At Indianapolis the rites of spring are an exercise in speed and a demonstration of a kind of noble savagery. This has been true since the early 1900s, when men jammed their caps on backward, jumped into Marmons and Loziers and such and tooled around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 70 miles an hour. Year by year the rites have become faster and more intense, with a corresponding increase in the possibilities for sudden grandeur—or sudden disaster.
Last week as qualifying trials began for the 50th 500, there was a special, soaring grandeur in the performance of the slight young Pennsylvania driver, Mario Andretti, and mass distress among the other brave men of Indy who meant to equal his extraordinary speeds or smash into a wall trying.
The rules of the Indy game are deceptively simple. The two weekends before each 500 are devoted to selecting the fastest cars and drivers. To qualify for one of the 33 starting spots, a driver must wrestle his car four laps around the 2�-mile track at top speed. The men who make it fastest are closest to the front of the starting lineup. So much for the rules. By 6 p.m. last Sunday—closing time of the first qualifying weekend—one driver had been killed, four cars had been wrecked, two had burned and a few of the Speedway's outstanding drivers had been out in the cold for some uncomfortable hours.
Texan A. J. Foyt, twice a 500 winner and the record-setting pole man last year, aborted his first qualifying run on Saturday. He wasn't satisfied with it. Warming up for the second, be roared off the No. 2 turn, lost control of his car and slashed it along the wall. After the wreckers had hauled the car away—it was battered beyond quick repair—he fidgeted angrily in the field hospital while doctors gave him a checkup.
"He told us, 'Hurry up, you guys,' " one attendant reported later. " 'I gotta get back to my garage and get me another car.' We checked his blood pressure—these accidents can be devastating to a driver—and, so help me, it was lower than normal. He has absolutely no nerves at all."
Watching Foyt and the rest at the edge of—and sometimes beyond—the limit of their abilities gave Indy's enormous crowds (estimated at 280,000 for the two days) the runaway jitters. The buildup for the qualifying was unquestionably the gaudiest in years. There were 69 entries for the 1966 race—cars with blue-blood chassis and engine pedigrees, most of them low-slung, rear-engine models whose lines had been begged, borrowed or stolen from every car designer of note in the world. The year's horsepower surge (it had leveled out at about 495 last year) was stunning. One member of the Dan Gurney racing crew, pointing at a new Gurney-built American Eagle car, whispered, "This thing has checked out at more than 600 horses. We're afraid to tell people what the horsepower really is."
The list of drivers was impressive. Arrayed against the old Indy line—the Foyts, Parnelli Joneses, Rodger Wards—were the four top men from the 1965 Grand Prix road-racing circuit. There was Champion Jimmy Clark of Scotland, who had won the Indy 500 last year and then had let the word get out around Europe that it was easy. There was No. 2 man Graham Hill of England, Scotland's Jackie Stewart, who had placed third, and America's Gurney, who was fourth in the standings. And if the ring of clipped European accents was not enough to unsettle Gasoline Alley veterans, Le Mans winner Masten Gregory, the Parisian from Kansas, showed up during the week and prowled restlessly through the pits in tweed jacket and turtleneck sweater.
Ultimately more unsettling than all this, however, was the 26-year-old Andretti, the new boy in town who raced to a surprising third place as a rookie at Indy last year and then went on to become the national driving champion. For two weeks he had been scaring the other drivers out of their fireproof coveralls with his high-speed practice laps.
Indiana fans needed no further stimulation. On a Saturday morning so cold that the high school drum majorettes were blue-legged, and under darkening skies, an estimated 230,000 filled the Brickyard grandstand and milled restlessly through the infield.
During such times the speedway is an island of hysteria amid the midwestern calm. Only some hidden wellspring of American reserve keeps the crowd from showering roses on the fast drivers or from pelting the slow ones with beer cans. It could be, in fact, that May is the biggest thing ever to happen to Indiana. It is like a Grant Wood painting at speed.