The United States Auto Club’s 1970 season ended with the 18th and final race at the 1-mile oval in Phoenix, Ariz., and it proved an auspicious debut for Dan Gurney in his new role as team owner/manager. It began when Bobby Unser, whom Gurney has recruited to lead his team, put his turbo-Ford Eagle on the front row, position just 6/100ths of a second behind his brother Al Unser in the George Bignotti prepared turbo-Ford Colt. Readers will remember that Al Unser’s remarkable season included victory in the Indianapolis 500, winning the USAC Championship and equalling A. J. Foyt’s six-year-old record of 10 victories in one season—and this was his final opportunity to set a new record of 11 victories in a season. Foyt’s turbo-Ford Coyote was in the second row behind Al Unser and sitting right behind Bobby Unser was his team-mate Swede Savage in Gurney’s second car. Savage’s Eagle, however, was powered not by a turbocharged engine but by one of Gurney’s stock Block Gurney-Eagle Fords and Savage had done very well to qualify the car fourth fastest for his first ever USAC race on an oval track (although he has frequently shown his potential with the same car in USAC road races).
Bobby Unser got the Gurney team off to an excellent start by charging in front on the first lap from Al Unser and Foyt while Savage held station in fifth place. Bobby Unser was able to maintain his lead comfortably through the first one-third of the 150-lap race but shortly afterward his transmission case split, he was black-flagged and retired. Foyt having already retired with no brakes, Al Unser now found himself with a comfortable 18-second lead and well set for that 11th victory. He continued to stretch his lead through the middle third of the race and at the 100-lap mark was half a lap in front of Roger McCluskey, who had quietly worked his turbo-Ford Scorpion up from ninth on the grid, and Savage, who held down third. By this time, however, a clogged fuel injector was beginning to make Unser’s engine run roughly and on the 129th lap, with only 21 to go, the engine coughed just as Unser was taking drastic action to avoid a car that spun in front of him. Unser, too, began to spin and as the Colt nudged the wall momentarily McCluskey and Savage shot past. Unser dived into the pits for a quick inspection and returned in third place, but too far back to challenge the leaders.
Savage now had the Eagle’s beak buried in the Scorpion’s exhaust pipes and began to give the veteran McCluskey a tremendous run for his money. Savage was obviously quicker through the turns but his stock-block engine couldn’t quite hold the more powerful turbo-Ford down the straights. Nevertheless, Savage never gave up and on the very last lap his chance came—the Scorpion spluttered as it ran out of fuel, a dejected but sporting McCluskey pulled it out of the fast line, and Savage shot past to win the race by 6/10ths of a second from a fast closing Al Unser. McCluskey came home third but was later moved to second when Unser’s Colt was disqualified at the post-race inspection for having a fraction—less than a quart—more fuel capacity than the permitted maximum. The disqualification has been appealed.
Nonetheless, it was a very exciting finish to an excellent season of USAC racing and nobody was happier than Gurney with a victory in the first race since his retirement and Savage with a victory the first time out on an oval track. Unser’s disqualification did not, of course, affect his well-deserved USAC Championship, which he had long since put out of reach with a total of 4,890 points. This was more than double the total of his older brother (and 1968 champion) Bobby, who finished second in the standings with 2,260 points. Jim McElreath, who scored that surprising victory in the inaugural California 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway, was third overall with 2,090 points. Mario Andretti, who had such an excellent year in 1969 with victories in both the Indianapolis 500 and the USAC Championship, finished a disappointing 1970 season in fourth place with 1,905 points. This is the lowest he has been in the championship in six years.
