USAC launched its 1971 season on a somewhat controversial note when it suddenly announced that its first race of the year, which was to have been a strictly invitational, non-championship event at Rafaela in the Argentine, would, after all, count for points toward the Marlboro Championship Trail. When the race was first planned last year virtually all the leading teams indicated that they would accept an invitation—but when it came to signing on the dotted line several of the star drivers backed down. Since the organisers had spent over £50,000 bringing the track up to USAC specifications and needed the star drivers to attract a crowd, USAC tackled the recalcitrants head on and announced just ten days before the cars were to leave for the Argentine that the race would count for points.
For most of the drivers that was all the persuasion that was needed but the last-minute announcement did incur the wrath of two prominent car owners. A. J. Foyt, who was already committed to running in a NASCAR-sanctioned 500-mile stock car race at Ontario Motor Speedway, and Andy Granatelli, whose only available McNamara for Mario Andretti had been damaged at Phoenix during tyre testing, both protested that USAC’s precipitate action was completely unfair and probably illegal.
“Ours is the United States Driving Championship,” said Granatelli. “Our club is the United States Auto Club and the name of the circuit is the United States Auto Club Championship Trail. This championship has historically been based on races run in the Continental United States, and I don’t think Argentina has been annexed by the United States.” Foyt expressed much the same sentiments, adding that he “planned to do something about it”, but in their arguments both Foyt and Granatelli seem to have overlooked the fact that in 1967 and again in 1968 USAC ran championship races in Canada—and that both of them ran cars in those races.
Foyt and Andretti, then, did not make the trip to Argentina but the way Al Unser was running in his turbo-Ford-powered Johnny Lightning Colt it doesn’t appear that it would have made much difference if they had. Al’s oldest brother Bobby, who is Dan Gurney’s number one this year, was the fastest in practice, lapping the 2.87-mile track at 173.445 m.p.h. in his turbo-Ford-powered Eagle, but when it came to qualifying he could only manage fifth fastest at 169.468 m.p.h. Lloyd Ruby took the pole at 173.184 in his turbo-Ford Mongoose and shared the front row with Gurney’s number two driver, Swede Savage, who averaged 172.837 m.p.h. in his turbo-Offy Eagle. Al Unser was third fastest at 172.232 m.p.h. and shared the second row with Mike Mosley’s turbo-Ford Watson, which turned 171.689 m.p.h. These four were the only drivers really in contention, and Al Unser wasted no time showing he had lost none of the skills that carried him to last year’s USAC Championship. He took command from Ruby on the fifth lap and then exchanged the lead with the veteran Texan four times in 32 laps before Mosley, who had exchanged third place with Savage 15 times, moved in front on the 38th lap. Mosley’s reign was short-lived, however, and when Unser moved back in front on the 42nd lap he stayed there for the remaining 11 laps of the first 53-lap, 152-mile heat. During his early dice with Ruby, Unser set a lap record of 173.5 m.p.h. and Ruby was the only driver on the same lap with him at the finish. One lap back were Mosley, Savage, Roger McCluskey’s turbo-Offy King and Joe Leonard, Al Unser’s team-mate in the second Johnny Lightning Colt. Bobby Unser was in the hunt for only three laps before retiring with a burned piston.
In the second heat it was Al Unser virtually all the way. He was in front from the start to lap 40, when he stopped for fuel and gave the lead to Leonard, and then took command again on lap 44, when Leonard made his fuel stop, and led to the finish. Ruby and Mosley engaged in a stiff duel for second place before Mosley’s engine dropped a valve on the ninth lap and Ruby then went largely unchallenged to finish second, 27 seconds behind Unser. Leonard, McCluskey and Savage finished third through fifth, on the same lap as the leaders, and combining the results of the two heats gave Al Unser first place with 600 points and Ruby second with 480. Leonard, McCluskey and Savage each scored 330 points but were placed in that order because the second heat result served as the tie-breaker, while Mosley was placed sixth overall with 210 points despite not finishing the second heat.
