American Comment

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ANDRETTI concluded the most successful season in his career in appropriate fashion last month by driving his STP Hawk-Ford to victory in the final USAC race of the year, the Rex Mays 300 at Riverside. Al Unser, too, finished the year on a high note, driving his Lola-Ford to second place, 37 seconds behind Andretti, after having won the two previous USAC events. The same, unfortunately, could not be said for Gurney, whose Eagle-Ford finished third, 25 seconds behind Unser. Gurney, who won the race in the previous two years, began his bid for a hat-trick by taking the pole position at an average of 118.515 m.p.h. around the revised, 2.5-mile “short” circuit. (The Can-Am cars use the longer 3.3-mile circuit and in October Hulme’s McLaren M8B won the pole at an average of 126.342 m.p.h.) Alongside Gurney on the front row was Donohue, making one of his rare USAC appearances, whose Lola-Chevrolet qualified at 117.955 m.p.h.

These two road-racing drivers easily dominated the first half of the 120-lap 300-mile race, particularly after both Unser and Andretti had to make brief pit stops On the 12th and 13th laps. Donohue actually led the race between the 15th and 25th laps, and again on the 61st lap when Gurney stopped for fuel, but on the 67th lap his race ended when one of his Chevrolet’s cylinder heads cracked. Gurney was now more than a lap ahead of Andretti and Unser, who had fought hard to recover second and third places, but with 25 laps to go Gurney began to slow noticeably and Andretti unlapped himself. Then, with only four laps to go and Andretti only 22 seconds behind, the Gurney gremlin struck and the Eagle’s limited slip packed up. First Andretti swept by to take the lead and then on the final lap Unser’s Lola also passed the crippled Eagle to take second. Bobby Unser, too, might have passed Gurney had he not made a last lap stop when his oil pressure vanished. As it was, he finished fourth, one lap down, in his turbo-Ford powered Eagle, one of only six turbocharged cars among the 30 starters. Most drivers find turbocharged engines lack the precise throttle response necessary for road circuits.

Andretti’s victory was his ninth in a tremendous season that included winning the Indianapolis 500 and victories in every type of USAC Championship race and car: rear-engine cars on oval tracks and road courses, front-engine cars on dirt tracks, and even the Pikes Peak hillclimb. By September he had already won his third National Championship in five years and he finished the year with 5,025 points—the first driver ever to accumulate over 5,000 points in one season. It is ironic that good luck should play such a part in his Riverside victory this year, when he didn’t really need it to win the title, while in the past two years. when he desperately needed a high finish at Riverside to clinch the Championship, his luck ran out. He lost the title to Foyt by 80 points in 1967 and to Robby Unser by just 11 points last year.

As the defending USAC Champion, Bobby Unser had a very uninspiring year. He won only one race and it was regular finishes that kept him in second place in the Championship for most of the year. Up to Riverside, that is, where he was overhauled by his younger brother Al. Al, rated by several observers as the more talented driver, got off to a slow start when he broke his leg in a motorcycle accident on the eve of the Indianapolis 500. He made up for that with a strong finish and driving the Vers-Parnelli Jones Lola prepared by George Bignotti he won five of the 11 races leading up to Riverside. His second place finish there raised his points total to 2,610 – 45 more than his brother and enough for second place in the Championship. Bobby was third with 2,585, and Gurney, who competed in less than half the races, was fourth with 2,280. He was followed by Johncock, who won two of the road-racing events, with 2,070, Dallenbach with 1,795 and five-time National Champion A. J. Foyt, who managed only a solitary victory (on the dirt) and finished with 1570.

A colourful era in American racing has ended with an announcement by USAC that dirt-track races will no longer be included in the National Championship schedule. There were five such races in the schedule last year, but this year they will form part of a newly created USAC National Dirt Track Championship. Although their basic design has changed little over the years, these front-engine cars, powered by redoubtable Offenhauser engines, are still a spectacular sight as they charge around the dirt “bullrings,” all four wheels sliding and rooster-tails of dirt flying high behind them.

