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Through the morning a dense, 6,000-foot overcast was moving in from the southeast, blotting out the sun and carrying with it the smell of rain. Fists and voices were raised against the threat of a washout, yet when Trumpeter Al Hirt mounted a stepladder to serenade the national anthem, the echoes of his honeyed brass seemed to call down the rain. A quick little shower doused the back straightaway, and Chief Steward Harlan Fengler decided to hold beyond the noon starting time. Then, as if racing willpower were some sort of meteorological anticoagulant, the skies began to thin and at 12:25 p.m. Fengler permitted the singing of the last prerace rite, Back Home Again in Indiana. A few minutes later, Tony Hulman bellowed, "Gentlemen, start your engines." It was all properly dramatic, but anticlimax was just around the corner.
As the racers flowed through Turn Four on the pace lap, Jim Malloy's white machine, which he had qualified in the third row, snapped a torsion bar and clipped the wall. The yellow flag flew before the green flag could even be unfurled. Malloy was out of the race. It was the first time since 1957 that a full field did not start at Indy. (Incidentally, it was Hulman's son-in-law, Elmer George, who collided with another racer during the parade lap to reduce the '57 field.) But the delay in restarting the race permitted the skies to soften even more, and by the time the green flag fluttered, at 1:07 p.m., the weather was fine for racing—cool, if threatening.
And for the first lap, at least, it was an excellent race. As the pack thrashed into the first turn, Johnny Rutherford slipped ahead of pole-sitter Unser, and the crowd oohed in amazement. This might be something else. But Unser quickly reestablished his lead on the backstretch, and when the cars came streaming down the main straight it was clear that Unser had matters firmly un-control.
By the third lap the field had split into two distinct groups—the first and fastest consisting of the Unser brothers, Rutherford, Foyt, Donohue, McCluskey, Pollard and Andretti. The second flight, however, contained excitement in the form of Lloyd Ruby's red, white and blue "silent majority special." Ruby, after blowing six engines during practice and qualifying, had taken the 25th starting spot with a scorching 168.895-mph clocking, and now he was moving up through traffic. A sentimental favorite even without his patriotic colors, Ruby drove like a man possessed. Weaving through the crowded straights, sliding like a stocker around the corners, Lloyd made it to seventh place by the 22nd lap and was charging for the lead. By that point the first dropouts had already occurred, among them George Follmer in the STP Hawk-Ford with which Andretti had won last year. The engine simply failed, as if those 200 laps were all that could be expected of the car.
By the 27th lap Art Pollard had taken third place and the crowd had something else to consider. But then Pollard burned a piston—there was a spurt of blue smoke followed instantly by a yellow flag—and retired. The yellow lasted only two minutes, but many drivers took advantage of it to pull into the pits and shake down minor problems. One who came in with a problem far from minor was Mario Andretti. "The half-shaft on the right rear seized during the 10th lap," Mario explained later. "The best I could do—flat out—was about 162, and I felt I could have had an accident at any time." Nothing could be done in the pits without dropping the car entirely from contention, so Andretti returned to the field and tried to hang in there. As Mario pulled away, car owner Andy Granatelli's face was in somber contrast to his flamboyant pink shirt.
When the yellow flag lifted, attention shifted back to Ruby. Passing Bobby Unser in a great wash of cheers, Ruby took third place and set his sights on Rutherford and Al Unser. As the 50-lap mark approached, cars began to pit for the first of the three mandatory fueling stops. This was the first real test of the kind of efficiency that wins Indy more effectively than simple brute power. And it was here that the Johnny Lightning crews demonstrated their superiority. For one thing, Parnelli Jones & Co. had devised a new fueling system, derived from midair refueling by aircraft. No gas cap over the tanks, just a permeable membrane into which a nozzle was thrust. Additionally, Chief Mechanic George Bignotti had chilled his fuel with dry ice, reducing the volume and permitting more to be loaded at each pit stop. During this first stop Al Unser cleared the pit in 20 seconds—a low figure that he came close to repeating on stops two and three. Rutherford, in contrast, had trouble. The clutch in his yellow Patrick Petroleum Special would not disengage when he hit the pits, and he stalled the engine. Total elapsed time before he returned to the battle: 53 seconds.
Few in the crowd were watching these developments, for Ruby was the center of attention. Then on the 54th lap the back of his colorful car burst into flames. Studs that had loosened during the wild ride earlier in the race had permitted oil to seep out of the engine and ignite on the hot exhaust. Ruby screeched to a halt in the infield grass and retired. An hour later, with a straw cowboy hat cocked down over his morose face, he lamented to Carroll Shelby: "Shel, it just ain't meant for me to win at this place. I don't think Indy likes me. Every year I try to change her opinion, but every year she wins." Would he be back next year? "I dunno," allowed Lloyd. "Getting into a race car for me now is just like going to another day's work. Except this is a little bigger."
By now it was clear that Al Unser was on his way. The Rutherford challenge had faded in the pits, and Johnny slipped to third, behind A.J., then to fourth, behind Bobby Unser. At the 200-mile mark, Al and his Lightning were averaging 161.043—a new record for that distance. Mario pitted for the third time, still slowed by the misbehaving half-shaft, changing rubber frantically in search of more speed.
If there was to be a challenge to Al Unser, it would have to come either from Foyt or from Mark Donohue. A.J. has a way of stalking the front-runner until everything is in place, then pulling it all together toward the end of the race and surging to the lead. That was how he generated his three earlier victories, and many in the crowd were waiting for it to happen again. Foyt himself had prepared for an unprecedented fourth victory in every way possible. He was even wearing the same helmet he wore during his last win in 1967. "I'm not superstitious," he grinned to a questioner. "I'm just careful."
Donohue's spic-and-span blue Sunoco Lola was doing precisely what it had been set up to do—endure. And Donohue, in his second appearance at Indy, was more confident than last year, when he won Rookie-of-the-Year honors. Still, it would take a lapse on the part of Unser and his car for either Foyt or Donohue to take him.