Nigel Roebuck's legends
The F1 stars travelled from Watkins Glen to Fuji for an lndycar race in 1966 and had a riotous time watching the American aces drive and drink...
For some reason quirky races — oneoffs, like the grands prix at Pescara in 1957 or Dallas in '84 — have always held a fascination for me. I loved John Webb's notion of an anything-goes Formule Libre race at Brands Hatch in 1972, for example, and although the 'Rothmans 50,000' ultimately fell short of expectations, it was a lovely idea.
Another such was the Fuji 200. Why it was decided to run an Indycar race in Japan 40 years ago is lost in the mists of time, but although it did not count for the USAC Championship, all the stars of the time — less AJ Foyt — made the trip in October 1966, and they were joined by four F1 aces, Jimmy Clark (Lotus), Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill (John Mecom Lolas), and Chris Amon, who had to make do with an elderly Vollstedt.
"That trip really was a laugh a minute from beginning to end," said Amon. "The whole deal was on a pretty tight budget, I guess, and we were all due to go over on a charter from Indianapolis, the day after the American Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. The 'plane was supposed to call at Indianapolis at seven in the evening, carry on to Seattle to pick up the West Coast contingent, and then go on to Tokyo. At about five o'clock we were informed that it would be delayed, and closer investigation revealed that it had been sent to Minneapolis rather than Indianapolis! That rather set the tone for the whole trip..."
Back in the '60s F1 drivers hardly behaved like members of the Temperance Society, but still nothing could have prepared them for the Americans. "We finally went to the airport at about one in the morning," said Amon, "having been to bed — but all the Americans had been there for hours, and they were absolutely pissed out of their minds! You just wouldn't believe it — fireworks in the 'plane, everyone smashed, total chaos, with Bobby Unser and Lloyd Ruby at the centre of everything.
"Finally, things gradually began to quieten down as they started to sleep it off, but then we landed at Seattle and the West Coast lot got on board. Of course, they'd been at the airport all night and they were all out of their heads too, so the holocaust started all over again! Those guys really amazed me — they all drank like bloody fishes more or less all the time." There was at that time very much an 'us-and-them' feeling between the European and American racing fraternities. Colin Chapman had swung a lamp over the future at Indianapolis, the simple superiority of Lotus so glaring that the USAC brigade was reluctantly obliged to abandon its beautiful, but thoroughly antiquated, roadsters and follow the rear-engine route.
Most members of the USAC brigade, Amon remembered, seemed deeply suspicious of their 'gran pree' rivals. Not all, though. "We eventually got to Tokyo somehow, and were taken to the hotel, where we found the room allocations had been done alphabetically. Consequently I shared a room with Mario Andretti, with whom I'd always got along well. As soon as we put our bags down, Mario was on the 'phone to room service, having masseuses sent up to our room — we had four steam baths in our first six hours in Japan!"
Very much king of the USAC hill at the time, Andretti was nonetheless a European by birth and culture, and already had his sights set on F1 . No surprise that he got along with the likes of Amon, Clark and Stewart; others, though, were not so matey, and their antipathy was hardly lessened by the travel arrangements to and from the track. The day of the pampered racing driver had yet to arrive.
"Fuji was a difficult place to get to back then," said Chris. "We were all supposed to go by train and then bus, but Graham happened to know the Rolls-Royce agent in Tokyo — an Englishman — and he laid on a car, complete with chauffeur, to take us to the track every day! That was great, because the European contingent would travel in luxury, while the USAC lot had to make do with the bus. On top of that, the bus couldn't make it through the tunnel into the circuit, so all these guys had to get out and walk the rest of the way, while we would sweep past in the Rolls, giving them a royal wave! They didn't like us at all."
Nor were they were too keen on the circuit, for most had little experience on other than ovals. "There was a hairpin," chuckled Amon, "just before the end of the lap, and this caused utter pandemonium. I don't think most of the USAC people had ever had to deal with a hairpin before. Qualifying was one car at a time, and the first six or seven just never made it round at all! We were in the pits, awaiting our turns, getting more and more hysterical at what was going on. "Time after time we'd hear an Offenhauser or Ford engine screaming down to the hairpin absolutely flat out, then a violent screeching of locked-up wheels, then a brief silence [while they ploughed over the grass], and then finally 'Boof' as they clobbered the bank! A couple of minutes would elapse, and then some red-faced American would walk into the pits, scowling at us. Qualifying took forever."
For quite a few it was the end of the weekend. Only minimal spares had been taken to this far-afield event, and terminal mechanical problems accounted not only for Al Unser and Gordon Johncock, but also the two biggest names on hand: Clark and Andretti.
As expected, the Europeans showed well in qualifying, Stewart and Hill collaring the front row, with B Unser's Eagle and Ruby's Lotus next up, then the Vollstedts of Amon and rising Canadian star Billy Foster.
"My Vollstedt took a bit of getting used to," said Chris, "since it only had a two-speed gearbox and a rather unconventional pedal layout: clutch on the right, throttle in the middle, brake on the left! All very strange, but I didn't use the clutch in the race anyway — it wasn't worth it with two gearchanges a lap, so I just crashed it through. In fact, things went quite well in the race. I had quite a dice with Ruby and ran fourth most of the way, behind Jackie, Graham— and Billy Foster." Twelve laps from the end Foster narrowly led the two Mecom Lolas, but then his transmission broke, and what might have been his first USAC win evaporated. Sadly, that near touch with glory was to be his last. Early the following year, practising for the NASCAR race at Riverside, he suffered brake failure before the infamous Turn Nine, hit the boiler-plate barrier sideways, and was killed instantly.
Stewart ultimately won at Fuji from Unser, while a late problem dropped Hill to fifth by the flag. Amon, meantime, had retired earlier — on top of a bank... "I was lapping a guy called Chuck Hulse, who was in one of the old Indy roadsters. At that time most of the Indycars didn't have mirrors, believe it or not, and I'd had trouble with several of them for that reason. Not that mirrors would have made a lot of difference to this guy, actually, since it transpired that he was blind in the right eye — and also deaf in the right car!
"Anyway, I was just getting alongside to lap him when, for reasons best known to himself, he suddenly elected to turn sharp right! And that was the end of my race. Hulse had absolutely no depth of vision whatever — apparently this was because he'd been on his head so many times before, but who knows which came first, the chicken or the egg? "Still, for all the disappointment in the race, it was a marvellous trip. The charter 'plane didn't decide to come and pick us up until the Wednesday, so we hung around. My main memories are of the beauty of the countryside around the circuit, the unbelievably bad driving in Tokyo — oh, and the hangovers!"