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The great Michigan muddle
Kim Chapin
October 21, 1968
Protests flew as Ronnie Bucknum (above) won a new speedway's first race, and famous drivers battled track and officials for title points
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October 21, 1968

The Great Michigan Muddle

Protests flew as Ronnie Bucknum (above) won a new speedway's first race, and famous drivers battled track and officials for title points

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A mild case of the yips permeated the driving ranks at MIS, as usually happens at the opening event of any racetrack. Everybody knew this one would be fast; in tire tests Gordon John-cock (for Goodyear) and Andretti (for Firestone) had lapped the two-mile oval at better than 182 mph. Besides the high speeds, the cornering forces that the 18� banked turns exerted on the cars' suspension pieces were a part of the weekend's conversation and worry.

"At Indianapolis," one young driver said, "they make rookies go through all that rigmarole, and then you've got 30 days to get used to 165 mph; here they give you five hours to learn how to drive at 180."

Lloyd Ruby, a 12-year veteran of the big cars, said, "This is a nice racetrack—to drive on by yourself." And even Bobby Unser showed some apprehension when he said, "This will be a good one if everything holds together."

During the week of the race the Exponent, a paper published in Brooklyn, Mich., the nearest community to MIS, ran a picture of racing cars captioned with the old Irish blessing, "And may God hold you in the hollow of His hand."

For a while on Saturday, the only day of practice allowed, it was a crowded hollow. Bobby's younger brother Al put the first official dent on the track wall when he lost a wheel. Then Jim Malloy brushed the wall in the No. 2 turn, and Johncock, who had more than 700 miles of testing at the track, simply moved into the first turn too deep during his qualifying trial. The rear end broke loose, Johncock overcorrected and his racer went into a lazy spin at about 165 mph and wound up against the outside wall, too damaged to make the race.

But for Andretti and Unser everything went smoothly. Through the luck of the draw Mario qualified immediately before Bobby, and they wound up next to each other on the first row—Andretti on the pole with an average speed of 183.67 mph. Unser was just .46 second behind, despite having to use his backup car after he had burned a piston in his first one, and despite running without the front-end spoilers used on nearly every other race car to help keep the front end occasionally in touch with the track.

Although there were no serious mishaps during the race—the only contender was a first-lap brush between Roger McCluskey and Mac Dudley—the track did take its toll of machinery. Only 11 of the 26 starters were running at the finish, and only Bucknum, Unser and Andretti were anywhere near contention at the end.

Andretti, in fact, was lucky to finish. With superior horsepower, Unser built a steady lead over his rival. Then, on the 67th lap of the 125-lap race Mario coasted slowly into the pits from about a mile out. Engine trouble? Blown tire? Nothing like that. He was out of gas. His crewmen had calculated he could run at least 70 laps on the full load he had begun the race with; they missed by two, and Andretti lost 90 seconds, or nearly 2� laps, by failing to come in for fuel earlier.

That left the track clear for Unser, but, as his first car had in practice, his backup car blew its engine on the main straight after 76 laps. Unser parked it at the end of the pit and ran over to flag in the car of his teammate, Mike Mosley, which, due to the attrition, was now in the lead. Unser simply requisitioned Mosley"s car, a move condoned because of an archaic and foolish USAC rule that allows a copilot to share a starting driver's championship points on a prorated basis.

The propriety of the rule is dubious at best. The driving title for 1967 was decided in the season's last race when A. J. Foyt crashed in the Rex Mays 300 at Riverside, Calif., hopped into Roger McCluskey's car and drove it long enough to get the points necessary for his fifth championship.

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