Among the myriad variables affecting the outcome of the Indianapolis 500, the biggest, and least controllable, is the weather. Local forecasters have learned from experience not to commit themselves on race day until umbrellas are wet or noses sunburned. This year the earliest Memorial Day weekend forecasts called for showers on Saturday and Monday, but conspicuously did not mention Sunday, race day. It's that old Indy aphorism at work: if you can't say anything nice about the weather on race day, don't say anything at all.
Well, this week Johnny Rutherford is saying a lot of nice things about the weather, because he made it work for him—to the tune of more than $200,000 in prize money for his second Indy victory. He may be the only person saying kind things about the rain that finished the race just one lap past the point—252.5 miles—where it became official. It was the shortest Indy ever, and Gentleman Johnny learned in the sodden pits, not on the track, that he had won by 13 seconds over A. J. Foyt, his famous fellow Texan, who has been burning to become the first four-time winner of the 500 since his last victory in 1967. Between them, they led 77 of the race's 102 laps, and until Foyt's sway bar and the clouds cracked, in that order, the duel looked as if it might last until next Memorial weekend. This possibility was revived 2¼ hours later, when it seemed the race would resume with Foyt's Coyote bearing a fresh sway bar. However, the sky darkened again and Chief Steward Tom Belford called it a day. But not before Foyt, whom some people around Indy consider as controllable as the weather, raised a storm of his own, claiming that Rutherford had illegally improved his lead while the field was running under a caution flag. The initial complaint was discounted after a review of the timing sheets, but there was a possibility that A. J. would file a formal protest the following morning, when the official results were to be posted.
Even if this year's 500 was compact-size, it certainly was not lacking in excitement. From his pole position Rutherford's McLaren led the first three laps with Foyt working his way up close to him from a second-row starting spot, and on Lap Four Foyt made his move.
"I saw A. J.'s Coyote coming, and he passed me down the back straight and led into Turn Three," said Rutherford. "All of a sudden I had to back off because A. J. started sliding, and I thought he was going up the wall. I passed him, but he passed me back again in Turn One."
June 6, 1976
On the ninth lap Roger McCluskey spun into the infield and the yellow caution flag came out. Foyt waited one lap too many to pit and top up his fuel tank and found himself sitting on pit row as the green flag was dropped. Meanwhile Rutherford had completed his pit stop and was back on the track with his foot down. Foyt barreled out into a device by which his crew had positioned the car—it was not pulled away in time—and no sooner did he get back on the track than another yellow flag came out.
Next came perhaps the most exciting racing that has been seen in the 500 since the early '70s, when the refinement of car aerodynamics made them so difficult to control in the slipstream created by other cars that the race seemed to become a game of stay-away. At about the 50-mile mark Rutherford and Foyt surged through traffic in a pack that included Gordon Johncock, Wally Dallenbach, Pancho Carter and Tom Sneva along for company (they eventually finished third through sixth, respectively). The six of them threaded through a like number of slower cars along the front straight before they settled into Turn One without incident.
"I don't know how many cars were in that gaggle, but I'm sure glad no one opened a gate in the wall," said Rutherford. "We would have all ended up out on 16th Street."
There was to be a lot of that kind of dicing. A new USAC rule required engines to be fitted with "popoff valves"—devices that work on the same principle as the little thing that whistles on the top of a pressure cooker—which limit the turbocharger boost and in effect limit horsepower. Previously, a driver could raise the boost at will. This year the racing was tighter because the cars were slower and more evenly matched, which in turn led to more passing in the corners.
It would have helped if the crowd had been fitted with popoff valves. The night before the race the city had been restless; throngs of boisterous visitors roamed the streets near the Speedway. Result: more than 100 arrests, one overturned and burned automobile, dozens of drag races on the streets and more Code One (emergency) calls than the police could handle. Those who made it to the 500 as spectators were a little fragile.
Last year when Rutherford had finished second to Bobby Unser in another rain-shortened 500, his sponsor was Gatorade, and he had to endure endless alligator jokes; now it is Hy-Gain CB radios, and Rutherford found himself dodging elbows aimed at his ribs by people calling, "Breaker! Breaker! Put the pedal to the metal, good buddy, ten-four."
Rutherford's victory from the pole was the ninth time that has happened in the 500's 60-year history, but for the first time in 16 years being on the pole was not the same as having the fastest qualifying time. Mario Andretti held that honor with his Penske Cam2 McLaren-Offy, but because he had missed the first weekend of qualifying (he was racing a Lotus in the Belgian Grand Prix) he started in 19th position. Andretti charged as far up as fourth; then he had to pit to replace a punctured tire and lost a lap, a lap he could never make up because his engine had gone "soft" under acceleration, he said. He eventually finished eighth.
Four rookies qualified. The most conspicuous, if not surprising, absence was that of Janet Guthrie, who had scored a moral victory with a little help from Foyt. Guthrie passed her rookie test all right, but when it became obvious that her Vollstedt-Offy would not be fast enough to qualify, she accepted Foyt's invitation to try out his spare Coyote-Foyt. She turned practice speeds that would have been fast enough to make the field, which prompted runaway speculation that she would make an official qualifying attempt in the car. But no such deal had been set. Foyt's giving Guthrie the opportunity to prove herself was an act of sportsmanship in itself.
"All I intended to do was to see, in my own mind, what she can do," said Foyt. "And she did prove that ladies can drive race cars." Which she proved again Sunday by wrestling a 3,700-pound stock car for 4½ hours, eventually to finish 15th in the 40-car World 600 at Charlotte.
Among the rookies who did qualify for the 500 was Billy Scott of San Bernardino, Calif. Scott's nickname is Billy the Kid, and there was a time when that sobriquet meant something. Scott raced quarter-midgets when he was five—that's five—years old. When he was 16 he was racing slingshot dragsters at 200 mph; at 19 he made a drag racing hall of fame. Scott had passed his rookie test last year, but crashed in his qualifying attempt. This year he had shown his cool head in practice when the youngest man in the race, another rookie—21-year-old Spike Gehlhausen—hit the wall in front of him and a wheel from Gehlhausen's car rolled across Scott's path. Scott expertly spun his car in a tidy, controlled donut toward the infield. On Sunday he had mechanical problems and came in 23rd, but Indy hasn't seen the last of him.
Another rookie challenger—in this case the car not the driver—was the Vel's Parnelli-Cosworth driven by Al Unser. Al, like his brother Bobby a two-time 500 winner, had planned to conserve fuel by taking it easy for half the race, then go flat-out in the second half. When the second half never came, Unser found he had stroked himself into seventh place. Ironically, his crew had considered a 180° turnabout, going for broke and praying for rain.
Still, the car was a beaut. It looked different, it sounded different: smaller, quieter. When the Cosworth was warming up it hummed like an MGB at the starting line of a parking-lot gymkhana, or maybe like a 750 Honda at a traffic light. But when it sliced along the front straight at over 200 mph, it sounded chilling.
Vel's isn't the only team with a Cosworth. Rutherford's team has two of them, in new chassis that are tiny, like the Parnelli. Rutherford plans to try one this year, although, as he said after Indy with a wry smile, "I reckon we don't need it just yet, now do we?"
Nope. But as he also said, "A. J. had a chance to fix his car, and he would have come out loaded for bear [if the race had resumed]. We would have had one heck of a race." Ah, well, they had a heck of a 255 miles anyway.