Last week, when the rains that had wiped out the first weekend of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 had finally stopped, Roger Penske found himself dealing with the kinds of problems that could confront only a Roger Penske—or maybe a Harold Robbins character. Penske's star driver, Mario Andretti, who had turned the fastest lap (203.482 mph) in Speedway history during practice, was in Belgium for a Formula I race and, it appeared, would be there through the weekend. Penske had come up with 36-year-old Mike Hiss as a stand-in driver to attempt to qualify Andretti's Penske-Cosworth V-8, but Hiss hadn't raced at Indianapolis since 1975. Then there was Penske's newest driver, Rick Mears, who, if not exactly a problem, was definitely an unknown. Despite his apparent poise and 200-mph practice laps, Mears was a rookie at the Speedway with more experience in manhandling Volkswagen-engined buggies in off-road races than in the precise art of steering the twitchy Indy cars. And finally there was Penske's USAC champion, Tom Sneva, who had been the fastest qualifier last year and had finished second to A. J. Foyt in the 500 but had yet to turn a 200-mph lap at the Speedway this year. The former junior high school principal was either sleeping or hiding a sandbag under his bucket seat.
But Penske has taken part in many an executive management seminar, and by Saturday evening he had everything under control. Andretti had won the pole—for the Belgian Grand Prix—and Hiss, obeying instructions to cool it, had gotten Andretti's car into the 500 with a neat but uneventful four-lap run at an average speed of 194.647 mph. Despite the fact that Hiss' time was the 10th fastest, Andretti will have to start Sunday's 500 last in the 33-car field because he didn't qualify the car himself. Rules are rules. Hiss' job finished and done well, he faded back into obscurity, hoping his solid performance in a pinch would remind other car owners that he is still around.
Earlier in the day, Mears had ticked off four consistent qualifying laps for an average of 200.078 mph and the third starting spot, to become the first rookie to be on the front row in 21 years. Stepping out of the car as poised as he was when he got in, Mears smiled a handsome, clean-cut smile, kissed his pretty, wholesome wife, said all the right things ("With a super car like the Cam2 Motor Oil Special we made it this year, the crew gave me good help...") and sent people away saying Roger Penske sure does know how to pick 'em.
Doesn't he just. Earlier in the month, when asked why he wasn't going any faster, Sneva had been answering questions with a smile that suggested he wasn't the least bit worried. Now, responding to urgings from Penske to throw out the sandbag, he stole the pole for the second straight year, raising his officially timed one-lap record from 200.535 to 203.620 mph and his four-lap record from 198.884 to 202.156 mph. The run was not uneventful. "I don't know if I touched the wall or not," Sneva said. "I didn't look like the smooth veteran I am out there. I'm surprised I was able to get away with it, sliding as much as I was."
The favorites for the pole had been Foyt and Danny Ongais, but Ongais' attempt fell a watch tick short and Foyt's never really materialized. Ongais' troubles began Tuesday, when he wiped out his backup Parnelli-Cosworth, spinning into the wall coming out of Turn Four and sliding backward for 460 feet. Then on Friday, just 15 minutes before the end of practice, he coasted past the pits with a blown engine, one lap after he had cut a 202.931, the second fastest of the 11 laps over 200 mph recorded at the Speedway this year. That lowered the spirits of his team, for it meant that Lloyd Ruby, the popular, likable veteran who had purchased a Parnelli from Ongais' Interscope team, would have to sit this one out. Because Ongais had used up two engines in three days, there was no power plant left for Ruby, who would thus miss his first Indy in 18 years.
Ongais' qualifying attempt had come shortly after Sneva's, and when Sneva's record speed was announced on the P.A., Ongais was understandably dismayed. Nevertheless his run of 200.122 put him in the center of the first row, flanked by Sneva and Mears in their red, white and blue Penske-Cosworths, exceptional new cars designed by Geoff Ferris of England.
