SI Vault
Brock Yates
June 23, 1975
Once Friday the 13th and its crashes were behind them, the racers settled down—only to discover Mario Andretti ahead
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
June 23, 1975

All's Well That Ends The Fastest

Once Friday the 13th and its crashes were behind them, the racers settled down—only to discover Mario Andretti ahead

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Building up to the proper speed for a big Sunday event is an accepted fact of motor racing life, but there are a few times when a driver almost feels like sidling warily up to his car. Last Friday was the 13th, as everyone noted, perhaps not the best time for the superstitious to buckle into the cramped cockpit of an evil-tempered 500-hp projectile called a Formula 5000 car. But it had to be done, as surely as the series must go on, since Formula 5000 is nothing if not dedicated to success. For one thing, this formula has yet to become a household word, even to hard-core motor racing freaks. It is a mere stripling compared with other open-wheel, single-seat racing machines like Indianapolis or Formula I cars, both of which have been around longer than all but the most enthusiastic automotive archivists can recall.

One had to empathize with the small band of jittery drivers who prepared for practice and qualifying at the Mosport, Ontario road course on that ominous Friday. Legend labels race drivers as notoriously superstitious, with specific fears regarding such items as green cars, peanut shells and the number 13. But they also are solidly addicted to the limelight, which might prompt them to stroll under ladders and let black cats cross their bows, provided the audience is large enough. Run at Le Mans or Daytona on Friday the 13th? Of course, because should disaster strike, at least one would make a properly spectacular departure, witnessed by a large audience and chronicled by a worldwide press. But to buy it in a Formula 5000 car at Mosport, Ontario, on a dreary, rain-spattered day on the perimeter of the Canadian wilderness with a ragged collection of fellow drivers, mechanics and a few track officials in attendance, would embody just about as much G�tterd�mmerung-Bonanza drama as slipping in the bathtub.

Their faces starched with concern, American superstars like Bobby Unser, his kid brother Al, and Mario Andretti, plus English aces Jackie Oliver, David Hobbs and 1974 Formula 5000 champion Brian Redman squirmed into their weirdly bewinged machines for the first practice session. Spread over the adjacent forested ravines and hummocks was the 2.46 miles of Mosport, perhaps the most challenging loop of macadam in North America.

With the low clouds shedding a chill mist, the old pros sought speed cautiously on the nasty, off-camber corners and the humpty-dumpty straightaway, where 180 mph comes in a series of stomach-churning darts and swoops through the stands of pines and softwoods. Mosport severely punishes the impulsive, as Danny Ongais quickly discovered. This taciturn young man, a former drag-racing star accustomed to 220-mph thrusts down the quarter-mile, had embarked on his rookie year in Formula 5000 with an impressive performance in the season's opener at Pocono, Pa. But a few laps at Mosport did him in. Looping off a roller-coaster, downhill right, Ongais whacked the guardrail with sufficient force to pulverize his shiny new Lola and keep him wedged in the wreckage for painful minutes. He was carted off to a nearby hospital, but fortunately escaped serious injury, as did his associates who also spent the rest of that jinxed day caroming off Mosport's rails. Shortly after practice picked up again following Ongais' crash, Redman, who is renowned for his tidy manners with superfast automobiles, stuffed his Lola into a fence when a slower car blocked his line. Al Unser, Ongais' teammate, Californian John Woodner, and Indiana sportsman Evan Noyes then bent their cars in a three-car shunt, which caused even the most confirmed rationalists in the pits to start groping for their rabbit's feet.

The only man on the premises who remained unflappable was the slight, soft-spoken Andretti, one of the fastest, most versatile drivers in the history of motor sports. Before rain turned the final practice session into a low-speed skating party, Andretti steered his Parnelli Jones-owned Lola around Mosport at an average of 120.7 mph, which was just fractionally slower than the track's outright record held by a Formula 1 Ferrari. This velocity was somewhat amazing, because Formula 5000 machines, with their heavier, bulkier bodies and less sophisticated, Detroit-built, production-type engines are supposed to be fast, but not as fast as the hand-built, midget-monster Grand Prix cars. Does an alarm clock keep better time than a chronograph? Is an off-the-rack dress more glamorous than a Paris original? Of course not. Nor is a little-celebrated 5000 car expected to rival a Grand Prix racer unless it is operated by a man like Andretti, who is the only driver to have recorded victories in Formula I, Formula 5000 and Indianapolis-type machinery.

"This 5000 series is still a child," Mario said as he crawled out of his red and white car. "It started as a second-class event and operated in the shadow of the old Can-Am sports car races for a long time. But now the Can-Am is gone and 5000 is the premier road racing series in North America. And the cars are technically very sophisticated. I think Formula 5000 has tremendous potential."

"I think it needs help," groused Bobby Unser, whose specialty is driving Dan Gurney's Indy-winning Eagle championship car. Through a crazy-quilt sanctioning setup, Indy cars also can run Formula 5000 races, but to offset their approximate 200-hp advantage, they must make a mandatory pit stop, which nullifies their use. Formula I cars, which are about 150 pounds lighter than 5000 cars and produce approximately 50 hp less from their smaller engines, are not eligible to compete in 5000. "The promotion needs improvement," Unser said. "You've got a lot of big names in this series, but the whole thing isn't being sold effectively."

The Indy champ's reservations notwithstanding, the Mosport management had indeed done some heavy selling, attracting a crowd of perhaps 60,000 by race time. After a Saturday devoted to sports car racing, the weather cleared and the track's infield pastures became spotted with thousands of tents populated by a milling mob soaked with equal parts of sun and beer. The spectacle they came to witness was divided into three parts: a pair of 62.5-mile qualifying heats and a 125-mile grand finale involving, theoretically at least, the top finishers in the two preliminaries. In reality a modest 27 Formula 5000 machines had assembled at Mosport (three were wiped out on Black Friday and six others suffered a variety of mechanical problems), which meant that the remaining 18 cars that were able to wobble to the starting grid were all assured of spots in the $55,000 main event.

This system is not popular with the star drivers. Andretti seemed to express the consensus by observing, "Qualifying heats are essentially minor league. These races should be run like an Indy or Grand Prix race: one big go with everything on the line. At the very least we ought to be running a pair of 125-milers with an overall winner."

Following the flurry of rasping sound and blurred color that composed the two heats, each one zinging through in about 32 minutes, the Mosport 5000 feature began to assume a familiar form. The seven races held during 1974 had been dominated by Andretti and Redman, each of whom won three, with Redman snatching the championship by a few points in the final contest. This year's event at Pocono also was taken by Redman after Andretti's car broke down while holding a long lead. But Andretti had his Lola on its best behavior at Mosport. He won the opening heat in effortless fashion, loafing home 32 seconds ahead of young Australian Warwick Brown. Redman followed former Can-Am champion Jackie Oliver for seven laps of the second preliminary, then breezed to an easy win after Oliver's sinister black UOP Shadow suffered an electrical failure. Bobby Unser soldiered on to second place in the Gurney-Eagle, seemingly lacking the power to catch the smooth-running Redman, whose Lola had magically regained its top form following its Friday crunch.

Continue Story
1 2