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JOHNNY LIGHTNING DRIVES THROUGH THE WRECKAGE
Robert F. Jones
June 07, 1971
It was the most calamitous Indy 500 in years—and a heartbreaking one for precocious invaders—but Al Unser in a fleet, fit 'Johnny Lightning Special' steered deftly past crashing, spinning, burning racers to achieve a rare repeat victory. Not all the danger was on the track: the pace car crashed, too
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June 07, 1971

Johnny Lightning Drives Through The Wreckage

It was the most calamitous Indy 500 in years—and a heartbreaking one for precocious invaders—but Al Unser in a fleet, fit 'Johnny Lightning Special' steered deftly past crashing, spinning, burning racers to achieve a rare repeat victory. Not all the danger was on the track: the pace car crashed, too

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There are two kinds of excitement in automobile racing. The first, and rarest, occurs when a popular team is able to put all the craggy angles of victory together: design, tuning, conviction, pit stops, tough racing and the checkered flag. The second, hateful because of its frequency, occurs when some calamity or chain of accidents develops during the race and more good guys are hurt than the victory of another good guy warrants. The Indianapolis 500 '71 was excitement of the second variety.

It could have been the perfect race. There were cloudless skies, temperatures in the 60s, an A-O.K. launch of the helium balloons and Peter DePaolo singing Back Home Again in Indiana. Peter is the guy who won Indy in 1925—a brusque, balding old racer who might hit a sour note now and then but is never afraid to croon like Sinatra on the final bar. Even Tony Hulman, the main cog in Indy's gearbox, put a little more pep than usual into his "Gentlemen, start your engines" number. And the engines themselves sounded swell, particularly the turbocharged Offenhausers of pole sitter Peter Revson and that dedicated engineer, Mark Donohue, in their superquick McLarens. No one doubted that records would fall this day, but no one really knew who would knock them down, or in what categories. The old Indianapolis electricity surged toward its traditional overload as the cars snarled around on the preliminary laps. Aerial bombs punctuated the engine noise in a sporadic barrage—it was all just dandy—and then....

Just as the 33 cars took the green flag, just as all that energy and emotion peaked, the pace car crashed into a photographers' stand. The pace car was an orange Dodge Challenger convertible driven by one Eldon Palmer, an Indianapolis car dealer. Since no Detroit automaker had offered a car to pace the big race this year, what with the recession and all, Indy's wise men accepted Palmer's offer of a couple dozen cars, contingent on his request to drive the celebrity machine during the pace laps. It was replete with Hulman, ex-astronaut-politician John Glenn and TV's Chris Schenkel.

Palmer avoided the mistake of Benson Ford back in 1966, who drove very slowly, but when he entered the pit road at 125 mph just before the start, he made an error of his own. A flagpole that Palmer had used as a guide for braking during practice had been removed for the race (too dangerous), and he failed to hit the brakes until he had nearly run out of pit. The car spurted blue smoke, slued out of shape as it hit the slick grass at the pit road's end, then crashed at perhaps 35 miles an hour into the crowded photo stand. It was a frightening scene—one to suggest a slaughter—and not until late in the race was the crowd told that all the pace-car occupants were unhurt, that there had been no fatalities. The reckoning was ugly enough: the journalist Vicente Alvarez of Argentina critically injured, a guard and three photographers hospitalized with broken bones or other serious injuries, a dozen other photographers cut, bruised and dazed.

That was just for openers. Mark Donohue tried his best to rekindle the early joyous excitement by pulling away from the pack as if they were kiddie cars rather than Indy cars. He opened an eight-second lead in the first four laps, running at 171.054 mph—more than seven miles an hour faster than Mario Andretti's record speed for the same distance in 1969. "It wasn't merely speed," said Jackie Stewart, the Scot road racer who almost won the 500 in 1966 but was a nonracing TV commentator this year. " Donohue is a man with a head. He was driving very carefully through traffic, not pressing either himself or the machine." Others, however, were pressing too hard—part of the gross differential in speed between the fastest and slowest cars that helped make this Indy the most dangerous in years. "The period of what I call collection is so short now," sighed Stewart. "Because of these high speeds—165 in the corners, by God—when something happens ahead of you, you have less time to avoid it than ever before."

