American Comment

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Colin Chapman and STP’s Andy Granatelli went into the first qualifying weekend for the Indianapolis 500-mile race with high hopes of winning the pole position. Their optimism was more than justified. Joe Leonard and Graham Hill put their turbines on the front row in first and second positions and Art Pollard, after only a dozen laps’ practice in the third STP-Lotus turbine, qualified on the fourth row. Hill was the first to qualify and he did a new 1-lap record of 171.887 m.p.h. and a record 4-lap average of 171.208 m.p.h. Leonard won the pole position with a new 1-lap record of 171.953 m.p.h. and a 4-lap record average of 171.559 m.p.h. (The previous marks were 169.779 m.p.h. and 168.982 m.p.h., both set by Mario Andretti with his fastest speeds last year.)

Bobby Unser, in his new Eagle, powered by a turbo-charged Offenhauser engine, did his first lap at 170.358 m.p.h., but that proved to be the high mark, his 4-lap average was 169.507 m.p.h. It was a great effort; not enough to dislodge the turbines but good enough to win the remaining spot on the front row.

Twelve more drivers qualified the first day, but with almost continuous rain it took four more days to fill the 33-car field. (And the Indianapolis organisers, although showing an increased concern for safety, still adhere to the dangerous practice of allowing early qualifiers to retain their grid positions, even if their speed is beaten by a driver who qualifies on a subsequent day.) Among those who got in the hard way were Hulme and former Honda Grand Prix driver, Bucknum. In the space of 60 hours Hulme practised in his McLaren for the Monaco Grand Prix, flew to Indianapolis to qualify there (with 20 minutes to spare) and then flew back to Monaco to race. Bucknum, after slaving all month to get a poorly-prepared Eagle over 163 m.p.h., put in four good laps to make the field at 164.211 m.p.h. Half an hour later the car was disqualified for being 20 lb. under the 1,350 lb. minimum weight limit. It was the first time a qualified car had ever been removed from the field and Bucknum’s feelings can be imagined. Andretti then offered him his spare car, which had sat on the pole last year. Two days later Bucknum was quietly sitting in line waiting to qualify this car when he heard-over the public address system-that his privately-owned Eagle was back in the line-up. Indiana state inspectors, called in by the Eagle’s owner, had checked the U.S.A.C. scales, had found them as much as 190 lb. in error, and condemned them.

Although the STP-Lotus turbines had attracted the most attention and dominated qualifying, they were by no means the only new cars in the race. Most numerous of the “conventional” newcomers were five new Eagles from Gurney’s All-American Racers shops. Gurney had one, powered by a stock block Ford engine with Gurney-Weslake heads, and after the demise of the Shelby turbines he turned over the second works car, powered by a 4-overhead-camshaft Ford, to Hulme. The other three were in the hands of private teams and were driven by Bobby Unser and Roger McCluskey, who both used turbocharged Offenhauser engines, and Jerry Grant, who utilised a turbo-charged Ford. It speaks well for the design that these five new Eagles had four different powerplants and all of them qualified. The new cars are lower and slimmer, with a slight wedge effect to the nose, and have the front coil-spring/shock-absorber units back out in the airstream instead of inboard.

Jack Brabham, on the other hand, had a partial monocoque chassis (the engine was still in a tubular sub-frame) and inboard, rocker-arm-operated spring units at the front. He also had the all-new 4.2-litre Repco V8 engine, commissioned by Goodyear, with two gear-driven overhead camshafts per bank and four valves per cylinder. The usual teething trouble with a new engine and the demands of the Spanish and Monaco Grand Prix events cut severely into the team’s practice time and the engine was never completely sorted. Jochen Rindt qualified one car, but was out of the race after five laps with a burnt piston. Masten Gregory’s last-minute efforts to qualify the second car were thwarted by engine trouble. Despite the engineers’ superficial optimism, efforts to make Ford’s new turbo-charged engine reliable were plagued by problems in fuel distribution, overheating and fuel consumption (1.7 to 1.9 miles per gallon, one-third less than a 4.2-litre Ford running 10% nitromethane in its alcohol fuel). A. J. Foyt tried one in his new Coyote but abandoned it in favour of a less powerful (550 h.p. versus over 700 h.p.) but more reliable standard Ford V8. This also meant abandoning the special Ford automatic transmission he had planned to run with the turbo-charged version. Among the five drivers who did use the turbo-charged Ford were Andretti and Al Unser, younger brother to Bobby. Andretti had switched from a tubular chassis (a Brabham copy) for his Hawk to a monocoque, although he retained the Brabham-type suspension. The car worked well, but Andretti was out of the race after only one lap when the spring-operated pressure-relief valve on his turbo-charger jammed and holes were burned in two pistons. Al Unser’s car was one of two new Lolas that can be converted to 4-wheel-drive. It was the only non-turbine 4-w-d car in the race, but, unlike the Lotus turbines, it used larger tyres at the rear than at the front. This was the result of a design compromise because when it was laid down it wasn’t certain that either the new Hewland 4-w-d transmission or the turbo-charged Ford engine would be ready in time.

The first of these new Lolas on the track was in two-wheel-drive form, fitted with a 4-cam Ford, but this was severely damaged in practice when Unser hit the wall broadside in a corner. Unser qualified the 4-w-d version sixth fastest and maintained that position for the first 100 miles of the race when he was eliminated in what appeared to be a repetition of his earlier accident. The right front wheel came off as he entered a turn and the car crashed broadside into the wall. Unser was uninjured, and both Lolas were later returned to England for repair.

