The last message that Al Unser received from his pit crew as he drove toward victory in last Saturday's Indy 500 was a siren song scrawled in chalk on the communications board, PARTY TIME, it said, and those who got the message applauded joyfully. For there was a real lack of entertainment in the 1970 running of the Memorial Day race, much of it due—ironically enough—to the wonderful workings of Unser and his gleaming, blue-and-gold Johnny Lightning Special. Both man and machine were perfectly prepared for success, but en route they demonstrated that old sporting truism: superb performances, by their very effortlessness, can also be superbly boring.
Not that Unser himself was bored. By winning at Indianapolis, the youngest member of the Unser racing clan—he turned 31 on Friday—fattened his personal bankroll by $271,697.72 of the Speedway's first million-dollar purse, plus a victor's bonus of $30,000 from his employer (Topper toys), plus a huge wad of points toward the United States Auto Club drivers' championship. Still, for all those pluses, the Indy crowd—perhaps 300,000 people—had some minuses to count too. What had shaped up during qualifying (SI, May 25) as a tight race among relatively equal machines and equally ambitious drivers turned into a runaway.
But not before Unser and his car were thoroughly tested. Unser led the field for all but 10 of the day's 200 laps, staving off challenges by everything from weather to Lloyd Ruby to bad luck. The lightning that struck Al Unser at Indy after five years of trying (including a second-place finish in 1967) was self-generated, a fact that electrified Al but unfortunately not the customers.
Over the decades, the big-car buffs who flock to Indy for the world's toughest, best-paying automobile race have come to expect thrills, wheel-to-wheel duels and perhaps even a few brushes with death as their due (Indy has claimed 47 lives in its previous 53 runnings).
The city itself offers somewhat less in the way of excitement. There is the Gatling Gun Club downtown at Illinois and St. Clair streets, and the Duck-Inn Tavern, and a vacant, bulldozed lot in the heart of town which bears a sign reading "Zebrowski Was Here." For eats, one can try "The Racer's Wedge," a kind of pizza available at most of the city's ubiquitous drive-ins, or sample the steaks at St. Elmo, an atmospheric dive where the waiters wear 19th century tuxes and the shrimp sauce can etch granite.
With such compelling scenes to avoid in the city proper, it is little wonder that most visitors to Indianapolis during race month spend their time guzzling beer at the Speedway and waiting for drivers to bash the walls. Such behavior, however, can lead to befuddlement, as in a recent case where an elderly racing fan—asked if he would prefer Bud or Miller—answered: "Yeah, gimme a Budmiller."
As the race approaches, things are livelier. Indianapolis is famous for its traffic mixes—intricate amalgams of stalled cars and flying beer cans. At times, with the tacit encouragement of Speedway officials, whole fleets of Corvettes or Mustangs appear in the middle of the night to serenade would-be sleepers with the music of their lightly muffled engines revved to a peak. As one Indianapolitan puts it: "When I was a kid, we called the place Nap Town, but you can't really say that anymore."
Still, there is a visceral thrill to Indianapolis during race week. The prospect of dangerous competition enhances every appetite—even if the danger to spectators is only vicarious. Rumors whip through town like tornadoes (which also whip through town now and then): so-and-so's top mechanic walked out today because he couldn't get the valves he wanted; it wasn't really a broken half-shaft that sent Mario Andretti into the wall during practice, just the fact that his crew didn't lube the hub before he went out. Mystery and a deadly calm pervade Gasoline Alley at night, while mechanics monkey-wrench around in the tidy, green-and-white garages and the customary evening rain makes everything smell clean and roomy and doomy.
By the time the sun rose murkily to herald the arrival of Memorial Day, Indianapolis and everyone residing there were in a state of high excitement. Although the pole-winning speed was not a record, the overall field was the fastest ever; no one could predict a winner with confidence. O.K., Al Unser had the most consistent speeds of the month—in excess of 170 mph whenever he wanted to turn it on—but A. J. Foyt was ultra-ready and the track was aquiver with hungry drivers.
Dan Gurney had trimmed the wings of his Eagle and was looking tough in practice. There was always Roger McCluskey, or Joe Leonard, or Jim McElreath, who had qualified late on the last day in a car he'd picked up from Foyt. Word was circulating that Lloyd Ruby would make this his last pursuit of the victory that had eluded him for a decade. At 42, he was the most frustrated driver on the track. Then there was Johnny Rutherford, barely edged for the pole by Unser—and of course Al's brother Bobby, the 1968 winner, who could not be counted out. And what about Mark Donohue? Surely his car would hold together under Roger Penske's meticulous supervision, but was Mark quick enough? Art Pollard in his Car Wash Special could possibly clean up.