As the balloons rose and the bands played and the 380,000 fans gathered last Sunday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was accepted that only four cars had a chance of winning. Three of them belonged to Roger Penske; the fourth—and the hands-down favorite—was the Chaparral owned by Jim Hall, a man Penske used to drive against in sports-car races in the early '60s. Three against one was the Penske strategy, his plan for beaching the Yellow Submarine, as the vivid yellow Chaparral driven by Johnny Rutherford had been dubbed. Penske allowed that it was a "pain in the tail" to prepare three new ground-effects cars, but, he added, "that was how to win." His logic was clear."I've got three bullets in my gun, and Hall's only got one," said Penske, sounding almost confident. But the problem, as it turned out, was that someone had tricked Penske by loading his gun with faulty ammunition. All three of his cars would lead the race at one time or another, but two would end up parked as Rutherford took the checkered flag after 3½ hours of driving, and the third would be taken out of contention by a punctured tire.
Hall's ground-effects Yellow Sub, which had spent most of last season leading races only to succumb to minor mechanical malfunctions, now has become a machine whose charms are as alluring as Greta Garbo's and whose behavior is about as mysterious. "It's like a bunch of blind guys stumbled onto a pot of gold," said the Chaparral team's engine builder, Mike Fanning, who was somewhat bewildered by his crew's great good fortune. "No matter what we did to it, J.R. would go out and run 190 miles an hour. We'd turn it backwards,he'd run 190. We'd turn it upside down, he'd run 190. We didn't have to do anything all month. It was like we had a 1980 model and were running against 1930 models."
Early in the race it was apparent that Rutherford could easily pass his opponents anywhere on the track—which is the best thing that can be said about the way a race car handles. "It's flat holding J.R. down" said Fanning. "You just look around—when the other drivers pit for fuel, their damn eyes are buggin' out from the strain. Not J.R. He comes in so cool...."
"This car handles so well, I could probably take my hands off the steering wheel going down the backstretch," Rutherford said of the Chaparral. It did look easy for the 42-year-old Texan with the white lone star painted on his helmet.Rutherford started in the pole position after qualifying at 192.256 mph, and at the drop of the green flag he ran away from the field like the Road Runner leaving Wile E. Coyote in the dust—the Chaparral race car is, in fact, named for the chaparral bird, that roadrunner-like creature indigenous to the Texas plains that Hall calls home. Rutherford led until the second of the 11 yellow flags; all told, 54 laps of the race would end up being run behind the pace car, which would hold down the average speed to 142.862 mph—the slowest since 1962.
The first yellow came out on only the fourth lap, to allow Larry Cannon's stalled car to bed ragged off to safety from its resting place in Turn 1. The second came but six laps later, the result of a crash involving rookies Bill Whittington and Dick Ferguson. Again Turn 1 was where the wrecker headed, in front of the infamous Snake Pit infield spectator area where the fans are mostly young and high. High or not, witnessing an Indy car smacking the wall is an eerie experience. The sound of the impact is smothered by the roaring of the other cars and the gasps of the startled crowd. But the visual sensations are fixating. Suddenly a sleek machine seems inexorably to will itself into nothingness as it skids against the concrete retaining wall at more than 150 mph, spewing silvery pieces of its engine and suspension, along with bits of fiber-glass bodywork, into the air.The fat tires bounce away as if they are running for their lives. The anticipation of bodily harm and the hope against it make it impossible to turn away. When the mangled car has been towed off and the driver tended to, all that remains of the violent spectacle are two doughnut-shaped black smudges against the white wall. It has been seven years since a driver was killed at the Brickyard, and despite the six crashes this year, the most serious injuries were Whittington's broken right leg and Ferguson's fractured little toe on his right foot.
Before the race,there had been fear that much worse trouble might occur because of the skittishness and capaciousness of the several new ground-effects cars spawned by the obvious potential the Chaparral had demonstrated last season, and because of the large number of rookies—10—who had made the field for this 64th running of the 500. The rookies had been warned repeatedly not to get itchy at the start, and they heeded the advice well; but after that, poison ivy seemed to rub the field, including the veterans. Rutherford's biggest challenge seemed to be dodging the day's debris.
One driver who didn't even make it to the first crash was Mike Mosley, behind the wheel of Dan Gurney's All American Racers Eagle with its stock-block Chevy engine. This power plant, many in racing hope, is the engine of the future, as its cost is only about one third that of the $40,000 Cosworth V-8s that powered 24 of the cars at Indy this year. But its day has not yet come. Mosley lasted one lap before oil began spewing past a valve-cover gasket on the engine; it was replaced and the car took to the track again, only to have the same malady reappear.
Meanwhile, Rutherford was encountering another minor problem: trying to find his competition in his rearview mirror. Mario Andretti worked up through the yellow flags and made a battle of it for a while, the 1969 Indy winner leading Laps 47 through 56. His was the first of the Penske cars to retire; on Lap 72, when he was in third position, his engine seized solid on the backstretch. "Other than that, the car was running beautifully," said Andretti.
Next it was Andretti's teammate, Bobby Unser, who tried to track down the Yellow Submarine,and for a while it appeared that he might have enough steam to challenge Rutherford—Unser actually led at the halfway point—but he retired on Lap 127 with a broken magneto. "Other than that, the car was running flawlessly," said Unser.
With two down,Rick Mears, last year's winner, was Penske's last hope, his only bullet left.But Hall had the gun. Rutherford wasn't worried about Mears, and he had no reason to be: Mears hadn't been able to run with the Chaparral all day. It became moot with 15 laps remaining, as Mears cut a tire on some of the debris Rutherford had been dodging. He lost a lap changing it and fell back to fifth,where he finished.
Meanwhile,drivers overlooked in the prerace handicapping were starring in supporting roles. The second-, third-and fourth-place finishers were weak or wounded in one fashion or another, but all hung in there on determination and inspiration.Tom Sneva, who would finish second, 29.89 seconds behind Rutherford, had come from dead last on the grid. He had qualified in a ground-effects Phoenix but crashed that car practicing later in the week and had to drive his backup car,a McLaren, which could have been the 1930 model Mike Fanning was talking about.How old is it, really? Sneva was asked, but all he would say was"Ooooooold." About four years old is a good guess; five is probably better. Third place went to the slowest car to qualify for the race, the Wildcat-Offenhauser of Gary Bettenhausen, who had come oh so close to winning Indy in 1972. It has been Lean City for him since then. Bettenhausen started beside Sneva, next to last. At the finish he edged Gordon Johncock by half acar length. Johncock was driving a two-year-old Penske PC-6 after he had crashed his newer PC-7 during practice. He was also driving with a cast on his broken left ankle.
As the race neared the finish, there was little left for the Chaparral crew to do but wait.The corners of Hall's mouth twitched. Fanning tilted back his cowboy hat and grinned, as if all he needed to complete the moment was a guitar to pick. On the last lap, Rutherford was actually cruising down the backstretch waving to the fans—with both hands.
Crew chief Steve Roby—an Australian among all these Texans—who had directed consistently quick pit stops during the afternoon, was doing nervous little toe raises. But Rutherford and Roby knew something the others didn't. That morning Rutherford had picked a ladybug out of his hair. He stared at it like a wagon-train scout looking at a hoof print on the trail—a frequent Rutherford expression when he's thinking hard—then blew the bug off his finger, presumably home to save her children.
Rutherford believes in the good fortune of found ladybugs. "Well, that's it," he said to Roby. "Those other guys might as well go home."
They might as well have. One thing is certain: that ladybug didn't fly anywhere near Roger Penske last Sunday.