The thing about Mario Andretti is that in addition to being a pretty fair driver he is also a tenacious little guy. That is the main reason why, after a seven-month struggle, he holds the lead, however shakily, in the 1968 national big-car championship after last Sunday's 250-mile event on an ambitious new track, the Michigan International Speedway.
Andretti did not win the race—that surprise honor and $17,000 went to Ronnie Bucknum, a 32-year-old Californian better known for his sports car driving than his efforts in these Indy cars—and when the checkered flag fell he was not even second. The runner-up spot went, briefly, to a car co-driven by Mike Mosley and Bobby Unser, until last week the championship point leader.
But the race, or in this case even second place, is not always to the swift; occasionally the meticulous come through, and when Andretti and Crew Chief Clint Brawner rechecked the scoring sheets, they figured Andretti had finished second. Brawner put up the $100 necessary to protest the order of finish. Chief Steward Harry McQuinn took a look at the official electronic tapes, and McQuinn agreed with Brawner. He placed Andretti second and Mosley-Unser third, which did nothing to console Unser. He, in turn, protested the Andretti protest, at which point the officials gave up—another driver had also lodged a complaint against the posted order of finish—and sent everything back to Indianapolis for further checking.
All of this served to overshadow Bucknum's steady drive and well-deserved victory, which he won at an average speed of 163.043 mph, and the fact that the Michigan facility didn't waste any time coming of age despite a couple of first-race snags. For one, there was a monumental traffic jam coming and going, caused by the 55,000 paying customers and by several thousand more people who had intended to see the race but never got farther than a place called Cambridge Junction, a stoplight about half a mile away from the track.
The speedway is located just south of the town of Jackson in an area of soft, rolling land and quiet lakes known as the Irish Hills (four-leaf clovers were among the promotional gimmicks) just 67 miles from downtown Detroit. It is an easy drive from the test tracks of GM, Ford and Chrysler. More important, it is the only superspeedway in the Midwest outside of Indianapolis—which, of course, confines its activity to the Memorial Day 500. That only serves to whet the racing appetites of fans in the heavily populated areas of southern Michigan, Ontario, northern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Besides the big Sunday crowd, another 30,000 watched Saturday's practice and qualifying session, a crowd that most promoters would be satisfied with on race day.
The track was conceived early in 1966 by a group headed by a Detroit real-estate planner, Larry LoPatin. He bought up 800 acres of land, hired Charles Moneypenny of Daytona Beach, Fla. to do the major design work and asked former driver Stirling Moss to lay out a three-mile road circuit that, as Moss tells it, would "combine the southern Michigan countryside with downtown Detroit."
LoPatin broke ground last fall and, gambling on a break from the weather, scheduled Sunday's 250-mile U.S. Auto Club race. It was a tribute to modern technology and a whopping chunk of payroll overtime that the track was completed just about the time the race began.
The race was exciting enough in itself; the fact that Unser and Andretti were joined in battle for the USAC point championship was just so much frosting. To Mario, of course, the thing was an old story. In 1965 he had won the title. He repeated the following year, then fell back last season as A. J. Foyt took his fifth championship.
This year it looked as though Andretti and everybody else would again be outsiders. After the first five races of the season, including the Indy 500, Unser had four wins and more than 2,000 points, while Andretti was winless and had less than 500 points. After the 500, though, Bobby's luck changed and he was hit with a rash of chassis and engine problems and a series of spectacular crashes. The 500 was championship event No. 5; the MIS event was No. 25. In between, Unser had managed just one more victory—the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, which he won for the ninth time in 13 years—while Andretti set some sort of record for both doggedness and frustration by winning four races and finishing second eight times. Slowly, the margin Unser had built so rapidly shrank to 163 points.
Both drivers were a bit bland about their rivalry. As the 500 champ, Unser could well afford to be loose. Andretti remarked wistfully, "I would trade three national championships for a 500 win."