The remaining major American title to be decided in the past month was the hard-fought battle for NASCAR’s Grand National stock car championship and it went right down to the penultimate event of the 48-race season before works Dodge driver Bobby Isaac won the title by 51 points from the similar Dodge driven by Bobby Allison. Issac finished the year with 3,911 points and Allison with 3,860. James Hylton, who gave both of them stiff opposition throughout the year in his independently-entered Ford, finished third with 3,788 points. Richard Petty (Plymouth) was fourth with 3,447 points and was followed by Neil Castles (Dodge) with 3,158 and Elmo Langley (Mercury) just four points behind with 3,154 points. As usual, the Grand National championship proved to be one of the toughest, if not the toughest in the world for not only did Isaac win the title by only 51 points in 3,911 (the equivalent of, say, 1/2 a point out of 39 in the world drivers championship) but no less than four of the first six drivers (Issac, Hylton, Castles and Langley) competed in every possible race during the 48-race season. Allison missed only one event and Petty would surely have been in the hunt for the championship if he had not missed seven races as a result of an injury. Despite this, Petty was the leading winner of the year, his 18 victories raising his record Grand National total to 119.
It was one of the best NASCAR seasons for several years, Petty leading the championship for 13 races before his injury and the lead then changing hands five times between Isaacs and Hylton before the Dodge driver finally pulled ahead after the 35th race of the year. In the separate manufacturers’ championship (scored on the usual 9-6-4-3-2-1 system) Dodge ended a seven-year reign by Ford and won the title with 301 points. Chrysler, in fact, claimed the first two places when Plymouth finished second with 286 points and knocked Ford back to a distant third with 191 points. Mercury was a lowly fourth with 77.
After a decade spending unknown millions of dollars and making a massive—and successful—assault on the twin goals of victories at Le Mans and at Indianapolis, Ford of America has announced its immediate and virtually complete withdrawal from all forms of motor sport. Jacque Passino, the man who directed Ford’s competition activities during most of this time, has resigned; teams are being broken up and equipment sold. About the only activity that will continue is some dealer support for drag racing cars and clinics, and off-road racing such as the Baja 1000 in Mexico. “We’re hoping we will be able to give the cars, engines and equipment to the teams which have worked with us,” Passino said before his retirement. “It’s a total thing right from the Holman & Moody operation in stocks, Bud Moore’s programme in Trans-Am (1970 champions) and Mickey Thompson’s and a lot of others in drag racing. We have already cut our ties with Foyt’s Indy engine operation (A. J. Foyt having taken over the preparation and maintenance of Ford Indy engines from Sonny Meyer last year).”
It is a drastic withdrawal and will leave Chrysler with the only works entries in NASCAR in 1971. Chrysler, however, had earlier revealed its own severe cutback when it announced that it would support only two works cars this year. One will be a Plymouth driven by Richard Petty and the other a Dodge driven by Buddy Baker—and both cars will be prepared by Petty Engineering. At least one leading Ford driver, Cale Yarborough, has already announced that he will leave NASCAR to run in USAC events and others are expected to follow. However, said NASCAR President Bill France, “We do not feel Ford Motor Company’s announced withdrawal and Chrysler’s cutback from motor sports competition will have any detrimental effect on stock car racing. In fact, it could mean better competition because more cars and drivers will be competitive at a much reduced cost.” Much the same might prove true in the SCCA’s Trans-Am series, although with the complete withdrawal of Ford, Dodge, Plymouth and Jim Hall’s Chevrolet Camaros, Roger Penske’s team of American Motors Javelins is expected to run rampant.
A major controversy that erupted toward the end of the Can-Am series over the legality of Jim Hall’s ground-effect Chaparral 2J has been at least partially resolved by an announcement from the SCCA and the Canadian Automobile Sport Club that there will be no rules changes for Can-Am cars in the 1971 series. The two sanctioning organizations pointed out that competitors had been told in November 1969 that they could depend upon rules stability through 1972 and the latest reconfirmation of this “establishes the eligibility for 1971 of all cars that raced in the 1970 Can-Am.” Although the Chaparral does comply with SCCA supplementary rules, several leading entrants contended last year that it does not comply with the FIA’s Appendix J. It now remains to be seen if they make the same contention this year.—D.G.