Ongais, who has won two of the four USAC races held thus far this season, didn't have much to say after his four laps, but then he rarely does. The story goes that last fall, before he drove in the Canadian and Watkins Glen Grands Prix, he traveled from Los Angeles to England to be fitted for his Formula I car. Arriving at the shop, Ongais stood around for a while—none of the mechanics recognized him—until the team manager finally noticed the American and led him to the car to be seated. "How do your arms fit?" Ongais was asked. "Good," he replied. "How do your legs fit?" he was asked next. "Fine," replied Ongais. Whereupon the 36-year-old former drag racer climbed out of the car, drove 100 miles back to London and flew home to Los Angeles.
Foyt wasn't talking much after his run, either. He had hit 203.666 in a Saturday morning warmup session, and rumors of a 208-mph lap late Friday afternoon floated around Gasoline Alley like exhaust fumes—and with about as much substance. On his official attempt, Foyt pulled into the pits without completing the first lap, complaining that the USAC-fitted pop-off valve, a device used to limit turbocharger boost during qualifying, was popping off improperly, or something. The same contention had resulted in A.J. getting two qualifying attempts last year. USAC technicians removed the valve and scurried off to their testing instruments while Foyt fumed and refused to talk to anybody. After about an hour, USAC announced the valve was fine and that Foyt's aborted attempt would count as his official shot at the pole.
A.J. then took another look at his Coyote-Foyt and discovered the faulty component was his own. "The wastegate was set at 19½ pounds cracking pressure, and it should have been set at 25," he said, which boils down to the fact that he wasn't setting the proper turbocharger boost. "There was nothing wrong with the valve. I guess it was my screw-up. That's nothing new."
On Sunday Foyt duplicated Ongais' qualifying speed, which would have put him on the front row except that his run came on the second day of qualifying. That one-day delay means the only four-time Indy winner will start 21st, in row seven, behind the 20 cars that had qualified Saturday.
Johnny Rutherford, a two-time winner and fourth fastest in his McLaren-Cosworth at 197.098, had been the first driver to make a qualifying attempt. Although his speed was disappointing to him, it held up throughout Saturday and put him ahead of the Lola/Chaparral-Cosworth of Al Unser at 196.474 mph and Gordon Johncock at 195.883 mph in his Wildcat-SGD, the only four-cylinder car in the first two rows.
Foyt's Coyote and Rutherford's McLaren are new, but more the result of evolution and refinement than of design, the changes virtually indistinguishable to anyone but a mechanic. Al Unser's Lola/Chaparral, on the other hand, is more obviously a new design. Last year Unser had driven for Parnelli Jones, and was, for all practical purposes, No. 1 man on a two-man team, No. 2 being Ongais, then a rookie. But at the end of the 1977 season, Al left Jones-after eight years—and was taken on by Jim Hall. Hall had hired some of Jones' other top men away as well, including chief mechanic Huey Absalom. It is testimony to Hall's reputation, which is much like Penske's, that he could persuade talent from a proved racing team to jump to an unproved one. In the '60s Hall drove his own Chaparral cars in road races, often to victory, until a serious accident ended his driving career. Those cars were always innovative and almost always successful, sometimes sensationally so. Hall is given credit for introducing to motor racing the wing, the automatic transmission and the "sucker," a car with a vacuum chamber in the rear that literally held the boxy-looking vehicle to the pavement, affording astounding cornering speeds.
In recent years, Hall joined up with Chicago businessman Carl Haas, importer of the English-made Lola chassis, and with seeming ease, they dominated every road-racing series they entered. But now Hall is taking on Indianapolis, and the season so far has been more frustrating than he has been accustomed to. However, the indications are that he is getting there. During tire testing at Indy this spring, Unser had hit 202.2 mph. Unfortunately, a crash at a race in Texas had destroyed the first Chaparral Indy car, so it was almost all the way back to square one. Fifth-fastest was where Hall and Al Unser worked themselves back up to.
