SI Vault
Sam Moses
May 29, 1978
Until this year no one had ever averaged 200 mph in qualifying for the Indy 500. Now all three cars on the front row have—plus A. J. Foyt
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May 29, 1978

Showing Early Speed At Indianapolis

Until this year no one had ever averaged 200 mph in qualifying for the Indy 500. Now all three cars on the front row have—plus A. J. Foyt

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Johnny Rutherford, a two-time winner and fourth fastest in his McLaren-Cosworth at 197.098, had been the first driver to make a qualifying attempt. Although his speed was disappointing to him, it held up throughout Saturday and put him ahead of the Lola/Chaparral-Cosworth of Al Unser at 196.474 mph and Gordon Johncock at 195.883 mph in his Wildcat-SGD, the only four-cylinder car in the first two rows.

Foyt's Coyote and Rutherford's McLaren are new, but more the result of evolution and refinement than of design, the changes virtually indistinguishable to anyone but a mechanic. Al Unser's Lola/Chaparral, on the other hand, is more obviously a new design. Last year Unser had driven for Parnelli Jones, and was, for all practical purposes, No. 1 man on a two-man team, No. 2 being Ongais, then a rookie. But at the end of the 1977 season, Al left Jones-after eight years—and was taken on by Jim Hall. Hall had hired some of Jones' other top men away as well, including chief mechanic Huey Absalom. It is testimony to Hall's reputation, which is much like Penske's, that he could persuade talent from a proved racing team to jump to an unproved one. In the '60s Hall drove his own Chaparral cars in road races, often to victory, until a serious accident ended his driving career. Those cars were always innovative and almost always successful, sometimes sensationally so. Hall is given credit for introducing to motor racing the wing, the automatic transmission and the "sucker," a car with a vacuum chamber in the rear that literally held the boxy-looking vehicle to the pavement, affording astounding cornering speeds.

In recent years, Hall joined up with Chicago businessman Carl Haas, importer of the English-made Lola chassis, and with seeming ease, they dominated every road-racing series they entered. But now Hall is taking on Indianapolis, and the season so far has been more frustrating than he has been accustomed to. However, the indications are that he is getting there. During tire testing at Indy this spring, Unser had hit 202.2 mph. Unfortunately, a crash at a race in Texas had destroyed the first Chaparral Indy car, so it was almost all the way back to square one. Fifth-fastest was where Hall and Al Unser worked themselves back up to.

Another driver who had come back after a crash was Pancho Carter. Carter had his accident in December while he was testing at Phoenix Raceway. A universal joint had snapped and had thrown his Lightning-Cosworth into a guardrail, all but breaking the car—and its driver—in half. Carter was carried away in critical condition with a broken arm, broken tailbone and a pelvis fractured in four places. Put in traction, he was told his racing days were likely over, and his walking days would never be quite the same. But he gritted his teeth, did his exercises and one remarkable day last month won two sprint-car races in his first comeback appearance. Carter's Indy car was built with a special gas pedal to allow for the limited movement of his right foot, and a removable steering wheel because he has trouble getting out of the car. On Saturday the car failed to start, but Pancho qualified Sunday, at a speed of 196.829.

Carter had driven for Dan Gurney last year, but it had been a miserable season for both of them. Gurney had created a radical new Eagle, a car in which he had more faith than Carter did, which was a problem. The car never did much, and for a while the possibility existed that Gurney might not be able to finance a USAC team in 1978. But he found sponsorship from ARCO, and further financial backing from Teddy Yip, an Asian businessman.

After the 1977 season Carter and Gurney broke up, and Gurney hired Bobby Unser, who had won Indy for him in 1975 but had been experiencing lean times himself. Their shared hope was to recapture what they once had. But it hasn't come yet. Gurney shelved last year's Eagle and began building a brand new car, in the meantime buying a Lightning-Cosworth for Unser to race. But it is extremely difficult for a team to develop a new car while it is racing another; time is the problem, and Gurney has been behind schedule from day one. For example, while Penske had begun testing his design last fall and Hall his early in the winter, the Eagle existed only on a drawing board until spring. Still, the Eagle made its debut at Indianapolis, when the team found itself struggling to get the Lightning prepared.

Unser got it to 199.9 mph on Wednesday, but the crew, still unfamiliar with the car, overfiddled in the search for more speed, and, as the car sat in the qualifying line Saturday, Gurney paced around it, thinking hard, studying his creation with a perplexed expression. "What this is is a desperation attempt, which you are not supposed to have to make," he said, meaning one does not race a car at Indy with so little testing time. Nevertheless, Unser took the new Eagle out and hit 194.658 mph, ninth fastest, but, because of the complicated qualifying rules, he will start in 20th position this Sunday.

Unser had been the last driver to qualify Saturday, seconds before a sudden rain closed the track, leaving in line the cars of Foyt, back for his second attempt, and...Andretti.

The presence of Andretti's backup car rekindled the speculation that had been flaming the day before. Would he, could he, somehow take advantage of the six-hour time difference and make it back from Belgium and win two pole positions in one day? The Penske team had explored every realistic possibility, and others had explored some less realistic possibilities for them. Would USAC allow Andretti a special day to qualify? Sorry, no exceptions. Are there any commercial flights that could get him to Indianapolis in time? No way. Would the U.S. Air Force give Andretti a lift across the ocean in an F-15? Negative. How about chartering a Concorde?

A Penske man was dispatched to check into that, and it was an educational experience. He now knows all about EPA and FAA regulations, such as municipal noise restrictions and the requirements pertaining to the thickness of landing strips at airports. There was even a telephone conversation that went something like this:

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