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For months now a nagging fear has been troubling the American Midwest—that the good old Indianapolis 500 might be turning into an engineering sideshow. The race cars were assuming a too-perfect, slide-rule look, and the drivers were getting so far down into them that nobody could recognize anybody anymore. And then some smart aleck turned up with a turbine car that sounded like a shrunken whisperjet. Who knew what terrible innovations would come next? It was with some anxiety that a crowd of 225,000 assembled at the Speedway last Saturday to see what science had wrought.
Noisy and spectacular things began to happen almost at once. A rookie driver smacked into the concrete wall and smashed his car, as rookies will do. Then America's sweetheart, Dan Gurney, got out there in his flashy new deep-blue car and went around four laps at a record 167.224 mph. And before Gurney could get his helmet off, little Mario Andretti threw a 168.982 at him. All was well. Science will never take the color and clout out of Indy.
What happened was that this gang of sturdy drivers and engines blasted each other silly, just as they have done for years. They also beat the stylish fiberglass pants off the new car—kept it off the pole, anyway—and got most of the places filled for what promises to be an old-style knockdown 500-mile race on Memorial Day.
Understand, what they were all doing last Saturday was just for openers. They were beginning to set up the 33-car field that will shape the race. It was a painful ritual, perhaps the deadliest weigh-in in sports.
Eighty-six beautifully finished cars were at the Speedway—a record number—representing an investment in machines and men about the worth of a National Football League franchise. Old Gasoline Alley had been expanded for the occasion, with new garages that looked an awful lot like the old garages. Some things you can change at Indy, but you dare not tamper with the American Gothic look of Gasoline Alley. Tony Hulman had tacked on another grandstand or two, bringing sit-down crowd capacity to 201,000. A cadre of eight foreign drivers had come to Indiana for some of that ready American cash: more than $700,000 in prizes this year. And if all this pointed to the richest race in history, it also made for a spectacle that left everybody limp.
A year ago, young Andretti hit 168 mph in practice and later qualified at 165.899. By last weekend, 20 cars already were over the 163-mph mark in practice, and 16 others were within striking distance, turning laps at better than 160.
Further, in the rush to higher speeds, 11 drivers had slammed their cars into the speedway walls. These included an embarrassed Graham Hill, who, after winning last year's 500, had remarked coolly on how easy it was to get around the track.
Amid the speed and spins, the inventive Andy Granatelli, who is the roundest known automotive pixie, tuned up his new million-dollar turbine car. To drive it he had signed—reportedly for a $100,000 fee—none other than Parnelli Jones, the 1963 winner.
The turbine car is a 550-horsepower, 1,750-pound monster with a side-mounted Pratt & Whitney engine that is capable of running nicely on anything from kerosene to Aqua Velva. Many Indy men had assumed that it would be turned aside at the main gate, since it did not have a reciprocating engine. But there it was, in eye-smarting day-glow orange-red, perfectly legal and looking more menacing than anything the town had ever seen.