Running fast and furious

Pocono winner Tom Sneva was cool on the track, and A. J. Foyt was hot under the collar in their 500-mile contest
July 03, 1977

It will not come as a shock to motor racing fans to hear that A. J. Foyt is known as a man of mercurial temper. When last we left A.J., he was wreathed in both flowers and smiles, having won the Indianapolis 500 for a record fourth time. Not far away was the driver who had started from the Indy pole position and finished second to Foyt, a comer by the name of Tom Sneva.

Now advance the scene to last Sunday afternoon at the Pocono International Raceway, a lovely 2.5-mile track in the leafy foothills outside Allentown, Pa. This time it is Sneva who is all smiles, having achieved three notable successes: he won the Pocono 500; he took over the lead in the USAC championship standings; and he outraced the man who had beaten him at the Brickyard.

Sneva also proved something to his boss Roger Penske, a theory he had been trying to sell Penske for more than a year: he knows what he's doing. In winning at Pocono, Sneva demonstrated he had the experience Penske often thought he had lacked last year by lapping the entire field except for teammate Mario Andretti, whose second-place finish made it a one-two Penske sweep.

Near the end of last season Penske had added the more celebrated Andretti to what had been a one-man (Sneva) team and then had benched Sneva in favor of Andretti for the last two races of the year. But this season it is a two-man show all the way, and as Sneva says, "They're beginning to trust me."

With reason. In addition to the pole and second place at Indianapolis, Sneva has won two races this year, and chances are Penske will be trusting him more often from now on, especially because the race setup for the winning blue-and-yellow Norton Spirit had been suggested by Sneva.

In addition to being the prettiest, Pocono is one of the most interesting tracks on the USAC circuit. The surface is bumpy—"well, it's O.K. as long as you don't put your tongue between your teeth," said Andretti—and shaped like a triangle with rounded corners. From the start, it also became evident that this was to be the year's best race. The lead changed 20 times and there were always two or more cars dicing for the front spot. Andretti was up (starting from the front row) and down (in last place, half a lap behind the field) and up again, while Sneva held a smooth, steady pace, easing into the lead at Lap 162 and fighting them off the rest of the way home.

And what of Foyt? He dropped out on his 119th lap with a burned piston and was relegated to 15th place when the race was over, which seemed to end his week on as grouchy a note as it had begun.

On Tuesday, the opening day of practice, A.J. kept his Coyote in the garage, a strategy that did nothing to curb a rumor that he wasn't going to race at all. In fact, Foyt added his own touch to the story by claiming that an unknown rookie by the name of Sam Houston was going to drive the Coyote.

Most folks close to the race were convinced that Foyt was holding out for appearance money from Dr. Joseph Mattioli, the Pennsylvania dentist-race fan who owns Pocono. But that wasn't the case, Mattioli insisted. "A.J. has never made a demand on me," he said. "He's never asked me for deal money and I've never discussed it with him. We want him here. He's a wonderful person and he's been very good to me."

But there was more on Foyt's mind than whether or not he got deal, or appearance, money. Last March, just after the Phoenix 150, Foyt had grabbed Johnny Rutherford's crew chief, Tyler Alexander, by the collar, shaking him vigorously while accusing him of ordering Rutherford to block him on the racetrack. Rutherford's McLaren team is sponsored by First National City Bank Travelers Checks. That concern is a product of Citicorp, sponsor of the USAC championship series. Fred Stecher, president of Citicorp Services Inc. and one of the most powerful men in racing by virtue of his control of the purse strings, was not at all pleased with Foyt's pugnacity. Stecher called Foyt's sponsor, Jim Gilmore, and suggested that he "verbally spank" his driver. Foyt decided that Stecher's complaints to Gilmore and others were an insult. He yanked the Citicorp emblems off his driving uniform and race car, which automatically eliminated him from being eligible for the Citicorp Cup and its separate $20,000 prize.

On Wednesday, Foyt practiced a bare minimum, his Coyote bearing rookie stripes, ostensibly for the mysterious Sam Houston. He still refused comment on whether or not he planned to race. At Thursday's qualifying, Foyt held back until the last half-hour, and was greeted by boos from the crowd. It annoyed him, he noted later, but it didn't slow him: his 189.474 mph average bumped Rutherford off the pole and moved Andretti to third. Behind them, in the second row, sat Sneva.

That done, Foyt made a rude gesture to the crowd, snubbed the track announcer waiting for the customary interview, refused to speak to newsmen and left the track. In parting, he said, "I don't like the way people act. Why should I? Those guys who boo don't know what they're talking about. I think that by going out and taking the pole position I answered any questions that needed to be answered."

Later that day A.J. refused for a time to pose with Rutherford and Andretti for the traditional front-row photograph. The next night he stood up 250 fans who had paid $6 each to have dinner with the pole-position winner. (One of the ironies of the banquet was that it was Sneva who accepted the award on behalf of the absent Foyt.)

Still, Dr. Mattioli had nothing but unctuous words for his difficult star. To the suggestion that A.J. owed Mattioli an apology for snubbing the track announcer, which couldn't have helped ticket sales, Mattioli said, "Mr. Foyt is a very intensive individual. This is his job. He's doing his business. I'm completely on his side. Everybody who knows A. J. Foyt knows he's that kind of an individual, and I don't blame him."

But Fred Stecher clearly did. Friday afternoon he said he was seriously considering canceling Citicorp's $400,000 sponsorship of the series as a result of Foyt's prima donna behavior. Said Stecher, "I don't think that it is in the best interest of Citicorp to be identified as a sponsor with a professional sports series where the conduct of the participants and the tolerance of that conduct isn't governed by rules within the sanctioning organization. I'm in no position to dictate to USAC, but on the other hand I don't have to sit down at a riot and pay the bills, either."

And thus ended another stormy USAC weekend. Some time before the race, Foyt had stuck the Citicorp patch back on his driving suit and pasted two of the decals on his race car. He also approached Stecher for a quiet word at trackside. It is not known what was said. But after the race, Foyt parked his Coyote in front of his garage. Before he got out of the car, he ripped the patch off his chest. Then he went inside and closed the door.

TWO PHOTOSSneva showed the boss he knew what he was doing, while Foyt showed everyone who was boss.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)