SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
May 21, 1973
Like an ogre guarding a mountaintop, the Speedway again summoned up its fearsome tricks to stand off racing's newest assault on 200 mph—this time snuffing out a driver's life in the process
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May 21, 1973

The Deadly Wrath Of Old Man Indy

Like an ogre guarding a mountaintop, the Speedway again summoned up its fearsome tricks to stand off racing's newest assault on 200 mph—this time snuffing out a driver's life in the process

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Qualifying day proved as windy as the rest, with gusts up to 20 mph jumping in unexpectedly through the gaps in the grandstands. No one knows for sure whether it was wind or a suspension failure that did it, but at 9:37 a.m. on Saturday as he was entering Old Indy's favorite ambush site, Turn One, Art Pollard lost control of his car at about 190 mph, and smacked straight into the wall. The car exploded, skidded 1,450 feet through the short chute separating Turn One and Turn Two, rolled over through the grass and then hit the wall again at the second turn's exit. A witness saw Pollard looking back through the flames during the skid, searching perhaps for dangerous overtaking traffic. Or maybe for the face of Old Indy, who was killing him. His right arm and his head were both broken during the final, fatal tumble into the far wall. He breathed flames, too, and that finished him. He was pronounced dead at 10:40 a.m. Art Pollard was 46 years old, a veteran driver but not yet beyond his potential. He was one of the few men on the Championship Trail who could explain, in clear, human terms, exactly what was happening inside a race car, and inside a racing driver's mind. No one who admires good men will ever forgive his sport for killing him.

Pollard's death cast a surly, sullen pall over the track. Bettenhausen, one of the early qualifiers—and a man whose father had died at the hands of Old Indy—turned a four-lap average of 195.559 just before the news of Pollard's death was announced. It was a splendid run, but Gary's grin faded when he heard the word. Soon after, he and Bill Vukovich, his good buddy, left to play golf.

Still, Bettenhausen's quick time gave hope to the quarter-million fans that perhaps the big 200 could yet be beat. After all, Gary's blue McLaren was not considered a match for a Dan Gurney Eagle of the sort that Bobby Unser was driving. That hope was boosted higher when young Steve Krisiloff, a skillful longhair from Parsippany, N.J., cranked out a 194.932 average after running no quicker than 190 in practice. "It was time to get it up," said Krisiloff.

Then out came Savage in his red Eagle. His first lap broke Bobby Unser's track record of 196.678 with a clocking of 197.152. His average for the full 10 miles also was a new record—196.582 mph. Both Savage and his chief mechanic, the nonpareil George Bignotti, grinned like a couple of happy bears. They thought they had the pole.

Sorry, gentlemen. That honor was to go once again to Team McLaren, whose manager, Teddy Mayer, was wise enough to hire veteran Johnny Rutherford for this season's campaigns. Rutherford, a sprint car superstar, is one of the fastest qualifiers in the racing business. Back in 1970, driving a less than adequate piece of machinery, he nearly bumped Al Unser from the pole at Indy. At 35 Rutherford is still the hard-charging dude he was 15 years ago when he entered the sport. His favorite word is, literally, "banzai." Today, though, he was not feeling that way. His best friend in racing was Art Pollard. "I'd decided not to go out and banzai it," he said after his run. "It wouldn't hurt my feelings at all if they slowed these cars down by 20 mph or even more."

Not that Johnny slowed too much when his chance came up. His first lap was 198.676. He cooled it a bit on the next one, but then—with Old Man Indy's wind going slack for a moment—he pulled out an incredible 199.071. That was just 45.21 seconds around the big, square-shouldered circle. Or, roughly, 16 heartbeats short of the big 200. His final four-lap average was 198.413, and it won him rights to the pole come May 28.

"It's the dirtiest track I've seen in 11 years of racing here," Rutherford said later. "There was the wind, and then there was all that paper the fans were letting blow onto the track. Hot-dog wrappers, beer cups, toiletries—stuff like that. And they kept leaning out and waving at me. I remember thinking it was either jubilation or else they saw something was falling off my car. At any moment I expected the engine to lunch or the suspension to break or something nifty along those lines. Still, it was a very comfortable ride."

Bobby Unser could not say the same. Rutherford had come close to 200 without even knowing it—his pit mates flashed him signs indicating 197 throughout the ride—but Bobby U. understood perfectly well what was expected of him. After refusing his first chance at the mark due to trouble in his turbocharger, he waited at the back of the line for the wind to die down and his moment to arrive. In between times his crew kept calling the weatherman at Indy's Weir Cook Airport, hoping against hope that the Dirty Old Man would relent. He didn't. Bobby went out at day's end and knew he could not do it. His fast lap was only 198.588, and his average 198.183. That put him second to Rutherford in the first row and ahead of Donohue, who came through with a solid 197.412 average to be third.

One of the other drivers not unduly psyched by the Old Man was, predictably, a newcomer. New Zealand's Graham McRae, boss of the Tasman Series and a hard charger in Formula 5,000 cars, talked his way into a new STP Eagle and noted, "I run about 193 in the straights in my 5,000 car, so there is no reason I can't do the same here." After only 10 laps in the Eagle he qualified at an average speed of 192.031 mph to sit in the fifth row.

The second day of qualifying produced no surprises. Indeed, USAC's national champion, Joe Leonard, could not even pull 190 out of his Parnelli. Still, the field of 30 cars that made the grid during this first and toughest weekend averaged 192.572 mph—8.561 mph faster than last year's starters.

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