For undiluted Americana, the May festivities at Indianapolis culminating in the 500-mile race top anything else by a whoop and a holler and a good many miles per hour. People eat fried chicken and soak up the Indiana sun, and out on the Speedway the traditional Offenhauser cars thrum out as fine a noise as The Music Man's 76 trombones.
Last Saturday, as qualifying trials for this year's "500" began, Americana seemed to be in full spring flower. With the happy commotion of a family reunion, a fantastic, record-breaking crowd of 225,000 midwestern Americans jammed the grandstands and ebbed and flowed in the infield. A gathering of that magnitude roughly corresponds to filling New York's Madison Square Garden for a heavyweight championship fight weigh-in.
So far, so good. But as the spectators turned their eyes to the track it was obvious that something was out of joint in Indiana. There were the good old front-engined Offies, all right, but they were nearly lost in the parade of new rear-engined cars: Lotus-Fords and Fords with American chassis, rear-engined Offies, even an Offy in a British chassis put together, for heaven's sake, by an Australian, Jack Brabham. Beyond that, a splendid old Indy Novi showed up with British four-wheel drive.
When the last car came home at sundown of a day of upheaval, British Lotuses with sensational new American Ford overhead camshaft engines had shattered all speed records and seized three of the first six starting positions in the 33-car Memorial Day field. An all-American Ford was right up there, too. On the pole sat Jimmy Clark with a stupendous 10-mile qualifying average of 158.828 mph, and as he was told his speed a triumphant grin spread over his sometimes dour Scots face. It was mirrored on the faces of that Limey bloke, Colin Chapman, builder of the Lotuses, and Ford Vice-President Benson Ford.
Filling out the front row of three Ford-engined racers were Pennsylvania's frail leadfoot, Bobby Marshman, in a 1963 Lotus-Ford (fitted with the new engine) and Indiana's Rodger Ward, twice winner of the "500," in a new Ford created by A. J. Watson. Watson used to fret when early spotters of the rear-engine trend took to calling his Offies "dinosaurs." After all, his traditional models were to win five "500s," including last year's. He stopped fretting, though, and started putting his own engines behind the driver. Last of the great dinosaur-builders, he is evidently the first superior American fabricator of rear-engined Indy designs. No other native craftsman was within miles of him last weekend.
Orthodox Indianapolis men who take their racing with deadly seriousness were twice jolted, first by the ease with which the Fords suppressed the opposition, and then by the sudden appearance all over the infield of " Dan Gurney for President" lapel buttons and bumper stickers. Gurney, a superb American Grand Prix driver, has never had much appeal for the Offenhauser vote. It was Gurney who first induced Chapman and Ford to collaborate on Indianapolis cars, and everyone remembers how close the one driven by Clark last year came to winning. Last week Gurney himself outsped most of the Offymen to qualify sixth.
The pair he did not beat were the roughest, toughest traditionalists on the grounds, A. J. Foyt and Parnelli Jones. Jones qualified fourth at 155.099 mph in an ultralightweight Offy built by his chief mechanic John Pouelsen. Foyt, the 1961 winner, took the next place, averaging 154.672, in a similar and similarly slimmed down Watson.
Thus Foyt and Jones enter the "500" carrying the greatest promise and heaviest responsibilities for what is clearly a last-ditch stand for the old-style Offy. It appears unlikely that any other front-engined models can give the Fords a fight. And both men will battle fiercely—Jones because some people thought he won unfairly last year, that he should have been black-flagged for spilling oil and slicking the track in the closing laps, Foyt because he is the kind of man who believes that he can win any race, no matter how hopeless his chances may seem, and will never give up.
But last week it was difficult to see beyond the Fords. For one thing, there were so many Ford people around. Benson Ford sat in the stands with his fingers crossed. Lee Iacocca, Ford Division general manager, prowled the throng, shaking hands and, as the returns came in, accepting congratulations. "We are," he said, "in racing to stay." Ford engineers and publicity men were out in regimental strength.
Ford strength on the track was evident long before the 11 o'clock starting gun for qualifying. Bobby Marshman slipped out on the track early in the car which Gurney had wrecked on opening day 1963, and warmed it up at 160.085 mph. It was a speed everyone had said would come sooner or later, but that kind of thing has considerable shock effect. The official one-lap qualifying record at the moment was 151.847. "He did it in ... what?" choked one driver over his coffee and doughnuts in the cafeteria under the grandstands. "Isn't that just great! Yeah, great. This is liable to turn into one hell of a day."