During the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, something is always overworked. Usually it is engines, frequently it is mechanics, often it is drivers. Last week it was the word "unreal." Throughout the practice sessions that precede the running of America's grandest 500-mile automobile race, people kept grinding their gears with repetitive clich�s. " Mark Donohue is unreal," they said. "It's unreal, man, he's running 174 mph." Donohue merely grinned and tucked himself back into his blue-and-gold McLaren M16 racer and kept on going faster. "Wow, he just hit 177—unreal." Grin and run. "Jeez—179." Later, fresh phrases emerged, immortal lines like "181—unreal." Statistically speaking, it was indeed unusual, but nowhere near as unreal as the unpoling of Mark Donohue last Saturday before a crowd that was, well, pretty big: 250,000.
The previous record for a single lap at Indy was set by Joe Leonard in the STP turbine car back in 1968—an unreal year in its own right. The turbine was subsequently banned, and for two entire Indy races its qualifying record remained inviolate: 171.953 mph. Then along came Mark, and with him the efficient Roger Penske Racing Establishment, a Philadelphia outfit that has out-Ferraried Ferrari in sports-car competition and is currently sharpening the American Motors Javelin to a fine cutting edge on the Trans-Am circuit.
By applying science and elbow grease, the Penske-Donohue consortium seemed about ready to turn Indy into a simple exercise in speed arithmetic. Then came the race for the pole and Peter Revson, applying some new math, whupped Mark Donohue. He did it in another McLaren M16, one that belonged to the actual, British-based Team McLaren. Moreover, he did it with a said-to-be-sick engine that had never before pushed the car faster than 120 mph.
In the process Revson evened some old scores. Back in 1969, during their rookie years at the Speedway, Donohue and Revson had both performed admirably. Revson started last in the 33-car field and finished fifth. Donohue did a lot better that year in qualifying (fourth) but worse in the race, finishing seventh—and yet he won the Rookie of the Year award. The two men teamed up to drive Javelins for Penske, but Donohue—as Penske's No. 1 prot�g�—always got the better car and consequently won more races in the Trans-Am series. This year the situation seemed roughly similar. Donohue once again profited from the excellent Penske preparation, while Revson had to make do with the second car in the Team McLaren stable—the first and potentially faster machine going to New Zealander Denny Hulme, Bruce McLaren's countryman and traditional teammate and himself a veteran of Indy as well as countless Grand Prix races; he was the world champion of 1967.
All week long, while Donohue was wowing the multitudes with his superfast laps, Revson was a mere semiwow. His top speed in practice was 176.1. At best, he could end up only second, the smart money said. So then he simply blew Donohue off the road. His fastest qualifying lap of 179.354, although more than 1� mph slower than Donohue's best in practice, upped the official one-lap record by 7.401 mph. Rev-son thus achieved the greatest single advance in big-car speeds since Jim Clark shattered Parnelli Jones' record by 7.53 mph back in 1964. Moreover, he did it with a four-year-old Offy engine installed just a few hours before his qualifying run. Unreal enough for you?
Well, the whole Indy scene has become unreal. There was A. J. Foyt with a brand-new car—he called it the Coyote II—that he hoped would give him his fourth win. Foyt's racer started out wingless—without the rear-mounted airfoil that keeps down-pressure on a car through the wrenching corners and thus permits it to go much faster. Ultimately A.J. had to add a wing just to keep in competition and at that he only ended up sixth on the starting grid.
Last year's Indy winner, Al Unser, in the slick Johnny Lightning Special, could do no better than fifth, but his older brother Bobby, who won the race in 1968, did manage to struggle past Hulme to put one of Dan Gurney's well-prepared Olsonite Eagles on the outside of the front row and in among the three swift McLarens.
Mario Andretti, Lloyd Ruby and the old fast-lap record holder, Leonard, had to settle for places farther back. And so to some it looked as if the old names had lost their magic.
Actually, what had happened was that designers and mechanics were working some new magic, and the particular magic of the weekend was the legacy of a dead man: three McLarens in the first four qualifying spots. Last year, during his first Indianapolis endeavor as a car designer, Bruce McLaren learned a lot about the Brickyard's rugged demands. Though his two cars—derived from his invincible Can-Am sports-car design—finished no better than ninth and 22nd, Bruce thought he had the answer for the future. En route to England after the race, he outlined his scheme to Gordon Coppock, his chief engineer. It was to build a winged monocoque car with tubular framing fore and aft, a departure from the heretofore successful wedges and full monocoques, and a design that combined the flexibility of the tube frame with the strength of the monocoque. McLaren died in a crash during Can-Am testing at Goodwood just days later, but the idea for the new car had been born. It is a credit to Roger Penske that he recognized its virtues right away. Last fall Penske struck a deal with McLaren's successor, the American Teddy Mayer, to buy the first of the new cars in exchange for Roger's own considerable engineering advice.
Late in March, Penske brought his McLaren to Indy for tire tests. "We found ourselves running well in excess of the lap record," Roger said, "and we knew we had something going. We didn't know what the factory McLarens could do, but we set out to make our own version the fastest car on the track. We decided not to run it in the earlier big-car races—Argentina, Phoenix, Trenton—but to save it for the really big one. Indy."