Two weeks ago, when the place was empty, Race Driver A. J. Foyt, twice winner of the Indianapolis 500, wheeled out of the No. 2 turn at the Brickyard and into the backstretch straightaway. As he put his throttle foot to the floor the rear suspension cracked. In the next few seconds his Lotus-Ford ran wild, smearing a thick, 1,000-foot trail of rubber along the track like black crayon, at one point slashing a concrete wall. The left rear wheel snapped off at the axle and rolled up over Foyt's shoulders and across the top of his helmet. When the car finally stopped it lay hunkered down on the infield lawn, its splendid sharp nose shattered and oil spilling into the grass.
In another moment Chief Steward Harlan Fengler pulled up. Foyt was stamping around the wreckage, kicking up divots and shaking his head. "Am I all right?" he snapped. "Am I all right? Man, I thought that blank-blanker would never stop spinning. I was in that long, long spin and, man, I was reaching up and unhooking my shoulder straps at the same time. Then that old tire came rolling up over my head—shoom—and I thought to myself, 'Well, this car is going to catch on fire for sure, but one thing it ain't going to burn up is old A.J.' When it started to slow down I stood up in the seat and bailed out of her."
Foyt had only a small cut from the windshield on the inside of one knee, but he was shaken and he was angry. Mostly he was angry. It was this wonderfully mean mood that propelled him into last Saturday's first qualifying trials, and it made him the one man to beat in the Indy 500.
When Foyt rolled out to qualify in the same car—it had been swiftly repaired—210,000 swinging, cheering fans rocked the speedway with noise, and A.J. gave them a stunning 10-mile show. Racing to a brilliant new mark of 161.958 miles an hour on the first of his four qualifying laps, he won the pole position for the 500 at a record average speed of 161.233 mph. This was the climactic run on a day of speed such as Indy had never before experienced, unleashed by men who will be gunning for shares of a lavish $600,000 purse on May 31. Into the No. 2 starting position sizzled Scotland's Jimmy Clark, the 1964 pole winner, qualifying at 160.729 mph. Then came Californian Dan Gurney (158.898); the sensational Italian-born rookie, Mario Andretti (158.849); and the 1963 winner, Parnelli Jones (158.625).
With these five fastest qualifiers all in Ford-powered racers—Clark and Gurney in new English Lotuses, Foyt and Jones in beefed-up 1964 Lotuses and Andretti in a Brabham-inspired American chassis—only catastrophic ill luck can prevent Dearborn from winning the 500 in its third year of trying.
Ford could count five other cars that qualified on the first trials weekend with the new 495-horsepower four-camshaft V-8 engines. Last year, when Ford won everything but the race—Bobby Marsh-man sheared an oil plug after taking a big lead and Jimmy Clark suffered tire failure when he looked unbeatable—most of the V-8s burned gasoline. This year most of the Ford users have chosen alcohol, partly for its higher horsepower yield and partly because a lot of Indy people just do not like gas, especially since the tragic 1964 gasoline fire.
In view of the Ford qualifying success, the revolutionary swing to rear-engined cars, which had its feeble beginnings in 1961 with the little Grand Prix Cooper driven by Jack Brabham, is an accomplished fact. Touchy Indy patriots like Foyt may call them "funny" cars and have a few lingering qualms about deserting the traditional Offenhauser-engined roadster, but only a miracle could bring another victory for that lovable dinosaur. The fastest roadster qualified only 14th.
While most people connected with the Ford qualifying assault were in a celebratory mood, one was not: Rodger Ward, a graying 44, the marvelous old fox of the speedway whose foot and shrewdness had brought him home first in 1959 and 1962. Ward's week was an Indy bust. He had a new, low, long, sharklike rear-engine racer built by the roadster wizard A. J. Watson, a man younger but grayer than Ward.
"We have never built a pretty car before," said Watson. "This one is. The design seems right. The engine is perfect. We are having a little trouble with the handling, but we have another week to correct that."
Ward was not in a mood to wait. On Saturday he fought the shark around the speedway at nearly 156 mph—fast enough to qualify but not fast enough to satisfy the perfectionist Watson. Ward ultimately squandered two of the three qualifying attempts available to him—Watson flagged him in before either could be completed. On Sunday, Rodger was a little slower in practice runs than on the day before and made no attempt to qualify, although his stablemate Don Branson did get into the lineup in another Watson-Ford.