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Suggest to an Indy driver that he quit while he's ahead and he'll laugh in your face and tell you there's no such thing as "ahead" when dealing with the Brickyard. Put three winners of the Indy 500 together—like, say, a Johnny Rutherford, an Al Unser and an A.J. Foyt—ask them to run four laps flat-out for $20,000 and the pole position for this year's race, then watch them try to outdrive, outpsych and outtune each other until one is less behind than the other two, and you will not see them going for anything less than broke. If Indy qualifying were a draw poker game, the winner would not be the man who held onto his pair of kings instead of going for the royal flush—unless one of the players had been burned before and had learned something about the odds.
Last Saturday's opening day of qualifying presented just that kind of deal for Rutherford, Unser and Foyt. During the first week of practice they had been the fastest trio on the 2.5-mile track—Rutherford at 189.633 mph, Unser at 189.743 and Foyt at 189.633—and there had been a three-way tie in the psyching department. Which brought it all down to tuning on the morning of qualifying. Last year Rutherford (who holds the four-lap qualifying record of 198.413 mph set in 1973, when USAC's rules regarding the permissible amount of turbocharger boost were more lenient) had made some last-minute changes to his McLaren-Offy and qualified a disappointing seventh. This year he held pat, and his hand was good enough for an average of 188.957 mph. Not bad on a track that had changed after overnight rains had scrubbed it clean. In contrast Unser fiddled with the front wing of his Parnelli just before qualifying, which resulted in it pushing too much, while Foyt, who had won the pole the last two years, fiddled with the rear wing of his Coyote and found it sliding too much. The reactions of the latter two while Rutherford scooped up the pot were what you would expect.
Unser: "Sometimes you just guess wrong. We made a change and...[sigh]...suffered."
Track announcer to Foyt as he pulled back into the pits: "Well, A.J., that sure was a real good run."
Foyt: "It wasn't really good at all. It was a disgrace to me, my car and the team."
Announcer: "Uh, well, uh, you had one good lap. Uh, tell us about the other three."
Foyt: "The darn thing wasn't handling. If you had your eyes open, you could have seen that."
Be that as it may, many of the drivers of the other 39 cars in Gasoline Alley would neither have suffered from nor been disgraced by Unser's 186.258 or Foyt's 185.261. But those speeds had allowed Gordon Johncock's Sinmast Wildcat and Tom Sneva's Norton Spirit McLaren-Offy to slip into the front row at 188.531 and 186.355 respectively, with Al and A.J. left to commiserate in Row 2. Unser added some suspense on Sunday morning when he wheeled out his backup car and announced he might try again for the pole, but a slipping clutch forestalled any such attempt.
If Unser had been the fast qualifier it would have stood the Brickyard on its ear, which would not have been all that unusual considering that his car is owned by Vel Miletich and Parnelli Jones, and the latter has a history of standing the Speedway on its ear.
It's been nine years since Parnelli Jones, the driver, led the infamous turbine incursion into Indy that was stopped short of altering the look and sound of the 500 for all time by a USAC rule change. It's been just four years since Jones, the owner, unveiled the Parnelli chassis with its dihedral wings, again of short-lived shock value because the drivers disliked them. Then, last year during practice at the Brickyard, Parnelli, the innovator, gave a sneak preview of his latest brainstorm, a petite new chassis wrapped around an English Cosworth-Ford V-8 engine.