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The third annual Pocono 500 did not really end. It sort of ran down slowly, scattering a trail of shredded brakes and fractured piston rings across the Pennsylvania countryside. The race, from the now-standard, Indy-type first-lap crash to the whacky finish that saw Roger McCluskey run out of fuel on the final lap and thereby transfer a certain victory to a rather surprised A. J. Foyt, was not so much a single competition as a series of ragged sprints. These moments were roughly connected by 10 caution-flag slowdowns, a number of nasty crashes, mechanical failures that eliminated three-quarters of the field and a stupefying 245 pit stops.
The bizarre ending was somehow symbolic of the entire affair, which was to proper automobile racing what Olsen and Johnson and Hellzapoppin were to subtle humor. Fortunately no one was seriously injured, even though Johnny Rutherford managed to spin his McLaren in the middle of traffic on the first turn of the first lap, and eight laps later Al Unser clouted the wall in the same corner so lustily that he sprained his neck and caused the entire race to be red-flagged for three-quarters of an hour while workmen welded and bolted the steel-plate retaining wall back into place. "Here we are at the greatest race in the East and we're at the mercy of the steel-workers' union," moaned one enthusiast while the torches hissed and crackled.
From that point on, the Schaefer Pocono 500, to use its properly commercial title, slipped further away from reality, with the giant, sun-baked crowd of perhaps 75,000 watching an endless string of drivers assume the lead only to forfeit it with visits to the pits. Thanks to hasty, post-Indy rule changes, the cars were able to run only 50 to 55 miles between fuel stops, which meant that no one—not even the fast men like Gordon Johncock, Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser—was able to take command of the race.
Andretti was perhaps the quickest man in the entire field, but a variety of turbocharger ailments kept his red and white Parnelli in the pits for much of the afternoon before it finally failed him completely in the closing laps. Johncock and Bobby Unser ran at the front for much of the way, but a slipping clutch canceled Unser's effort and Johncock blew a tire on the front straightaway, going into a masterful 200 mph slide for life past the gasping throngs.
That left a pair of USAC's hoariest veterans to scrap for the victory. Roger McCluskey, at 42 years one of the senior citizens of the Indy scene, and A. J. Foyt, who needs little introduction, sailed into the final laps at the head of one of the sorriest fields of cripples in the history of the sport. Behind them were a meager six machines, most of which were staggering around the immense tri-oval like refugees from an antique car rally. They ranged from Joe Leonard's Parnelli and its ruptured transmission to Sam Posey's Eagle and its leaky oil line to Mike Hiss' cranky, slow-running machine.
McCluskey, on the other hand, was cruising in fine fashion, with a 12-second lead over Foyt as he headed into the sunset. But Foyt had rushed into the pits seven laps from the end to take on a few extra slurps of fuel while McCluskey, for some unexplained reason, appeared to be trying to make it home without another stop. After all, he had already come in 10 times for fuel and perhaps he objected to another visit to the pits as a matter of principle.
This meant that he was trying to squeeze an extra 15 miles from his allotment of methanol. His gamble failed and he coughed to a stop just around the first turn, a mile and a half from victory and a $94,000 payoff. Foyt simply motored past and took the win—at an average speed of 144.944 mph—his fourth major 500-mile career victory in this class, this one vaguely reminiscent of his 1961 Indianapolis triumph when leader Eddie Sachs stopped to change a tire three laps from the end. "We just miscalculated," mumbled McCluskey's crew chief from the solitude of the loser's garage.
The fact that Pocono was such a confusing, disjointed affair—lacking the smooth, balletlike continuity of quality motor racing—was directly traceable to the pit stops, the number of which were more than double that of any 500-mile championship race in recent history.
The Keystone Kops routine that took place in the Pocono pits was part of the legacy of Indianapolis and the black comedy that unfolded there four weeks ago during the granddaddy 500-mile race of them all. Reeling from the barrage of criticism following that sad and bloody event, the United States Auto Club, the sanctioning body for Indy-style competition, met in emergency session and adopted a series of stopgap regulations to lower speeds and increase driver safety. There were three key changes: a reduction of total fuel allotment from 375 gallons to 340 gallons per car for the 500-mile races at Pocono and Ontario; a slicing of the on-board fuel capacity of the cars from 75 gallons to 40; and the trimming of the rear airfoils or wings (whose aerodynamic downforce has been primarily responsible for the big gains in lap speeds during the past few seasons) from a width of 64 inches to 55 inches. As with many decisions made in haste, certain unexpected flaws rose up to haunt the USAC Establishment.
It took the crew chiefs who maintain the Eagles, McLarens, Parnellis et al. about 15 minutes to make the required changes—and to keep their 900 hp machines running every bit as quickly as before. They merely removed the right side saddle tank as required (the logic being that this container was most vulnerable to rupture in collisions with the retaining wall) and filled the void with a variety of nonflammable, energy-absorbing materials. Dan Gurney's crew, for example, stuffed the space full of standard household insulation. The wings were hacksawed down to the new dimensions, then more sharply angled to provide essentially the same downforce as before, much as a pilot might use more flaps. In fact, the "Pocono pruning," as the operation was called, was no problem at all. The designer of the Andretti, Al Unser and Joe Leonard cars simply snipped three inches from each end to meet the limit.