The long straights at Rafaela favoured slipstreaming and this generated a lot of very close, very exciting racing, but Al Unser’s commanding victory already has his competitors wondering if the Parnelli Jones/Vel Miletich team of Johnny Lightning Colts is headed for another record season like the one they had last year (when Unser equalled Foyt’s 1964 record of ten victories in one season). As it is, Unser’s performance in Argentina gave his chief mechanic, George Bignotti, a record 53 USAC Championship victories, two more than his closest rival Clint Brawner.
The first three major NASCAR stock car races of the year certainly appear to have justified the juggling of the rules by NASCAR officials in their attempts to concurrently reduce the high rate of attrition and even out the competition in order to produce closer racing. The background to these rules changes, mainly involving restrictive plates in the carburetters, was discussed last month and several observers felt that these changes, coupled with Ford’s total withdrawal and Chrysler’s cutback to only two works cars, would emasculate NASCAR racing. Experience, however, has shown quite the contrary. The independents, particularly, have recognised the withdrawal of the factory cars as their chance to win a decent share of the purse for a change. At the Daytona 500 there were a record 80 entries seeking one of the 40 starting positions and two weeks later, when Ontario Motor Speedway held its first NASCAR race (500 miles for a record stock car purse of £86,000), there were 101 cars trying for the 51 starting positions.
While it is true that at Daytona the only two factory cars entered—Richard Petty’s Plymouth and Buddy Baker’s Dodge, both of them prepared by Petty Engineering—took the first two places, the race was nonetheless considered probably the most exciting in the 13-year history of the event. There were no less than 48 lead changes among 11 drivers during the 500 miles, which works out to an average of a lead change every four laps—and that doesn’t include the many lead changes that took place within each lap, only those recorded at the start/finish line. USAC driver A. J. Foyt had shown the NASCAR contingent the fast way around the 2.5-mile track by putting his Mercury, prepared by the Woods brothers, on the pole at 182.744 m.p.h.—over 2 m.p.h. faster than the next man—reigning NASCAR Champion Bobby Isaac in a Dodge.
Although Petty only qualified fifth, over 4 m.p.h. slower than Foyt, it was clear during the race that the two of them had the fastest cars on the track. Foyt led the first three laps but then decided to bide his time and didn’t move to the front again until the 200-mile mark. From then on, though, he had a tremendous duel with Petty that only ended 200 miles later when he ran out of fuel while leading. He managed to coast to the pits but this cost him almost a lap and Petty then went on to win his third Daytona 500 by half a mile over his team-mate Baker, with Foyt third and still on the same lap. Fourth place, one lap down, went to former NASCAR champion David Pearson and he was followed on the same lap by Freddy Lorenzen, who retired in 1967 with more superspeedway victories than any other driver (a record still unbroken), but is now making a comeback at the wheel of a Plymouth sponsored by Andy Granatelli’s STP Corp.
Two weeks later, at Ontario Motor Speedway, Foyt and the Woods brothers began just as they had at Daytona but this time there were no miscalculations over the fuel. Foyt again won the pole position (at 151.711 m.p.h. compared with 177.567 m.p.h. average at which Lloyd Ruby put his USAC Championship car on the pole for last September’s inaugural California 500) but this time Foyt was in the thick of the battle almost from the start. For over half the race he had a tremendous duel with Lorenzen that ended only when Lorenzen’s car caught fire. He was less seriously challenged in the second half of the race (Petty’s engine was down on power and he once overshot his pit during a fuel stop) but nonetheless there were 27 lead changes among seven drivers during the course of the 500 miles and the 78,000 spectators again received their money’s worth.
Foyt’s Mercury took the lead for the tenth and final time on the 187th lap and held it for the remaining 13 laps to win by 8.5 seconds from the two Chrysler works cars, Baker’s Dodge being second and Petty’s Plymouth third. Vic Elford and Pedro Rodriguez tried their hand at stock car racing, American style, but in both cases the cars made available to them were not first cabin. Elford failed to make the field at Daytona and while Rodriguez started at both Daytona and OMS, his engine failed early in both races.—D. G.