For a brief moment, Mario looked like the man who would tame the Speedway, but his surge into ninth place would be as far as he climbed. On the next lap, he coasted into the pits with electrical problems and a dead engine. Chief mechanic Jim McGee quickly replaced the coil and the car came alive again—seven minutes and six seconds too late. Though he was eight laps down, Andretti drove as fast as the leaders and eventually regained ninth. Then near the end of the race his engine refused to rev as high as it should, and he dropped back to 12th at the checkered flag.
Two caution periods triggered by stalls and spinouts, courtesy of Sheldon Kinser, had allowed Sneva to stay on Ongais' tail in the early going, and when the green light came on after the second, Sneva snapped ahead of Ongais for a momentary lead. But by the time they reached Turn Three at the far end of the backstretch, Danny had recaptured the lead. That pattern held for most of the race's first half. Ongais clearly had the straightaway edge in the two-car duel, while Sneva was quicker in the corners, and in the pits. Penske had drilled his pit crews with a discipline that would have delighted Frederick the Great.
But this was a strong field, with fully eight cars capable of taking the lead should either Ongais or Sneva falter. The 33 qualifiers had set a record with an average speed of 192.584 mph—a shade faster than the mark set by the cars that ran in the wreck-marred 1973 race. Back of the dueling leaders lay a pack of watchers and waiters, and among them was Al Unser. By the 70th lap he was ready to make his move.
"Even last night I was very worried about the chassis setup," Al said later of his Chaparral. "I didn't want to take any chances in the early laps for fear of bad handling, but as we wore along I knew she was holding real good."
Unser screwed up the boost in his turbocharger—a cockpit maneuver that increases horsepower but decreases gas mileage—and blew past first Sneva and then Ongais. With 75 of 200 laps gone, Roger Penske's dire forecast of the night before had come true.
Turning laps in the high 180-mph range and occasionally bursting past 190, Al opened a lead that had grown to 23 seconds by the time he neared the race's halfway mark. "The car kept getting better and better," he said. "I could see Sneva's signal board when the pit crew flashed him his speeds, and I knew he was turning laps at 190, but all I really knew was that I was passing everyone. I was pretty certain we had enough fuel left to finish the 500 miles, and probably enough to turn up the boost even higher."
Still, half a race in the bag does not a Borg-Warner Trophy make, as many a leader has learned through the years. Ongais was still holding a steady second, with Sneva and Johncock also on the same lap with Unser. Yellow caution periods—there were six all told—aided Ongais in his pit stops for fuel and tires, and with less than one-third of the race to go, Al's fat lead had gone to Weight Watchers as he and Ongais pitted simultaneously with the race at full speed. This was one of those classic pit-crew duels that delight the true Indy fan—a man who has nicked many a knuckle working on his own car. Both cars boiled into the pit road and braked only at the last instant. Wrenches thumped, methanol whooshed into the 40-gallon fuel tanks and then they were off again. This time around, Unser's lead was only 5.8 seconds. But this was to be Ongais' last gasp. With 55 laps to go—137� miles—Ongais' engine suddenly spurted a gout of blue smoke. His turbocharger had popped, and the car was finished after a fine and nearly victorious day.
With Ongais gone, that left only Sneva on the same lap as Unser. Mears, who had followed orders and run a conservative seventh, had gone out 41 laps earlier than Ongais with a blown turbocharger. Johncock, struggling every mile of the way in his four-cylinder-powered Wildcat, simply had not been able to keep pace with the leaders and their Cosworth V-8 engines over the long haul although he ran third or fourth throughout most of the race because of masterful driving. There was further frustration for Gordy. He overshot his pit on one occasion, and when his crew pushed his Wildcat back, Johncock was penalized one lap.
Gordy was not alone in being docked. Two-time winner Rutherford was assessed a one-lap penalty for a similar pit infraction during a stop to repair a faulty exhaust system, and Johncock's teammate Steve Krisiloff, who finished fourth, was fined a lap for passing a car when the yellow caution lights were on. As for Foyt, he had the power he needed, but he had no chance for a fifth Indy because his Coyote handled poorly and frequently stalled on pit stops.
The misfortunes and foul-ups of others aside, Al Unser continued to build his lead over Sneva on his own. Then on his final pit stop Al almost did himself in. Braking too late in his time-shaving rush, he overshot the pit and slammed into a replacement tire laid out by his crew on the pit road. The chassis of his red, white and blue Chaparral was badly bent just aft of the right front wing. "I came in too fast," he lamented later. "I came in too hard. I was fortunate to have a cushion over Sneva. That damaged wing could have killed us."