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GRABBING FRONT ROW SEATS
Robert F. Jones
May 21, 1979
The acrimony abated in Indy car racing, and so did the rain, as qualifying set the stage for this year's 500—and at a far faster pace than anyone expected
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May 21, 1979

Grabbing Front Row Seats

The acrimony abated in Indy car racing, and so did the rain, as qualifying set the stage for this year's 500—and at a far faster pace than anyone expected

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Normally, the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a prolonged, high-octane Old Home Week. Drivers and crews, car owners and racing buffs hang around Gasoline Alley kicking tires, swapping lies and laying plans for that night's freewheeling forays into the bo�tes and beer joints of "Nap Town." This year, though, has been anything but normal. Thanks to the unresolved conflict between the U.S. Automobile Club and the rival Championship Automobile Racing Teams organization, the aura of camaraderie has eroded into one of tribal war.

Last week, as the racers gathered for their qualification runs, many garage doors were buttoned as tight as missile silos. Men who had once been friends, teammates even, passed by one another like strangers, or in some cases buttonholed journalists to slam and slander the opposition. The ugliest incident involved Dick King, the affable, low-key president of USAC. In a story leaked to the Indianapolis Star , an "unnamed source" pointed out that back in 1957 King had spent nine months in a New York prison for financial shenanigans concerning an automobile dealership. King promptly tendered his resignation, which just as promptly was rejected by a 17-0 vote of the USAC board members present. "I feel like I've been the center of a three-ring circus," King said, his eyes red and his plump face haggard.

USAC backers, of course, placed the blame on CART skulduggery. But that made little sense. The week before, after three days of hearings in a U.S. District Court in Indianapolis, Federal Judge James Noland reversed a USAC ban that would have kept six CART teams—numbering among them drivers such as defending Indy champ Al Unser, his brother Bobby, and former winners Johnny Rutherford and Gordon Johncock—from competing in this year's race. CART had argued that the ban was a result of a USAC conspiracy that violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. But Judge Noland made no ruling on that allegation, granting the temporary injunction because the "severe hardship the drivers would suffer far outweighs the harm to [USAC] by allowing them to race." Though the basic difference between the rival groups—which stemmed from the car owners wanting more representation on USAC's board of directors—remains unsettled, CART had clearly won a momentary triumph. To stick the stiletto to King in the wake of that victory would not only be uncharacteristically vicious of CART's leaders—among them Dan Gurney, a paragon of good sportsmanship—but also downright stupid from a public-relations standpoint.

"Heck," said another CART leader, Roger Penske, a paragon of good P.R., "if we had wanted to stoop that low, we could have brought out the King business during the hearings. The fact was generally known in Indy circles for years. I don't know who provided the leak to the papers, but it might have been some enemy of Dick's from years ago." Whatever the source, the incident was so tasteless—particularly because King's 17-year-old daughter had not known about her father's jail term—that it left many at the Speedway, fans and competitors alike, feeling foul and dirtied.

Indy's infamous weather made matters even worse. Saturday, the first day of the run for the pole, dawned to low, black skies and a cold, steady rain that didn't end until mid-afternoon. The track dried out and the cars rolled forth for what was announced as half an hour of pre-qualifying practice. Then, just 14 minutes into the session, Danny (On-The-Gas) Ongais enlivened things with one of his patented dives into the wall. After turning a scorcher of a lap in excess of 191 mph, Ongais spun his black Parnelli coming out of Turn 4. A strong cross-wind, a rain-scrubbed "green" track and the fact that Ongais was slightly out of the groove for that corner combined to send the car into a half spin. Ongais hit the inside wall backward, ricocheted toward the pit-road entrance and belted another barrier, all at tremendous speed. It took rescue crews 22 minutes to free him. But the tough Hawaiian emerged with no broken bones and only a touch of whiplash. During his two seasons driving Formula 5,000 road racers, Ongais put 17 cars into one wall or another. Presumably practice paid off. The main effect of the wreck was to cancel any qualifying attempts before time ran out.

Last year, the entire front row qualified at speeds above the once-magic 200 mph mark. This year, no one would. In a move that angered most of the hot-shoes, the USAC technical committee ruled that turbochargers on the Ford Cosworth V-8 engines that have dominated the Speedway the past two years could run only 50 inches of turbocharger boost compared to the 80 inches allowed last year. That meant a cut of about 300 horsepower, from 800 to 500, and many observers predicted that even 190 mph would be unreachable at that boost level. Yet, in practice, seven drivers were in the low 190s, led by USAC's kingpin, A. J. Foyt, with a speed of 194.890 mph. Clearly the Indy racers had learned a few tricks from their Southern stock-car cousins in NASCAR, who have long since found ways around similar power restrictions. So, on the aborted afternoon of qualifying, the USAC tech committee announced a new rule: the manual boost control levers in the Indy car cockpits would be removed, thus precluding any qualifier from overriding the 50-inch "pop-off" valve installed to enforce the limit.

Nonetheless, when Sunday broke clear, cool, dry and sunny—ideal qualifying conditions—it appeared that at least four drivers or their crew chiefs must have had productive dreams the night before. Al Unser and Foyt both ran above 192, Tom Sneva did 191 and Rick Mears nearly the same. The brightness of the day, coupled with the prospect of some action on the track instead of in a courtroom, seemed to ease the internecine gloom.

The Friday-night draw for qualifying positions had fortuitously established a built-in dramatic tension. Of the 55 cars set to go on Sunday, four of the fastest were scheduled at the very end of the line. And the last two promised to be the quickest of all: the Parnelli-Cosworth driven by Foyt, a veteran of 23 Indy 500s, and a Penske with Mears, who was co-Rookie of the Year in 1978.

Two-time Indy winner Johnny Rutherford led off the four-lap qualifying runs with a creditable 188.137-mph average, good enough to place him in the third row for race day, a solid starting position. The first really hot run of the day, though, came when Al Unser wheeled his car onto the track. The bright yellow machine, designed by John Barnard of England, who also put together last year's Grand Prix championship Lotus 79, is a Chaparral-Cosworth built by veteran road racer Jim Hall of Midland, Texas. It was the only fully "ground effect" car in the field—its bottom skirted and channeled to create a vacuum that holds the car tight to the track through corners. That effect also permits smaller wings, thus reducing aerodynamic drag down the straightaways. The car is as sleek and aerodynamically clean as anything racing today.

Unser whipped the brand-new car around the course with equal cleanliness for a 192.503-mph average—a figure that looked like it might hold up for the pole. "Well," said Unser, "I think that's as fast as the car will go. Foyt is going to be hard to beat for the pole, though. He's got a mean streak in him."

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