Last Sunday A. J. Foyt accomplished something he has been obsessed with for a decade—he won his fourth Indianapolis 500. In the race's 61 runnings no one else has won four Indys, so Foyt has carved himself a conspicuous niche in the history of the sport, a far more glorious one than that—a mere nick in comparison—which eluded him by .01 second during practice. That was how close he had come to being the first man to officially lap the Speedway at 200 mph, and A.J. had been so mad at failing to achieve that milestone that he locked himself in his garage. He will have to settle for making history only once this year at Indianapolis, which doesn't seem like such a hard thing at all.
Certainly not when you consider Gordon Johncock, who during tire testing in March was the first man to unofficially lap the Speedway at 200. Johncock's disappointment also was focused on one particular lap, a race lap, however: the 185th. After leading 128 of 184 laps in this year's 500 in his Wildcat-DGS, with his final pit stop out of the way and a four-second lead over Foyt, Johncock rounded Turn Four and kissed his second Indy victory goodby because of a broken valve spring. He coasted to a stop at Turn One, watched the final few laps from the pit wall and, as A.J. was wheeled into Victory Lane, Johncock waved him a salute of recognition and respect.
Said Foyt, "I read in the paper this morning that Gordy was supposed to have said he was going to hold back and wait for me and Al Unser to break. The day Gordy starts lying back for somebody to break, I'll retire from racing. Gordy's not that kind of driver. It was dog eat dog all day. I wasn't wishing him bad luck cause I'd have liked to race him to the end, but I guess the good Lord wanted a true four-time 500-mile winner."
Johncock, who qualified fifth, had a strong start, and by the third lap he was tucked in behind front-runner Al Unser, with Foyt fifth in his Coyote. After 50 miles Johncock and Foyt were one-two, and the race was on; except for shake-ups after pit stops, they stayed one-two until Johncock retired.
Last year's winner, Johnny Rutherford, had started in 17th position. Because the Speedway had been resurfaced since his victory and had proved to be exceptionally "greasy" after several weeks of mid-summerlike temperatures, Rutherford had two plans in mind for the first lap. They had been filed in his brain under "hot" (he would go hard) and "other" (he would try to avoid an accident). Which plan he would use depended upon what the traffic around him did between the dropping of the green flag and Turn One. Rutherford was most anxious about the rookie to his left, Jerry Sneva, and the rookie in the row in front, Bobby Olivero, whose qualifying speeds had been about 10 mph slower than his. The middle of the sixth row, with wide-eyed rookies around, is not the sort of place a two-time winner likes to be at the beginning of the Indy 500.
Thanks to the exceptionally clean start, Rutherford put his hot plan into effect, but it went for naught. On the 13th lap, after he had charged into eighth place, his McLaren-Cosworth popped out of gear on the front straight, over-revved and blew. Rutherford pulled the car directly into Gasoline Alley, parked it in front of his locked garage door, took off his helmet, gave out a loose-lipped exhale—half sigh, half Bronx cheer—and shrugged. He hadn't been in the race long enough to build up much disappointment. "It just jumped out of gear and tagged all the valves," was all he said.
Before the race Rutherford had not been overly pessimistic about the reliability of the Cosworth V-8 engine he is using this season for the first time, but he had admitted to certain apprehensions. Overlooking last year's rain-shortened Indy 250, the only 500-mile race experience any Cosworth has had occurred last year, at Pocono and Ontario, under Al Unser. Unser won at Pocono, but at Ontario the engine lasted only 13 laps. Along with Unser and Rutherford, Tom Sneva and teammate Mario Andretti are also using Cosworths this year. Sneva had won a 200-mile race at Texas International Speedway, but at the Trenton 200, the race before Indy, none of the Cosworths had finished. Given this spotty record no one was especially confident about the Formula I-based engine's durability.
"Testing is what success is all about," said Rutherford, "but you've got to race a car to really prove anything. No matter how satisfactory your tests may be, you never have complete confidence until the car has been proved in a race."
Rutherford had been plagued by cracked exhaust pipes during practice for the 500, a weakness that was to knock out Andretti. But the other two Cosworths, driven by pole-sitter Sneva and Unser, the third-fastest qualifier, finished a strong second and third, Sneva 28 seconds behind Foyt and Unser out of fuel and a lap down.
Sneva may have lost the race in the pits, where he spent 48 more seconds than Foyt, largely because of two unscheduled stops—one when he fiat-spotted the tires by sliding in for a fuel stop with locked brakes, the other when a refiller malfunction caused less than a full tank of fuel to be added. Sneva's crew, composed mostly of Englishmen who had worked on Roger Penske's Formula I team last year, also was a few seconds slower per stop than Foyt's. After the race Penske sat down and had a beer with the crew in the garage. "I'd rather have you guys take five more seconds on a stop than have a driver go out there and have a wheel drop off," he told them.