The cars were not quite as hot as the sun, nor were the speeds as high as the drama. But for all that, the opening day of qualifications for the 59th running of the Indianapolis 500 was more than a bit of all right. Not only did the weather gods abandon their spite of recent rainy years, they were positively beneficent. Cloudless skies framed a late spring sun whose bite was mitigated by cool breezes not strong enough to unduly hassle the cars and drivers. Add the smell of blossoming lilacs mixed with petroleum fumes and freshly popped beer and last Saturday was an ideal day for all-American automotive melodrama.
That the show even got off the ground seemed miracle enough. Motor racing in general, and the U.S. Auto Club's championship car series in particular, have been hurting in the recession, so much so that the last of USAC's 500-mile outings at Ontario, Calif. was a near disaster in terms of sponsorship and competitive machinery (SI, March 17). Yet Indy has a life of its own, not just competitive but economic as well. Whatever bucks could be scraped together to support an entry in this year's race had been scraped, and the result was a field of 56 spanking bright machines, fully 41 of which had passed USAC's stringent technical inspectors by qualifying day. And though many were older racers with little hope of winning the pole position, at least eight or nine cars stood a chance, a respectable percentage even in the most prosperous of years.
But high drama requires more than a robust cast. A certain tension must be established between hero and potential disaster, a tension of plot, whether its outcome be decided by broadswords, six-guns or race cars. This year the hero was obvious from the start: Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. of Houston and the raceways of America. If numbers can say anything of heroism, old A.J. had many of them working for him. Age 40 is a bit long in the tooth for a sport that places such high demands on reflexes and eyesight, yet A.J. continues quicker than ever. A few other numbers: Foyt has won 50, count 'em, 50 championship races, the most in history ( Mario Andretti lies a distant second with 32); up to this year Foyt has driven 5,967� miles in competition at Indy (only luckless Lloyd Ruby, with 5,745 miles—and no wins—is close among active drivers); he has driven in 225 champ car races as opposed to runner-up Roger McCluskey's 184, has started the last 17 Indy races vs. Ruby's 15, and leads all active drivers in the number of race laps on which he has been in the lead—394 compared to Al Unser's 311. Ah, but the big number is four. Up to this year. A.J. has been tied with Wilbur Shaw, Louis Meyer and Mauri Rose as the only three-time Indy winners. If Foyt can win an unprecedented fourth 500, he will be not only the best driver in American history but, arguably, the best the world has ever known.
O.K., but the race itself is not until May 25. How could A.J. excite us with nothing more significant than a run for the pole? After all, he had already demonstrated the superiority of his Coyote chassis and V-8 Foyt motor in the season's earlier races: a victory in a 100-mile qualifying race at Ontario, Calif., the California 500 a week later and the Trenton 200 in early April. He looked like a shoo-in for the Indy pole, but only if you don't know Indy. Potential disaster—everything from simple humiliation to outright dismemberment—faces every hero at every moment on that most demanding of racecourses. As practice wound up and the cars wound round and round, it suddenly looked possible that A.J. and his Gilmore Coyote could lose the pole to Gordon Johncock, the 1973 Indy winner, in George Bignotti's slick new little Sinmast Wildcat.
"Every car has a lot of speed in it," Foyt said. "The trick is getting the speed out of it." With all the pressures Indy generates, it takes more than driver talent to make a car perform to its maximum. It takes cool and skill and leadership, all of which A.J. possesses in quantity. It also takes good tires. Clearly, as practice wore along and Johncock turned in consistently quicker lap times than Foyt, the question arose as to A.J.'s ability to meet the test. He was working with two cars in this duel—his No. 10 "wide" Coyote, with which he had won the earlier races of the year, and his new narrow No. 14 car, which he obviously wanted to prove worthy. Still, the best Foyt could crank out of the new car in practice was 192 mph plus small change. On the Thursday before qualifying, as the psych built and sandbags fell soddenly on the rain-washed track, Johncock had pulled all stops and ripped off a sizzling lap of 195.228 mph. That won Wee Gordie not only a pair of free dinners at a local restaurant for fastest clocking of the day (three times in the previous four days he had been so honored with hamburgers), but it put the fear of the Wildcat into the crowd. Whether it scared A.J. into superhuman efforts we will never know, for he refuses to speak of it, and his manner on that day—hatless, laughing and scratching—indicated a jolly self-confidence in a man usually known for his slow boil and swift tongue.
Who knew? Well, one thing is for sure—everybody wanted to find out.
As the Saturday sun rose over Indiana's verdant fields and plastic suburbs on qualifying day, the traffic lanes into the Speedway were nearly as clogged as on race day itself. ABC-TV later judged the crowd at 175,000 while local Indianapolis stations crowed it up to 225,000. Since the Speedway does not release attendance figures, it would be safe to split the difference and peg it at 200 big ones. Certainly to the veterans of this race it looked like the largest qualifying day crowd in memory, and the density—along with the sights, smells and sounds—seemed close to the 300,000 who turn out on the big day itself.
All of which raises a quick question. Why, if racing is hurting so sorely for sponsorship money and the American economy is in such a bad way, do so many folks come to the races? This year's Daytona 500 stock-car race had a record crowd, and if Indy time trials can draw so many live, on-the-spot, hand-me-an-other-beer spectators, then there must be something in motor racing that the moneybags are missing. Maybe it's just that we like cars and drivers better than we like most things. Or perhaps it is because men out of work are proud enough of other men who are working on shoestrings—both financial and dangerous—to spare the money.
If it is a peculiarly American trip, it is a good one. And as the cars began howling and grumbling their way around the 2�-mile oval on Saturday, the excitement began to rise. The only smashup of the morning came when Eldon Rasmussen lost it in Turn One and stuffed his yellow Rascar-Foyt into the retaining wall, shaking both himself and the car severely. But crashes aside, the suspense grew by means of the draw—the order of qualifying attempts determined by each driver pulling a numbered ball from a box the night before. It turned out that A.J. had to run early—fifth man on the line—while Johncock would go next to last, having drawn No. 40. In between would come other dark horses, whose prospects brightened quite a bit just as the day did, drivers like Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Mike Mosley, Lloyd Ruby and the sharp youngster of the Roger Penske stable, 26-year-old Tom Sneva, a former junior high school principal from Spokane whose consistency won him USAC's Rookie of the Year Award in 1973.
When Foyt rolled out onto the rapidly heating track shortly after 11:30 a.m., no competitor had run faster than 186 mph. The crowd roared A.J. on his way, the fervent cheer that punctuates his every move at Indy. But on his first lap Foyt could turn no better than 189.195 mph, and he whipped back into the pits. The word went out that he hoped to try again later in the day when the track was cooler and more grasping, perhaps with different tires. The crowd moaned and turned back to the sun and the beer and the smell of the lilacs. The climax would have to wait.