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With the fans in their seats (or swilling coffee royal in the Victory Circle Club), the next problem was one of orchestration. Not only must the cars get off on time (11 a.m. in this instance), but the fans must simultaneously be brought to a fever pitch so that, when the green flags do their crazy, crosswise dance for the start, the crowd is ready to swear that nothing could be more exciting. It happens every year at Indy, but could it happen here?
Well, not quite. But the lack of Indy-style excitement was due more to the naiveté of the crowd and the lack of an Ontario tradition—a deficiency easily remedied through time—than to any failing of the management. Indeed, the pre-race show was a three-ring circus, in the style of Le Mans, which Lockton and Lufkin had studied. There was a quasi-military parade of firefighting equipment—a battalion of Dodge trucks with firehose gun mounts and helmeted firemen straight out of Fahrenheit 451, led by a weird beast known as the Ansul X-2, a 130-mph crash tank capable of squirting 70 feet of foam or water on any wreck anywhere this side of San Berdoo. There was an impressive display of stunt flying by "Skip Wolf and his Chipmunk." There was an abortive parawing flight, in which the towrope broke on liftoff and the flier did a miraculous full gainer to land precisely on his takeoff spot. There were flags, flags, flags—until even the hardest of the resident hardhats grew a bit bored with red, white and blue. And then there was the wind—25 knots out of the northwest—which played the only dirty trick of the day on Ontario. It worked its way under the checkered tarps holding down 50,000 particolored balloons, which were to be released just before the start, and sent them leaking out toward San Diego in a gaudy swirl. On the other hand, the wind lifted many a miniskirt and scaled away many a cowboy hat, much to the delight of the crowd.
The start itself was ragged. Lockton had imported Indy's Tony Hulman to say, "Gentlemen, start your engines!" but the Indy magic doesn't travel well. In that bright California sun, and with the Ontario theme song, The Impossible Dream, still cloying the eardrums, Hulman's words rang hollow and flat. Lloyd Ruby and his "Silent Majority Special" sat on the pole, having qualified at 177.567 mph, and that, too, added a note of incredibility to the proceedings. Ruby is a notorious non-finisher. A lot of affection was directed toward Dan Gurney, the No. 2 qualifier, since Southern California is Dan's turf and his dark blue Eagle-Offy was, as usual, meticulously well-prepared. Indy Winner Al Unser, in the second row, and the dangerous duo of Foyt and Andretti in Row Three also drew oohs and ahs from the crowd: they knew those names. Some of the smart money was betting that young Swede Savage, in the Gurney-pre-pared Eagle-Ford, the only stock-block car in the race, would be the winner. Ontario's high speeds and higher heat (up to 100° during the afternoon) rendered the turbocharged Fords and Offenhausers suspect. It would be a race of attrition, everyone agreed. It was.
The field took the green flag after two warmup laps—and the start was on time. That's important. Almost immediately, the dropouts started dropping. Roger McCluskey pitted on the first lap. On lap two, Jim (Iron Hercules) Hurtubise slammed the wall in Turn Three with his red Genesee Special, the only front-engined car in the race. Here suffered a mild concussion and the sentimentalists in the crowd a mild heartache. (How dreamy if an old-timey roadster could win just one more big race, but it was not in the cards.) Johnny Rutherford, the No. 3 qualifier and always a threat, as they say, blew his engine on the sixth lap, and some cynics began muttering: "This race will be over in 20 minutes." It durn near was: Mark Donohue, usually a laster if not a winner, popped a piston and was out within 20 miles. Ruby went a short time later. Gurney creamed the wall on lap 99 just a few yards ahead of Hurtubise's impact point and was finished. "I hit it hard enough to knock the wheels off and give me a bit of a headache," lamented Dan later. He gave his fans a bit of a fright, too.
With Al Unser comfortably in the lead, the race was truly an Indy copy, and now a dull one at that. One by one, the only contenders for the lead dropped out. Joe Leonard with a spinout; Mario Andretti with a broken gearbox. Peter Revson, into the pits in his McLaren-Offy for an "insurance" refueling under a yellow flag, burned out a coil and lost 11 laps to Unser, only to come out later and finish fifth. Then Big Al himself went—with a blown engine on the 187th lap. Suddenly, what had been a dull, flat afternoon became anyman's race—and perhaps the first root of tradition at the Ontario end of the Championship Trail.
There, in the lead, sat Lee Roy Yarbrough, a stock-car driver, of all things. And right behind him Art Pollard of Medford, Ore., who had started second from last in the field. Down in Victory Circle, California's Governor Ronald Reagan asked Dave Lockton: "Who is this guy Yarbrough? I ought to know about him if I have to give him the Governor's Trophy." Just as Lockston started to explain, Lee Roy's engine blew with a gout of blue smoke in the main straightaway. "Well," continued Reagan as the groans died away, "then who is this guy Pollard."
He need not have asked. As Announcer Dean Webber so aptly described the final confusion: "That's what a 500 is all about. You can be fast as the dickens for 499 laps—check that, I mean 199 laps, I mean 499 miles.... " With the 200th and final lap just around the corner, Texan Jim McElreath passed Pollard and took the checkered flag, along with $155,884 in prize money. The winner's speed was 160.106 mph, a new record for a USAC 500-mile race. There had been only five yellow caution flags, for a mere 21½ minutes, indicating that while Ontario may be hell on engines and tires, what with its high speeds and heat, it is a safe course. There were but four spinouts, and no injuries beyond Hurtubise's concussion and Gurney's headache. All in all, a good show.
Except for Governor Reagan. As McElreath's car was backed into Victory Circle for the customary honors, Ontario's uptight, crowd-controlling security failed and a bunch of eager photographers scrunched the Guv against the Coyote-Ford's still-sizzling tailpipes. "It ruined the Governor's beautiful white jacket there," said Dave Lockton later. "I know that breaks you all up. But I'm damn well satisfied, and I know we'll do much better next year."
If they do, then the Championship Trail will have a happy ending.