On the surface, at least, it all looked ominously familiar. The same dark columns of thunderheads marched down the sky as the same bright circus of race cars went round and round in practice, and the same rowdy, beer-guzzling crowd whooped it up under the oak trees at Turn One. But when qualifying day arrived in Indianapolis last Saturday, all similarities ceased. Just as the event was about to turn sour—what with the inept officiating, the scorched spectators, the deaths and other distractions—Indy saved itself.
The rains that had played havoc with last year's race held off just long enough to permit a full morning of time trials. And when the weather finally did put an end to the automotive action, the crowd took over the task of entertainment. Streakers by the dozen pranced out of the "Snake Pit," the enclave of youthful exuberance in the infield at the southwest corner of the track, and one more elderly nude assaulted the new starting tower on the main straight.
Granted, most of the streakers were male and overweight, thus leaving a lot to be desired esthetically in that absurd sport, but still it was a refreshing touch to a scene that in recent years has been far too grim. Even more refreshing was the fact that the Indy cops, never known for their gentleness, did not come down hard on the kids. Only 14 were arrested, and 11 so much as slugged. When the Big Streak ended, the kids themselves helped clean up the broken beer bottles on the track and even replaced the Cyclone fence they had torn down to gain access to the banked turn.
Along the way, as everyone had expected, A. J. Foyt Jr. of Houston gained a firm grip on the pole position for the 58th running of the Indianapolis 500. A firm grip, but not a fully secure one. When qualifying resumes this Saturday 11 drivers who did not have a chance to run on opening day will have a shot at bumping Foyt from the pole. But their shot will be a long one at best.
Foyt dominated the scene right from the moment that his flat, orange Gilmore Racing Special took to the track. Restrictions on wing size and turbocharger boost have lowered speeds for this year's race by nearly 10 miles an hour, but it seemed as if Supertex had found a new way around the speed barrier.
During Thursday's practice session conditions were perfect for fast running—temperatures in the low 50s, the skies windless and overcast. Johnny Rutherford, who had captured the pole last year with a clocking in excess of 198 mph, went out in his McLaren and turned a quick lap of 192.389. Foyt emerged from Gasoline Alley, warmed up with a couple of slow, growling laps, and then almost playfully whipped off a run of 192.636, just enough to edge Rutherford. Later in the afternoon Wally Dallenbach cranked out a 193.434 in his red STP Eagle prepared by Master Mechanic George Bignotti. Again Foyt was compelled to put the upstart in his place. He quickly turned a lap at 196.249. Nuff said.
Indeed, so fast was Foyt—and so stringent the speed restrictions for this year's race—that many top teams were not even making a full effort to win the pole, despite the fact that a bonus estimated at some $20,000 goes with it. With fuel for the race reduced from 350 to 280 gallons, the cars will have to get 1.8 miles per gallon if they are to finish the full 500 miles. That can be accomplished only by lowering the "boost" pressure in their turbochargers and thus running at a considerably lower speed than the cars are capable of hitting.
Bobby Unser, whose high-flying Dan Gurney Eagle has already won two of the season's three championship races, virtually ceded the pole to Foyt. "The trick is to be race ready," said Team Manager Gurney. "We want to be somewhere in the first three rows on race day so as to stay clear of any traffic jams during the start. But this year, with the speed restrictions, the pole doesn't seem to matter that much."
Others who might have wanted to challenge Foyt for the pole met with the mechanical frustrations that have made Indy a cuss word for so many years. Gary Bettenhausen, driving an impeccably prepared Eagle set up by Mark Donohue and Roger Penske, was all show and very little go. Bettenhausen managed to blow two engines in as many days. Mario Andretti, whose brand-new Parnelli had won the pole at Trenton Speedway last month and was touted as the only car in the field built specifically to this season's fuel requirements, could not get untracked. After four days of frustration during which he was just able to exceed 186 miles an hour, Andretti parked the Parnelli and turned to his backup Eagle—which also refused to reach 190. Teammate Al Unser fared a bit better in his own Parnelli Jones Eagle, inching over 188 on a couple of practic runs. But then he drew a qualification starting slot well down the list for Saturday and shortly before the big show started, he burned a piston in practice. This put him out of the running for the pole.
The third member of the Jones "Superteam," Joe Leonard, was still sidelined with the broken leg he sustained in the California 500 at Ontario in March. "The leg isn't mending as fast as Joe had hoped," said Andretti, shaking his head. "It's not good. The circulation hasn't come back completely."