This is how it will be on Memorial Day when they run off the Indianapolis 500, an event that once was a parade of dinosaurs and now resembles a competitive moon shot: 30 piston cars will come clanging down the straightaway, growling and spitting just as they always have since the days when 75 miles an hour could get you a trophy and a lot of oil on your face. But this time tradition will be on the edge of its seat, because all those cars will be chasing three fast new turbines and that ethereal something known as the future of automobile racing.
The battle lines for the showdown were drawn last weekend in a preview that brought approximately the entire population of the American Midwest into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and left the place an emotional shambles. When the smoke lifted, there sat Joe Leonard and Graham Hill in a pair of hot-red turbines that had gone better than 171 mph to win the pole and the No. 2 qualifying position. There was Art Pollard safely in the field in a third turbine. There was owner Andy Granatelli in a spasm of joy. And all about them were piston folks with hot-green faces.
Understand now, the process of qualifying for the 500—with only one car on the track at a time—ought to be about as dull as the relay race at the Grange picnic. In fact, in bygone years qualifying was a ceremony attended largely by those who had the time after the hogs were slopped and the cows milked, but these are days of innovation and everybody knew that big things were afoot.
On Saturday morning enough people crowded into the Speedway—some 260,000—to make two Superbowl football crowds and one Kentucky Derby mob. Through a day of smog-free sunshine interrupted by occasional bursts of rain, they sat in patient hysteria, watching the most important part of the 500 starting lineup take shape.
The starting order is 11 rows of three cars each, and it isn't much fun to be stuck in the rear. There were 74 cars at the track gunning for those 33 starting spots on May 30, and in practice leading up to qualifying nine of the cars hit speeds over 167 mph and 12 went over 166. A couple of the piston cars, trailing the rich, pungent smell of nitromethane, were running on the ragged edges of the 170s. The piston establishment had been rocked last year by one turbine; this year there were these three new turbocars to contend with, the survivors of what had started out to be a nine-turbine attack. Two of the jet cars bettered 170 mph in practice.
The people sat down and pulled the rings on their pop-top beer cans, and Driver Bob Hurt rolled out. Hurt bravely wrestled a Lola-Ford around the track and then decided, wisely, to take it back to the garage for a heart transplant. Hill was next in line, slouched into his STP-Lotus turbine, the car all duded up in Day-Glo red and more STP stickers than a rolling gas station, the man wearing his dapper London Rowing Club crash helmet. Hill whooshed through the first turn simply by easing his foot off the brake in easy stages, then stepped on the throttle, and it was up, up and away. The car poured down the main straight going so fast it looked 25 feet long, leaving a red blur in the air and no sound except a faint, rolling sigh of power. It was a 171.887-mph sound. And anyone in the crowd who may have blinked and missed the car as it went past had only to turn his head to see it coming again. When Hill averaged 171.208 for the four laps even the car's designer, Colin Chapman, looked dazed. Chapman had left Indy in grief after Mike Spence crashed one of his turbines in practice and died, but he could not bear to stay away.
Hill relaxed with a can of Coca-Cola and said it had been rather easy, hadn't it? "I'm not really satisfied with the speed," he said. "It sounds churlish, really, but we can actually go a bit faster. Of course, I don't expect to drive quite so wildly for 200 laps in the race. But being in the turbine is like riding a wonderful wild thing out there. One can feel its wheels sort of claw at the track when one steps on the throttle and it is really quite amazing."
There was still more turbodrama to come, but between the acts, in quick order, some of the leading lights of racing had a run at Hill's speed and missed by a mile. By several miles. By a year, the time it will take them to get turbines of their own.
The closest was a lean, intense New Mexican named Bobby Unser, who drove up in a turbocharged Offenhauser—ah, there, remember the Offy?—full of mysterious plumbing and horsepower. He averaged 169.507 mph and won the third front-row spot. Lloyd Ruby wheeled to an average of 167.613 in another turbocharged Offy; Roger McCluskey had 166.976 in a turbocharged Offy; and it was apparent that the piston boys weren't exactly wallowing in speed.
A. J. Foyt, last year's winner and America's compleat race driver, had been struggling through the month with his own turbocharged Ford. For qualifying he switched to a standard Ford. Most drivers run through a couple of practice laps before signaling the officials to put the clocks on them. But Foyt, nearing the end of his first warmup lap, gestured for the green flag. Foyt squeezed up as high as 166.976 on one lap and pulled in with a 166.821 average for eighth spot. It was farther back by seven places than Foyt really wanted to start.