Work in Sports
A.J., you're amazing
Ten years after winning his third Indy 500, Foyt was back in Victory Lane, and in sole possession of the Speedway's career win record
Posted: Friday May 26, 2000 12:40 PM
By Sam Moses, Sports Illustrated
Issue date: June 6, 1977
Last Sunday A.J. Foyt accomplished something he has been obsessed with for a decade -- he won his fourth Indianapolis 500. In the races' 61 runnings no one else has won four Indys, so Foyt has carved himself a conspicuous niche in the history of the sport, a far more glorious one than that -- a mere nick in comparison -- which eluded him by .01 second during practice. That was how close he had come to being the first man to officially lap the Speedway at 200 mph, and A.J. had been so mad at failing to achieve that milestone that he locked himself in his garage. He will have to settle for making history only once this year at Indianapolis, which doesn’t seem like such a hard thing at all.
Certainly not when you consider Gordon Johncock, who during tire testing in March was the first man to unofficially lap the Speedway at 200. Johncock's disappointment also was focused on one particular lap, a race lap, however: the 185th. After leading 128 of 184 laps in this year's 500 in his Wildcat-DGS, with his final pit stop out of the way and a four-second lead over Foyt, Johncock rounded Turn Four and kissed his second Indy victory goodbye because of a broken valve spring. He coasted to a stop at Turn One, watched the final few laps from the pit wall and as A.J. was wheeled into Victory Lane, Johncock waved him a salute of recognition and respect.
Johncock, who qualified fifth, had a strong start, and by the third lap he was tucked in behind front-runner Al Unser, with Foyt fifth in his Coyote. After 50 miles Johncock and Foyt were one-two, and the race was on; except for shakeups after pit stops, they stayed one-two until Johncock retired.
Last year's winner, Johnny Rutherford, had started in 17th position. Because the Speedway had been resurfaced since his victory and had proved to be exceptionally "greasy" after several weeks of mid-summerlike temperatures, Rutherford had two plans in mind for the first lap. They had been filed in his brain under "hot" (he would go hard) and "other" (he would try to avoid an accident). Which plan he would use depended upon what the traffic around him did between the dropping of the green flag and Turn One. Rutherford was most anxious about the rookie to his left, Jerry Sneva, and the rookie in the row in front, Bobby Olivero, whose qualifying speeds had been about 10 mph slower than his. The middle of the sixth row, with wide-eyed rookies around, is not the sort of place a two-time winner likes to be at the beginning of the Indy 500.
Thanks to the exceptionally clean start, Rutherford put his hot plan into effect, but it went for naught. On the 13th lap, after he had charged into eighth place, his McLaren-Cosworth popped out of gear on the front straight, over-revved and blew. Rutherford pulled the car directly into Gasoline Alley, parked it in front of his locked garage door, took off his helmet, gave out a loose-lipped exhale -- half sigh, half Bronx cheer -- and shrugged. He hadn't been in the race long enough to build up much disappointment. "It just jumped out of gear and tagged all the valves," was all he said.
Before the race Rutherford had not been overly pessimistic about the reliability of the Cosworth V-8 engine he is using this season for the first time, but he had admitted to certain apprehensions. Overlooking last year's rain-shortened Indy 250, the only 500-mile race experience any Cosworth has had occurred last year, at Pocono and Ontario, under Al Unser. Unser won at Pocono, but at Ontario the engine lasted only 13 laps. Along with Unser and Rutherford, Tom Sneva and teammate Mario Andretti are also using Cosworths this year. Sneva had won a 200-mile race at Texas International Speedway, but at the Trenton 200, the race before Indy, none of the Cosworths had finished. Given this spotty record no one was especially confident about the Formula I-based engine’s durability.
"Testing is what success is all about," said Rutherford, "but you've got to race a car to really prove anything. No matter how satisfactory your tests may be, you never have complete confidence until the car has been proved in a race."
Rutherford had been plagued by cracked exhaust pipes during practice for the 500, a weakness that was to knock out Andretti. But the other two Cosworths, driven by pole-sitter Sneva and Unser, the third-fastest qualifier, finished a strong second and third, Sneva 28 seconds behind Foyt and Unser out of fuel and a lap down.
Sneva may have lost the race in the pits, where he spent 48 more seconds than Foyt, largely because of two unscheduled stops -- one when he flat-spotted the tires by sliding in for a fuel stop with locked brakes, the other when a refiller malfunction caused less than a full tank of fuel to be added. Sneva's crew, composed mostly of Englishmen who had worked on Roger Penske's Formula I team last year, also was a few seconds slower per stop than Foyt's. After the race Penske sat down and had a beer with the crew in the garage. "I'd rather have you guys take five more seconds on a stop than have a driver go out there and have a wheel drop off," he told them.
