As the cry of the lonely turbocar faded away at the Indianapolis 500 last year—eight miles from winning—it was clear that turbines would be big news at Indy in 1968. No one could have predicted, however, just how explosive the Indy season actually would be. In swift succession last week the turbine news ranged from gorgeous to tragic to astonishing to conspiratorial:
1) During the many practice sessions that always precede the big race itself, British Drivers Graham Hill and Mike Spence easily outsped all the piston cars in their new STP-Lotus turbines.
2) Spence subsequently crashed and died.
3) Two hours after Spence's death, a pair of opposition turbines entered by Carroll Shelby, which had received lavish advance billing, were withdrawn from the 500.
4) Chief Steward Harlan Fengler hit STP's Andy Granatelli (SI, May 13) with a technical ruling that could knock his turbines out, leaving none at all.
There were more stark items on the list; there certainly will be more before the race. However, old Indy already was more shaken than it has been in years, and the air was crackling with unanswered questions.
But of the merits of the STP-Lotus turbocars there seemed to be no question at all. Hill, a former Grand Prix world champion and the 1966 Indy winner, quickly reached a lap speed of 169.045 mph, which was 2.563 mph faster than the best 1967 qualifying lap for Parnelli Jones's now-famous Car 40, and was accomplished under the new turbine restriction limiting the critical air-inlet area. Spence, another road-racing Briton but a newcomer to Indy, was, surprisingly, even faster. His best lap of 169.555 was second only to Mario Andretti's 1967 record of 169.779 among all laps ever officially timed at the Speedway.
So impressive were these performances that Rodger Ward, twice an Indy winner but never a turbine booster, declared on a local TV show: "The Lotus is a fantastic machine. I don't see how it will have any competition in this year's race." In the opinion of the U.S. Auto Club's chief technical inspector, S. A. Silbermann, the Lotuses were "superb pieces of engineering."
Spence had tackled Indy so aggressively that he had trouble, he said, not breaking the speed limits set for his rookie tests. But his cornering was unconventional, and this was a subject of concern to USAC officials. Harlan Fengler, for example, had warned him not to cut the corners as low as he had been taking them.
Last Tuesday, Spence rocketed away to his fastest lap and Hill to his, and between them they set some Indy records: fastest speeds of the year, fastest rookie, fastest turbocars. It was also Indy's first day ever on which two cars had topped 169 mph.