Another driver who had come back after a crash was Pancho Carter. Carter had his accident in December while he was testing at Phoenix Raceway. A universal joint had snapped and had thrown his Lightning-Cosworth into a guardrail, all but breaking the car—and its driver—in half. Carter was carried away in critical condition with a broken arm, broken tailbone and a pelvis fractured in four places. Put in traction, he was told his racing days were likely over, and his walking days would never be quite the same. But he gritted his teeth, did his exercises and one remarkable day last month won two sprint-car races in his first comeback appearance. Carter's Indy car was built with a special gas pedal to allow for the limited movement of his right foot, and a removable steering wheel because he has trouble getting out of the car. On Saturday the car failed to start, but Pancho qualified Sunday, at a speed of 196.829.
Carter had driven for Dan Gurney last year, but it had been a miserable season for both of them. Gurney had created a radical new Eagle, a car in which he had more faith than Carter did, which was a problem. The car never did much, and for a while the possibility existed that Gurney might not be able to finance a USAC team in 1978. But he found sponsorship from ARCO, and further financial backing from Teddy Yip, an Asian businessman.
After the 1977 season Carter and Gurney broke up, and Gurney hired Bobby Unser, who had won Indy for him in 1975 but had been experiencing lean times himself. Their shared hope was to recapture what they once had. But it hasn't come yet. Gurney shelved last year's Eagle and began building a brand new car, in the meantime buying a Lightning-Cosworth for Unser to race. But it is extremely difficult for a team to develop a new car while it is racing another; time is the problem, and Gurney has been behind schedule from day one. For example, while Penske had begun testing his design last fall and Hall his early in the winter, the Eagle existed only on a drawing board until spring. Still, the Eagle made its debut at Indianapolis, when the team found itself struggling to get the Lightning prepared.
Unser got it to 199.9 mph on Wednesday, but the crew, still unfamiliar with the car, overfiddled in the search for more speed, and, as the car sat in the qualifying line Saturday, Gurney paced around it, thinking hard, studying his creation with a perplexed expression. "What this is is a desperation attempt, which you are not supposed to have to make," he said, meaning one does not race a car at Indy with so little testing time. Nevertheless, Unser took the new Eagle out and hit 194.658 mph, ninth fastest, but, because of the complicated qualifying rules, he will start in 20th position this Sunday.
Unser had been the last driver to qualify Saturday, seconds before a sudden rain closed the track, leaving in line the cars of Foyt, back for his second attempt, and...Andretti.
The presence of Andretti's backup car rekindled the speculation that had been flaming the day before. Would he, could he, somehow take advantage of the six-hour time difference and make it back from Belgium and win two pole positions in one day? The Penske team had explored every realistic possibility, and others had explored some less realistic possibilities for them. Would USAC allow Andretti a special day to qualify? Sorry, no exceptions. Are there any commercial flights that could get him to Indianapolis in time? No way. Would the U.S. Air Force give Andretti a lift across the ocean in an F-15? Negative. How about chartering a Concorde?
A Penske man was dispatched to check into that, and it was an educational experience. He now knows all about EPA and FAA regulations, such as municipal noise restrictions and the requirements pertaining to the thickness of landing strips at airports. There was even a telephone conversation that went something like this:
Penske man: "Hello, Air France? I'd like to, uh, charter a Concorde from Paris to Indianapolis. Could you give me an idea of your rates?"
"First class or no frills?" (Dryly)
"I don't think it really matters. We're interested in speed rather than comfort. Besides it would be only for one passenger."
"Prices start at 165."
"I beg your pardon?"
"That's what I thought you said. Listen, could we make a deal? I mean, Roger Penske—you've heard of him, everyone has heard of Roger Penske—is more than willing to maybe paint the name of your corporation on the car or something, and maybe even get a suite on Turn Two for some of your executives, and...oh, never mind."
So, it was more or less left at that; Andretti went on to win the Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday and regain the lead for the world driving championship while some of his Indy fans hoped to see their man walk nonchalantly down pit row, climb into the Penske and hit 205 mph or something. The impossible is regularly expected of men like Andretti and Penske. Only because they seem to deliver it so often.