Near the end, when the victory that had to be was finally in sight, the key participants could scarcely believe it. The Indianapolis 500, that white whale of a race that had spit back their harpoons year after tantalizing year, is not supposed to be so easy to win. Chief Mechanic Clint Brawner, who is 52 and looks older, limped up and down in front of the pits, a battered straw hat on his head, a purple handkerchief draped over his tender, sunburned neck. He had been trying to win at the Speedway for 18 years, and he remembered 1961, when his driver, Eddie Sachs, was forced to pit to replace a shredded tire with a 17-second lead and three laps to go. Car Owner Andy Granatelli refused to accept congratulations from anyone until the checkered flag waved. Instead, he sat mutely in a folding chair with his feet propped up on the pit wall to ease the pain of his chronically bad back and nervously chewed an STP sticker, remembering the anguish of his turbine near misses and the heartbreak over his beloved Novis in past years.
On the racetrack Mario Andretti was only too conscious that he had seen most of the last three 500s as a spectator—and thus drove his last 95 laps, all of which he led, at a supercautiously slow pace. To be sure, when he did take the checkered flag—and a purse of $205,727.06—he had established a 500 record of 156.867 mph, but that was because the race was remarkably accident-free. The yellow flag came out to slow the field to 125 mph only twice, and for a total of just 14 minutes. Andretti's speed during those final laps often dipped as low as 155 mph, or nearly 15 mph slower than his qualifying speed and some 10 mph slower than he was capable of running under race conditions. Behind him on the track only 10 cars were still alive. Second finisher Dan Gurney was two laps behind and third-place Bobby Unser another lap and a half behind Gurney.
If the last part of the race had lacked pizzazz, there was compensation for spectators within view of the carrying-on afterward, beginning when Granatelli erupted in joy and headed down the pits to Victory Lane in one of the most magnificent hundred-yard dashes ever run by an overweight, up-from-the-slums Chicago paisan. (Brawner ran, too, but was so benumbed by tranquilizers he could hardly speak.) Delirious like a fox, no sooner had Granatelli given Andretti a big kiss than he slapped an STP decal on Mario's shoulder and delivered a plug for his book, They Call Me Mr. 500. Andretti was keeping cool for a native of Italy, but, then, he had to: next thing he knew, Granatelli hoisted him up on his shoulders and carried him to the pace car, in which they were to take a celebratory lap.
Anyone with a tinge of Italian heritage had to have a heart of mozzarella not to get a kick out of the scene, and not merely because the winners had been some of Indy's hard-core hard-luck cases. They had had plenty of scares going into this year's 500.
In early May, Mario had come to the Speedway with a four-wheel-drive racer fresh from Colin Chapman's Lotus works in England. He quickly established himself as the fastest driver on the track, but in practice three days before the first day of qualification, as he was moving fast through the fourth turn, the right rear hub carrier of the Lotus broke. The wheel sheared off, and Andretti hit the outside wall of the turn so violently the bodywork flew off and the car caught fire. Mario was lucky to get away with no more damage than second-degree burns across his upper lip, cheeks and nose. He could have driven another Lotus, but his accident caused concern about the safety of all the Lotuses, though they were probably the best cars at the Speedway under the proper conditions.
"I'm as brave as the next guy," said Mario, "but only if I'm satisfied the car is safe. My crew doesn't want to bolt me into just any old tub. I don't either."
(The other Lotuses, to have been driven by Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt, were withdrawn.)
Andretti chose to drive his backup car. It is a Hawk chassis, whose semi-wedge shape Andretti described as "swoopy," designed by Brawner and his co-crew chief, Jim McGee, and powered by a turbo-charged Ford. With only two days' preparation, Andretti put it in the front row alongside pole-sitter A. J. Foyt.
So far so good. The car had won an earlier USAC championship race in Hanford, Calif., and except for a few modifications was essentially the same car Andretti had qualified last year. But on Wednesday of last week, barely 48 hours before the race, another problem developed. On Tuesday afternoon Chief Steward Harlan Fengler had told Andretti he would approve an external radiator that Brawner and McGee wanted to add to the car directly behind the driver's head. There is a USAC rule stating that no external changes may be made to a car between qualification day and the race, but until this year it had been loosely enforced.
Foyt complained to USAC, claiming that he had labored long and hard to rig up an extra internal radiator on his car before qualifications, and he wasn't about to let Andretti get away with adding one after. Tuesday night Fengler met with USAC president Charlie Brockman, USAC competition director Henry Banks and a Speedway vice-president, Joe Cloutier, and decided Mario's radiator had to go.