The safest part of the Indianapolis 500-mile race is the moment when the band plays Back Home Again in Indiana
. After that, when 33 cars try to make it around the first lap, it gets a lot less folksy. And this week, back home in the world's most expensive junkyard, there were growing indications that the old routine would never be the same again.
As always, the race had begun with 33 cars arranged in 11 rows of three each. But while cars at the back of the lineup were still getting the green starting flag, most of the others were spinning out of control. Drivers began whomping each other on the main straightaway, and the sky was falling with tires, suspension parts and pieces of engines. A scrap of automotive shrapnel arched at Driver Cale Yarborough and sliced through his crash helmet like an ax. If it had fallen slightly lower, it would have killed him. A few feet away a runaway tire bounced off the helmet of Arnie Knepper, and he thought—understandably—that a car had landed on his head.
When the panic settled, the crowd looked down on 11 cars lying helpless with backs and bellies broken and five others that would have to go to the pits for minor repairs. None of the drivers was killed. This was not a miracle, as was emotionally suggested at the time, but a tribute to modern chassis, which wrap around drivers like tubular envelopes. But debris winging into the crowd had injured five spectators who were not as well protected.
The disaster seemed all too familiar to Indy. Two of the last three races have gone bad at the start. Two years ago, a first-lap crash killed two drivers and demolished seven cars. In 1958 Driver Pat O'Connor was killed. Fifteen cars were involved on that ominous first lap, and eight could not continue.
The fiasco at this year's Indy was followed by impassioned argument over which driver had done what to whom. Several movies made on Memorial Day have since settled the question. They clearly show that a number of drivers, contrary to explicit instruction and common sense, were trying to win a 500-mile race in the first 500 yards.
The United States Auto Club's spokesman, Jim Smith, reconstructed the accident this way: Pole man Mario Andretti brought the field down toward the starting line at about 110 miles an hour. "I think I crossed the line at about 125," Andretti says, "and I was still in low gear. I have a gearbox that will take me up to 135 before I pop it into high."
Behind Andretti, Drivers Billy Foster (fourth row) and Johnny Boyd (fifth row) both swung to the inside as the field roared up to the line. Driver Gordon Johncock (second row) lagged badly at the start and was passed by four others: Jim McElreath and Chuck Hulse, from the third row, plus Jackie Stewart and Jerry Grant from the fourth row. As they crossed the starting line, Foster appeared to be half a car length ahead of Johncock and Boyd, running between them. Hulse was riding directly in front of Foster, roughly in the center of the track.
As Hulse cleared Johncock, he moved toward the outside, seeking more running room, thus leaving a hole up the middle. Both Foster and Boyd went for it, Boyd veering in sharply to his right to get into the spot. Foster apparently reacted instinctively. He swung hard to the right to avoid Boyd, cutting in front of Johncock and slamming into the outside wall. The impact sheared the nose cone and two wheels from Foster's car.
As Foster churned along the wall, it appeared for an instant that the field—now accelerating fast—would make it through. But then Mel Kenyon (sixth row) began a deadly inside spin as he swerved to miss the nose cone. The spin threw him into the path of Don Branson (third row), who had started directly behind the slow-moving Johncock. Branson tried to swing inside and ran underneath Gary Congdon (sixth row). Thus, with Foster coming back off the wall on the outside, with Kenyon spinning down the center and Branson and Congdon piled up on the inside, the track was effectively blocked. The other drivers came pouring in on them.
"Keep in mind," said one of the survivors, "that the accident was getting ready to happen long before the cars crashed. Jockeying around before the race starts is illegal, remember?"