Happy endings are as rare in motor racing as five-second pit stops, but for Bobby Unser and his boss Dan Gurney the rain-lashed conclusion of the Indianapolis 500 was a delight. For Unser it was his second Indy win—his first came in 1968—and for Gurney, whose best finish as an Indy driver had been a brace of second places in 1968 and 1969, it was the end of a frustrating nightmare. But for everyone else involved the race was a m�lange of confusion, disappointment, sweat, fire and ire.
When the 500 was red-flagged at the end of 174 laps—with 26 left to run—the most disappointed man on the 2�-mile oval must have been A.J. Foyt. This was supposed to be Supertex' year, what with his splendid pole-winning qualifying run two weeks earlier, his California 500 win in March and the prospect of an unprecedented fourth Speedway victory just around and around and around the bend. Foyt managed to lead the race for 47 laps during the early going, but his slick Gilmore Coyote could not stand the pace when Wally Dallenbach turned loose his Sinmast Wildcat and A.J. ended up in third place. (And when the race was over, in the hospital. Injury was added to insult because of an errant piece of metal in Foyt's cockpit; it had broken loose and become lodged under his rump, causing what the hospital called "contusions of the upper hip." But A.J., ever determined, had refused to take the time to get out of his car to remove it.)
Second in the Disappointment Derby, though not in the race itself, was Dallenbach. His Day-Glo red Wildcat, prepared by the old master wrench, George Bignotti, was clearly the fastest car on the track. Dallenbach started from the seventh row and quickly charged to the front, taking the lead away from Foyt on the 59th lap and more or less maintaining it with ease for the next 100 laps. Then he burned a piston and dropped out, only very slightly consoled by $14,400 in lap-lead prize money.
Confusion was this year's lot of last year's winner, Johnny Rutherford, wheeling a green-and-white Gatorade McLaren. When the rain came slashing in from the west to end the race and send cars swirling out of control through the corners like so many bright leaves spinning down a gutter, Rutherford was approaching the finish, desperately squinting through the downpour for Unser, who he thought was just ahead of him—and for the checkered flag in case Unser wasn't. Bobby did indeed have the lead, however, and Rutherford had to be content with second place overall. As the thunder cracked and lightning stitched the dirty gray sky, Unser eased his blue Jorgensen Eagle across the finish line at a walking pace—it more closely resembled an automotive dog-paddle—to become Indy's 59th and most recent hero.
An eerie quality pervaded the entire race. It started the night before with a total lunar eclipse visible through the thickening clouds. The hooting, brawling crowds on 16th Street outside the Speedway grew strangely quiet as the eclipse progressed. The weather was hot and humid on race morning: temperatures in the mid-80s and the air thick enough to spread on a piece of toast.
A major concern of the 33 racers preparing for their day's deadly work was the track temperature, which reached 130� just before the start. A hot track could cause rapid heating of the slick racing tires and a resultant loss of grip through the corners. Gary Bettenhausen beat the heat problem by dousing himself with water just before the start, but unfortunately could not do the same for his tires. Toward the end of the race, the right rear wheel of his Thermo King Special collapsed as he entered the main straightaway. Keeping his cool, Bettenhausen bounced the car along the wall, peeling off paint and speed, and managed to come to a safe halt in the infield grass of Turn One.
For the second year in a row the start of the race—always the most dangerous moment—came off letter perfect. Gordon Johncock, in the second Sinmast Wildcat, leaped into a quick and commanding lead before he had even reached the first corner, with Foyt and Unser falling in behind him. By the third lap John-cock had opened up a 2�-second gap, while his teammate Dallenbach was gobbling up the slower machinery between his 21st spot on the grid and the front of the pack. Rumor had it that Dallenbach was picking up as much as 150 extra horsepower via a concoction of nitrous oxide being injected directly into the Wildcat's cylinders. Certainly the car was outrunning them all on the straight-aways. By the seventh lap Dallenbach had rolled into fifth place with Johncock still in the lead. And then, two laps later, Foyt made his move.
As Supertex nipped past Johncock on the main straight a joyful roar erupted from the stands. It was followed by an equally heartfelt moan a short time later when another old favorite, Lloyd Ruby, retired on the backstretch. Luckless Lloyd, in the second of the Team McLaren cars, had done it again.
Then it was Johncock's turn to break a few hearts. He came limping around Turn Four on the 11th lap and coasted into the pits. All Bignotti's mechanical magic could not help him this day. He was out of the race. By now, however, Dallenbach had worked his way up to fourth place—behind Foyt, Rutherford and Unser—and was obviously just waiting for traffic to thin so he could make his run at the leaders.
Meanwhile, as Dallenbach dallied, it was time for the latest episode in the tragicomedy of Mario Andretti, racing's snakebite victim. Andretti had qualified on the second weekend of time trials, because of a Formula I commitment in Monaco (where he ran a luckless eight laps), and started the race from the ninth row. He worked his way smoothly up the middle of the pack and then on the 22nd lap came in for his first routine pit stop. It was a quick one, true, but when Andretti pulled back out into the pit road his engine died. Crewmen raced down to him and shoved him back to his pit, just under the scoring tower. Vroom! went the hand-held starter; hackety-hack, went Andretti's motor, and out he went—only to stall again near the end of the pit road. Only on the third try did he manage to regain the track, leaving weary red-shirted Viceroy crewmen panting in his wake. Some 30 laps later Andretti lost control in Turn Three and clipped the wall, taking himself and the car out of the race for good. At that, it was an anticlimax.