Chrysler Corp’s efforts in NASCAR’s Grand National division for late model stock cars, which began badly when their Plymouth star, Petty, defected to Ford and then degenerated into disaster as Ford swept all before them in the major superspeedway races, were finally rewarded with success when Isaac, driving a Dodge Daytona, won the last race of the season at Texas International Speedway. The victory in the 500-mile race was Isaac’s 17th of the year but his first ever in a major superspeedway race of over 400 miles. Equally important to Dodge, it was also their first legitimate superspeedway win of the year since the Dodge victory by the relatively unknown Briekhouse in the inaugural Talledega 500 in September came about only after members of the Professional Drivers’ Association, including all the works Ford drivers, boycotted the race for safety reasons. Actually, Chrysler’s brightest hope in the Texas 500 was another Dodge driver, Baker, who put his Daytona on the pole With an average of 176.284 m.p.h. around the 2-mile oval and then led the race on 11 occasions for a total of 149 laps. On the 229th lap, with a lead of a lap and only 20 to go, Baker glanced at his pit hoard a fraction too long and rammed the rear of Hylton’s similar Dodge Daytona. Baker was eliminated but Isaac then came through from third place to win by two laps over the Fords of Donnie Allison and Parsons.

Hylton’s Daytona was fourth, 11 laps down. This race again illustrated the fierce competition that is characteristic of most NASCAR races, with the lead changing hands 35 times among five drivers during the course of the 500 miles. The same point is illustrated on a broader scale by looking at a summary of the entire season. There were no fewer than 54 races altogether in the Grand National Division, and of the top to drivers in the final standings four competed in 52 of these races, four others in 51 and two in 50! Ford driver Pearson, who won the Championship for the second year in a row and the third time in four years, competed in 51 races, won 11 of them, and finished in the top to positions 44 times. Pearson finished the year with 4,110 points and $182,000 in prize money—but he wasn’t the leading money winner on the circuit. That distinction went to Lee Roy Yarbrough. Although he started in only 30 races, won only seven of them, and finished a lowly 16th in the Championship. Yarbrough’s seven victories were all in the lucrative superspeedway races of 400 Miles or more and they brought him $187,230 in prize money.

Petty, in his first year as a Ford driver, competed in 50 races and won 10 of them to finish second to Pearson with 3,813 points. His prize money also went over the $100,000 mark, reaching $108,155. Hylton was the highest placed Dodge driver in the Championship and although he didn’t win any races, he did finish in the top ten in 39 of the 52 events in which he started, and this gave him third place with 3,750 points. Dodge driver Castles and Ford driver Langley also failed to win any races but were fourth and fifth with 3,530 and 3,383 points respectively. It May seem strange that these three drivers with no victories to their credit should finish in front of Isaacs, whose total of 17 wins was the largest on the circuit and six more than any other driver. However, Isaacs is a victim of the NASCAR scoring system, which is based on the length of the race. Since 16 of his 17 wins came in shorter races of less than 400 miles, he garnered only 3,301 points and sixth place in the Championship.

Although the 11-race Can-Am series ended officially in Texas, nine Can-Am competitors headed off to Japan almost immediately for at post-season non-championship race at Fuji International Speedway. They were more than a little surprised when a local driver, Kawai, won the 200-mile race at the wheel of a 5-litre Toyota 7. Kawai finished 12 seconds in front of Cannon, whose perseverance with Ford’s trouble-plagued G7A resulted in the car’s first-ever finish. Motschenbacher’s McLaren M12 was third, one lap down, and Wilson’s Leila T163 fourth, four laps in arrears. Nagamatsu in a Porsche 908, Asaoka in an Isuzu R7 and Oishi in a McLaren M12 were the only other finishers among the 17 starters.

Oliver in the titanium Autocoast Ti22 qualified fastest and led all but four of the first 48 laps but then retired with fuel pump trouble, While Dean suffered his first d.n.f. in Group 7 racing when the engine in his Porsche 908 gave up after 67 laps of the 75-lap race. Considering that the winning Toyota was powered by a 5-litre engine, compared with 7-litre engines in most of the Can-Am cars, the Japanese have certainly come a long way in one year. However, it must be borne in mind that the cars they were competing against were far from the best in the Can-Am series and had had very little work done on them since Texas. The Japanese had invited the top to finishers in the series to make the all-expenses-paid trip but of the nine Can-Am drivers who did go only four were in the top ten in the series and only one was in the top six (Chuck Parsons, who was third). Toyota, however, doesn’t appear to have any qualms abut taking on the best hand they have announced that they will enter a team in next year’s Can-Am series.