The time shrink hit three drivers on the 16th lap. Steve Krisiloff, a young charger in an Andy Granatelli car, blew his engine entering Turn Three. Mel Kenyon, in one of the green Sprite Specials, skidded on the oil and walloped the wall. Gordon Johncock, a front-runner in the Offy-powered Vollstedt Special, ran right over Kenyon's car ("I've got tire tracks on my helmet," Mel chuckled later) and wiped out his own car in the process. Mario Andretti, in the premier Granatelli car, swerved but nicked the wreckage and spun out through the infield grass. Only Kenyon was injured—a gashed leg, not serious. Since Mel was already a walking catalog of racing injuries, it was probably of no more concern to him than a hangnail.

The wreckage produced a long cautionary slowdown—17 laps of yellow light. No sooner had the green light flashed back on than Peter Revson developed problems. They were probably as much psychological as mechanical, but Revson, who had been running second to Donohue, suddenly felt that his car was steering badly. He backed off—to his ultimate regret when he finished only 20 seconds behind the winner. "I blew it right there," he admitted later. "The car felt funny to me—very heavy." By the time Revson regained confidence in his steering, he was too far back.

On Lap 67 came a particularly unkind cut: Mark Donohue's gearbox failed. The American driver who exemplifies the best in automotive science and road-racing cool was undone by broken gear teeth. Mark parked his car neatly on the grass off Turn Four and spent the rest of the race in the pits, making no excuses. Neither did his alter ego and captain, Roger Penske. "We'll be around for a while," allowed Roger.

Donohue's dropout left the race in the hands of the men who know it best—the old USAC pros. For many laps Joe Leonard, in a yellow Samsonite Special prepared by George Bignotti, dueled furiously with his more famous teammate, defending champ Al Unser, but then Joe's turbocharger blew on Lap 124. Al, in a new Johnny Lightning Ford looking very much like the one with which he won the race and the USAC championship last year, had retaken the lead at 118 laps—and thereafter he kept it. Where was brother Bobby? Charging hard in a wicked dark blue Eagle-Offy set up by Dan Gurney. Bobby had been hassled by the police earlier in the month for street speeding, and many of the longhaired counterculturists in the crowd were cheering him on. Lloyd Ruby, admired for his speed and pitied for his foul luck at Indy and now running fourth, was the true love of the multitude, but then Lloyd was black-flagged for a smoking engine and he took the sad, familiar walk back up pit row.

There were other woes of attrition yet to come, and one was a horror—a scare relieved in a way by courage, yet a scare you would not want to experience every May 29. Closing on Mike Mosley's G.C. Murphy Special as he entered Turn Four late in the race, Bobby Unser nearly bought the same chunk of the farm that his brother Jerry did back in 1959. Mosley, who had hit the wall twice during qualifying, hit it again. Unser saw Mosley shed a tire and smack the wall, then spun and hit it himself. Mosley's car erupted in a 40-foot gout of flame; bits and pieces of machinery splattered in every direction. Gary Bettenhausen, running far back in his sluggish Thermo King Special, stopped when he came to the wreckage, vaulted out of his car while it was still rolling and pulled Mosley from the fire. Memories of dad, perhaps; Tony Bettenhausen had been killed in a fiery crash in 1961. Mosley was helicoptered out with a broken leg and burns—his condition "serious"—but Bobby was unhurt except for "a heckuva headache." At about this time brother Al slipped past—now safely in the lead—and sped on toward Victory Lane. "I knew Bobby was in that mess, but on the next lap I saw him standing there, waving at me," Al said later. "It was a comfort."

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