Vukovich, Foyt, Jones, Andretti—the names roll easily off the layman's tongue;
names etched on a hundred kinds of souvenirs and printed in a score of record
books; names secure to posterity as the heroes of Indy past and present. And
properly so, for theirs was to win, through various combinations of skill, luck
and mechanical aptitude, the most famous race of them all, the Indianapolis
500—one, two, even three times—and no one would deny them their glory.
Yet a driver is
only as good as his equipment, and for each of these drivers there was an
equally dedicated, if faceless, man whose particular talent was to build the
car that, on a boisterous day in May, went faster for a longer period of time
than any other in the field. These men are called chief mechanics, and while
their names are painted on the sides of their creations, they are there in
considerably smaller letters than those of the heroes.
example, George Bignotti, as he stands next to the pit wall at the Ontario
Motor Speedway on a strangely cold California afternoon. Of medium height and
weight, he is not a particularly imposing man. A fleshed-out, angular face and
thick hair verify his Latin name. Through thick glasses he watches intently as
the Johnny Lightning 500 Special,' driven by Al Unser, the latest American
racing hero, finishes the last lap of a tire test (which is to racing what
spring training is to baseball), and as the gold-on-blue streak screams past he
snaps his stopwatch, then breaks into a wide grin and rubs his hands together.
Things have gone well.
grandstand, in a plush restaurant separated by soundproof glass from the wail
of the 650-hp Ford turbo-charged engine, Parnelli Jones smiles, too. He is no
longer the proud terror of the speedways (only occasionally does he race these
days); no, today his tastes are more of the boardroom and the double-breasted
pinstripe suit. He and Vel Miletich, a Southern California friend and business
partner, are the owners of the Johnny Lightning Special and of a sister car
driven by Joe Leonard, and only his bristling crew cut and cold, darting eyes
are reminders of what Parnelli once was. In the early 1960s Jones and A. J.
Foyt carried on some of the most furious battles ever seen in big-car racing.
Trouble was, Jones was rarely around at the finish and won only six of 59
championship events. Foyt's mechanic in those days was this same George
"I lost a lot
of races to George," Jones says. "I led so many and then had to sit
back and watch Foyt win them." And so in January 1969, just when the Vel's
Parnelli Jones Ford Racing Team was beginning to go strong, Jones hired
Bignotti. It was possibly the best decision of Jones' life, and perhaps also a
bit of long-delayed revenge. Unser, who had been with Bignotti since 1966, came
along as a not insubstantial part of the deal, but Miletich, when asked which
of the two he would have taken had he been forced to choose between them, said
tactfully, "I wouldn't want to answer that."
Indeed, this year
cold statistics have clearly confirmed what most racing people have suspected
for the last ten years: that George Bignotti, a 53-year-old San Franciscan who
now lives in Indianapolis, is the best chief mechanic in the history of the
Championship Trail. At the start of this season Bignotti-prepared cars had won
51 championship point races and George promptly went two for two in the new
year, as Al Unser won in Argentina and at Phoenix. For the fifth year one of
his cars bears No. 1, symbolic of the national driving championship. No other
mechanic in the country can claim as many championship-race wins, and not since
the heyday of A. J. Watson in the '50s and early '60s has any mechanic swung
such a big wrench in the 500. Beginning with Foyt in 1961, his cars and drivers
have been in Victory Lane no fewer than four times—an extraordinary
Last year, of
course, the Bignotti-Unser team did it all. They won the 500 from the pole and
nine of 18 other championship races en route to the national title. Watching
Unser lap the field at one Milwaukee event after just four miles of racing,
Bignotti said, "I feel sorry for the rest of these guys."
He really meant
it, too, for Bignotti is basically a gentle man who often seems out of place in
the Middle America atmosphere of championship racing, where the humor, such as
it is, still runs to—or rather against—broads, blacks and hippies. In
Bignotti's boyhood, spent on a truck farm near San Francisco, his father raised
produce for hotels and restaurants in the city. He got into racing through an
older brother, Al, who campaigned big cars in the Bay Area, and it was a short
step from hero worship of an older brother to the point where George first
served as an apprentice mechanic, then built and occasionally raced his own
In the 1940s and
early '50s Bignotti held a variety of jobs, suffering at one time or another as
the manager of a florist shop, as a big-band dance entrepreneur and as a worker
in a shipyard. But racing was never far removed from his life, and in 1954 he
came to the Speedway for the first time as the chassis man on a roadster driven
by Freddie Agabashian. Two years later he made a decision: "I decided I
could build a car as good as anything I'd seen at Indy."
A chief mechanic
of an Indianapolis-type racing car is many things. First, he is the middleman
in a host of relationships that are the most crucial part of a modern, complex
racing team. He has the immediate responsibility of controlling and wet-nursing
a collection of rather fragile egos that are never too far from the breaking
point, not the least of which may be his own. Obviously, the most important
relationship is that between a chief mechanic and his driver, and except for
matrimony there is none more susceptible to friction.