there!"
And if that weren't enough, Guthrie's car was markedly inferior. It spent a large part of the week in the garage; when her crew finally got it running smoothly, rain fell and shortened practice. By Saturday, she had completed only half of the rookie test. She would have to wait until this week to try to pass the 100-mile test and until the weekend to qualify.
Another driver who would have to wait a while to qualify was Andretti, who spent last weekend in Belgium at a Formula I race. In April, the Vel's Parnelli Jones team abandoned its Formula I effort because it had no sponsor. Andretti was then free to drive for Vel's at Indy, which he hadn't planned to do because the Grand Prix of Monaco would be the same day. But Andretti was sore; winning a world championship is his burning ambition. "If they can't support my pet project, I don't want to be involved with them," he said. So Vel's and Andretti scratched their contract. Andretti then signed to drive Formula I for Lotus—but not at Monaco. Instead, he would compete at Indy in one of Roger Penske's McLarens.
"We could have legally held Mario to the contract so he would have either had to drive for us at Indy or not at all," said Miletich, "but we don't work that way. We're really better off with one driver here anyhow. Mario's a heck of a driver, but he could break an anvil with a rubber hammer."
Both Miletich and Andretti showed enough class to stop short of name-calling, which kept the split only sticky, not messy, but early in the week, while Andretti was at the Speedway, there seemed to be a growing communication problem.
"I've got a clear conscience. They didn't pay me anything for the release," said Andretti.
"Mario is getting his full salary of $150,000 this year from us," said Miletich. "He does not have a clear conscience."
If either party was bearing a burden of guilt, it didn't show. Vel's was happy with the Cosworth—which hadn't missed a beat—with Unser and with American Racing Wheels, its new sponsor for USAC races. And Andretti could hardly be restrained from jumping in the air and clicking his heels. Maybe it was because his McLaren was running so well in practice, but then maybe it was because of his shoes. Andretti knows this little old cobbler in Italy named Signore Ciccio who has been making racing shoes since...well, he made them for Tazio Nuvolari. Andretti's footwear looked like boxing shoes wrapped in aluminum foil. At first squint he became the envy of Rutherford, for one. The popular Texan, known as Gentleman John, stopped dead in his tracks and gave Andretti a tracing of those stopped tracks to send air mail to Ciccio so Rutherford could also have a pair of nifty racing shoes.
Rutherford figured that a pole sitter should look flashy. And, just in case, those Tin Man shoes might look right nice in Victory Circle.