Another piece of machinery that had its first big test at the 500 was Dan Gurney's new Eagle driven by Pancho Carter. Gurney believes the Indy 500 is as much a race of strategy as speed, and his new car reflects this belief; it is a strategic machine. In 1977, and in the future, Gurney feels strategy means fuel economy. Indy cars must make 1.8 miles per gallon, a simple rule to enforce as each car is allotted 280 gallons of fuel. That rule creates some fascinating possibilities. Fuel mileage is a direct function of speed, speed is a direct function of turbocharger boost and turbocharger boost is unrestricted -- and adjustable -- during the race. (An 80-inch restriction applies to qualifying.) So the object is to run as much boost as fuel allows; a perfectly executed race would have the car using its last drop of fuel as it crosses the finish line.
But it's not that simple; caution laps provide a variable. If there are a lot of laps run under the caution flag -- there were 25 this year -- the mileage is better than 1.8, so drivers can increase the boost during the latter part of the race. And risk blowing an engine. The teams that gamble -- set a fast pace early, expecting caution laps -- might find themselves short of fuel at the finish.
Gurney's Eagle is about five inches narrower than the average Indy car, which gives it less wind resistance, thus better fuel mileage. It is not designed to be the absolute fastest car, but the fastest at 1.8 mpg. Gurney's object is to "run them out of fuel."
"This car is a departure we can't turn back from," says Gurney. "Everything we've programmed the car to do was on the line in this race."
But nothing much was proved. Because of two flat tires and a faulty radio that made communication between Gurney and Carter impossible, the Eagle never flew any higher than sixth place; on lap 157 it blew its Offy engine.
Carter's was the lone new Eagle, but there were six of the new Lightnings, a very conspicuous one being Janet Guthrie's. Unfortunately, the first woman to qualify for the race spent most of the afternoon sitting in a puddle of methanol in the bucket seat of her Lightning, which was in the pots. She was in and out of the pits continuously, and was officially credited with a total of 27 laps.
Before the race Guthrie had met with Speedway owner Tony Hulman to discuss how he should modify the heretofore traditional "Gentlemen, start your engines." Guthrie preferred "Gentlefolks." "It's a perfectly good 400-year-old word," she said. "Shakespeare used it." Hulman ultimately settled on, "In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis, Gentleman, start your engines."
Although the semantic contretemps was settled for 1977 right at the start, it was not until the race had gone past the 450-mile mark that any resolution to the Johncock-Foyt duel seemed imminent. For a while it had looked as if one might be forthcoming at around 400 miles. At that point, Johncock was leading Foyt by about three seconds when Foyt pitted for right-side tires and fuel. One lap later a yellow light came on, the perfect opportunity for Johncock to pit and not lose ground to Foyt. But, to his crew's amazement, Johncock stayed on the track, even though he was due for fuel. The green light came back on just as Johncock passed the pits. Pat Patrick, owner of Johncock's Wildcat, was furious. "I give up!" he shouted. "I told him to stop this lap! He's got to drive to order. I don't care who he is!"
But three laps later, on lap 163, the yellow came on again; it was a second chance. "Get him in! Get him in!" screamed Patrick. "In, Gordy, in!" he shouted to Johncock over the radio.
Johncock pitted, fueled, changed his right rear tire and came out of the pits with a 38-second lead over Foyt. In two laps, Foyt regained several seconds under the yellow, which is not unprecedented. (In fact, Foyt had claimed Rutherford won the race last year by gaining ground on him under the yellow.)
When the green came back on, Foyt began pushing Johncock to 190-mph laps. Foyt was 6.8 seconds back as they approached 450 miles and what would be another series of hectic pit stops for both leaders. Then, with just 15 laps remaining, a puff of blue smoke on the front straight signaled the end of Johncock's race. "No!" shouted a member of the Patrick team in agony and disbelief as he stood on the wall watching the bright red car coast to a stop in Turn One. The crewmen began shaking their heads, especially George Bignotti, who had been Foyt's crew chief for six years. His only consolation was that the other two Patrick drivers, Wally Dallenbach and Johnny Parsons, finished fourth and fifth.
Foyt had made history in another, less obvious way during the month at Indianapolis; he was relaxed. After 10 years of trying to win his fourth Indy on sheer intensity, he decided to ease off and be low key this year.
"I made up my mind I wasn't going to get keyed up," he said. "I just wasn't going to let the race bother me the way it has the last 20 years," which is how long Foyt has been racing at Indy.
Before the race there had been rumors from supposedly reliable sources that win, lose or draw, Foyt would retire. But one does not ask A.J. Foyt if he plans to retire. One finds another way to ask the question. Now that he had reached the capstone of his career, he was asked, did he plan to try for victory No. 5?
A.J.'s eyes lit up, and in his best low-key manner, he replied, "Why not?" Maybe the good Lord will want A.J. to win next year, too.
Issue date: June 6, 1977