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Maybe it's those fumes, or the gobs of money, or the brain-frying speeds, but some ingredient in Championship Trail racing produces more guerrilla-fighter nerves in the average car or pit area than you could have found at Little Round Top. Fights, shattered friendships, bankruptcies, rubber checks, lawsuits and subpoenas are not unknown. Teeth have been bared, knuckles scuffed and lawyers made rich in contretemps over rules interpretations, prize money, driver contracts, engine cheating, wheel widths and even the weather. Yes, even isotherms and pressure cells have become a source of racing tension.
You will of course recall the recent water follies at Indianapolis, wherein Johnny Rutherford stroked to an unexpectedly easy, abbreviated victory ahead of a furiously splashing A.J. Foyt. That marked the third time in the past four Indys that the outcome had been affected by rain. The same nimbus shadows have spread across the big 2.5-mile tri-oval at Mt. Pocono, Pa., where the United States Auto Club contests the second of its three 500-mile extravaganzas each summer (the remaining race is held at the smog-beset but rain-free Ontario Motor Speedway in California). Since the Pocono track opened in 1971, three of its six 500s have been disrupted by the weather. In 1972 Hurricane Agnes forced the race to be delayed for two months. Last year rain stopped proceedings at 425 miles. This year the weather brought Pocono still more frustration. Qualifying, designed as a neatly contained one-day event to hype the race a week hence, was drowned in a sullen downpour. Only a pair of chronic back markers, Dick Simon and Al Loquasto, managed to qualify, both at speeds more than 10 mph slower than A.J. Foyt's best practice times.
The rain persisted the following day, creating the stark prospect that the Schaefer 500 (as the event is officially called) might be run without the presence of local hero Mario Andretti. No matter how officials juggled qualifying, the simple fact was that Mario would be gone the entire week, testing a Lotus Grand Prix car in France, and would not return until hours before the race. Still, this campaign-weary veteran, in the opinion of many the most versatile race driver in the world, is a resident of nearby Nazareth and a gate attraction of Ruthian stature in eastern Pennsylvania. Moreover, he is running the USAC 500-milers this season with Roger Penske, the one-man conglomerate whose headquarters are in Reading, only a few score miles down the interstate from Pocono. The idea of Andretti and his Penske McLaren being absent from a major spectacle in Pennsylvania ("Penskevania" to rival race teams) would be about as exciting as King Kong with a rhesus monkey in the title role.
Poring through the USAC rule book, the race promoters came upon a saving provision whereby a starting field could be selected by a complicated lottery system. Laughing defiantly at the clouds above, they set out to create the 33-car grid without so much as cranking over an engine—thus guaranteeing a starting spot for the absent Andretti and the heartwarming rhythm of clicking turnstiles. Fourteen drivers were placed in "protected positions," assuring them starting places. These were former 500-mile race winners, former national champions and those ranking high in the point standings, and included virtually all the headliners: Foyt, Rutherford, Al and Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock, Pancho Carter, Mike Mosley (fresh from dominating the recent Milwaukee race) and Andretti. Simon and Loquasto were also locked in, leaving another 19 drivers to draw separately for 14 remaining positions. Of the 38 official entries the five losers in the draw would then get a chance to make conventional qualifying attempts for the three last-row spots.
Everybody puzzled over this strange procedure for a while, then began to applaud the system or scream bloody murder, depending on their luck in the lottery. Johnny Parsons Jr., the son of the 1950 Indy winner, smiled the broadest. He drew the pole position—-the first time in his eight-year big-car career he had been within sniffing distance of that slot. With him in the front row would be Billy Vukovich and none other than Andretti. Perhaps this fortuitous draw would trigger a change in the despicable luck that has dogged Mario in recent years.
People have tended to forget that, burdened as he has been by endless tours in slow and unreliable cars, this personable, intensely competitive driver—now 36 years old and chunkier, richer and more subdued than when he burst on the racing scene 12 years ago—has won more USAC big-car races than any other man in history except Foyt. The sad part is that of his 32 career victories only two have come since 1970, none since 1973.
But now Andretti's fortunes appeared to be on the rise again. He arrived at the Pocono garage area early Sunday morning, burrowing through mobs of admirers and autograph-seekers in a blue Ford van loaded with his family. Looking fresh-faced and relaxed despite a mad transatlantic rush to make the race, he briefly checked with car owner Penske, then fled to the cool solitude of his motor home. "I've been like a new man," he said, referring to his contracts with Colin Chapman's JPS Lotus team in Formula I and with Penske's USAC organization. "Roger knows where he's going and what he's doing every minute. All I have to do is drive. And there's a new spirit at Lotus, too. We've got a strong car that's getting all its power on the ground and the brakes are great. With a few little changes we'll be very tough. Chapman is a winner. Like me."
Propping his bare feet on a thickly upholstered couch, Andretti mused about the race that was about to begin. "This is a track that demands a balanced car. A little bit of understeer or oversteer can make you look like a chump. I probably won't be able to figure out the right tire combination until the first stop." He acknowledged that Foyt, using the same car he drove to victory at Pocono last year, would have a decided advantage at the start, but Andretti seemed devoid of the brooding, rather defensive attitude that had haunted him in recent years.
None of the "protected" drivers had much to complain about following the lottery. "It's basically fair," said Foyt. "There wasn't much they could do, and besides, it's a 500-miler and it don't really much matter where you start." A.J. could afford to be sanguine about the situation. After all he was in the fifth starting position and had been the only man to exceed 185 mph in practice. That gave him and the flat, wedge-shaped Coyote that had served as his back-up car at Indy a two-mph advantage over the next-fastest car. "I'll tell you, though," he confessed later, "I was so afraid of pulling that last spot that I didn't even show up for the drawing."
"I knew I'd get last," said car owner Parnelli Jones, "and I did." His driver, Al Unser—who with Jones, Andretti, the retired Joe Leonard, legions of designers, mechanics, P.R. men and high-dollar sponsors formed the "Super Team" of the early 1970s—started his tiny, sweet-sounding turbocharged Cosworth V-8 in the 16th and last "protected" spot.