The sun finally reappeared on Memorial Day, May 30th, and a crowd of over a quarter of a million packed into the Speedway fully expecting to see the Granatelli/Chapman cars run away from the rest of the field. For once, however, the Indianapolis 500 lived up to its own billing as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”. Only eight laps after Joe Leonard swooshed into the lead from a ragged start Bobby Unser’s Eagle screamed past him, and the battle was on. And what a battle it was, with Lloyd Ruby soon joining the fray in his turbo-Offy Mongoose and these three drivers then fighting it out for fully 480 of the 500 miles.

As early as the 20th lap, Leonard trailed Unser by five sec., Hill was 14 sec. behind in fifth place and Pollard was far back in 11th. Unser clung tenaciously to the lead and held it through to the quarter-distance mark, when the first of three compulsory fuel stops began. Ruby was the first, and the quickest, and on the 57th lap he shot to the front as Unser made his stop. At the 200-mile mark 23 laps later Ruby was still leading, but Unser had closed the gap to 2.3 sec. and Leonard’s turbine was only 1 sec. back in third. Hill occupied fourth, 15.6 sec. behind his team-mate, but 11.2 sec. clear of a really classic battle between Gurney and Foyt. The two former Le Mans partners had got together before the 20th lap and for 150 miles they raced less than a second apart, slipstreaming each other down the straights and then diving into the corners side by side, neither giving an inch. They were racing as only two men with great respect for each other can, and the brilliance of the battle frequently stole the limelight from the leaders. Unfortunately, the duel ended on the 87th lap when a connecting rod broke in Foyt’s Ford engine.

Attention quickly switched back to the leaders, where first Unser and then Leonard squeezed past Ruby to make the order at the halfway mark Unser (Eagle), Leonard (Lotus turbine) and Ruby (Mongoose), less than five seconds covering the three cars. Hill (Lotus turbine) and Gurney (Eagle) were the only other drivers on the same lap as the leaders in fourth and fifth places. Jim McElreath (Coyote) occupied sixth, closely pursued by Hulme (Eagle), who had smoothly carved his way from his 20th place starting position.

Eleven laps into the second half Hill’s race ended when part of the front suspension broke and the car clouted the wall in the second turn. Unser stopped for fuel under the resulting caution light, lost the lead to Leonard for six laps and then came charging back to the front again despite having lost all but top gear. After 350 miles of racing there were only two seconds separating the first three cars and the crowd roared as the turbine made attack after attack on the leaders, only to be fought off. As Leonard explained later, the turbines had been “tweaked” to give 510 h.p. for qualifying but had been detuned by the Pratt and Whitney engineers to a more reliable 480 h.p. for the race.

Coming up to three-quarter distance (150 laps) and the final fuel stops, it was still Unser over Ruby by a hair, with Leonard 5 sec. further back and Gurney 10 sec. behind the turbine. Ruby and Leonard made their stops first and then shot to the front, one second apart, when Unser made his stop on the 165th lap. Ten laps later, however, Lady Luck deserted Lloyd Ruby. After setting the fastest lap of the race—168.666 m.p.h.—and with only 25 laps to go, the quiet, veteran Texan was twice forced to the pits with a misfiring engine and then lost 6 min. 29 sec. having his ignition coil changed. The stop put Leonard into the lead for the third time and he was seven seconds ahead of Unser when the yellow light flashed on the 181st lap. Carl Williams’ Coyote had hit the wall, lost a wheel and caught fire. For 10 laps the field bunched up behind Leonard and it seemed impossible that Unser, with five slower cars separating him from the leader, could ever hope to catch him. Then history repeated itself. For the second year in a row, with a turbine victory within his grasp, Granatelli saw his dream shattered. On the 192nd lap the green light flashed on and Leonard gave the turbine full throttle—and nothing happened. He threw one hand in the air, pulled sharply to the side of the track and parked in the first, turn with the turbine’s fuel pump drive-shaft sheared. Moments later the same shaft sheared on Pollard’s car (which was running seventh) and all the turbines were grounded.

Bobby Unser roared past in his Eagle taking the lead for the fourth and last time on his way to victory in one of the most exciting Indianapolis races in many years. His speed was a record 152.882 m.p.h. and the venerable Offenhauser was back in the winner’s circle for the first time since 1964. Dan Gurney brought his works Eagle home 54 sec. behind Unser. Hulme in the second works Eagle suffered misfortune after a fine drive when he stopped with a puncture on the 198th lap and lost third place to Mel Kenyon’s Gerhardt by six seconds. Lloyd Ruby returned to take fifth place in his Mongoose and was the last driver to complete the full 200 laps. With Eagles in three of the first four places, all powered by different engines, Gurney was jubilant. His own second place with his pushrod 5-litre Ford V8 engine was the highest finish by a stock-block power unit since the early days of the race. But it was an equally good year for the Offenhauser, with nine of the 11 finishers being powered by turbo-charged versions of this engine. That is quite an achievement for a powerplant that is a direct descendant of the Miller engines that ruled Indianapolis more than 40 years ago!—D. G.

Footnote: The sheared fuel-pump drive-shaft on the two STP Lotus turbines was attributable to the slow-speed running under the “yellow light”, causing the fuel pumps to run hot, as they rely on the flow-rate for cooling; they are eccentric-vane pumps, with spring-loaded vanes. When they were given the “green” and full power the extra load of the overheating pumps caused the shafts to shear. On the Pratt and Whitney engine these shafts are made of phosphor-bronze tubing and are deliberately designed to shear as a safety factor when used in aircraft, in case of overheating before take-off. Lotus replaced these shafts with steel ones, but the Pratt and Whitney engineers threw their hands up in horror and insisted on the original “fail-safe” shafts being used, for a seized fuel pump could cause a fire, which is anathema to an aircraft engineer. After much discussion and juggling, Hill’s car retained the steel drive-shaft for the race, the other two cars using the Pratt and Whitney shafts. In addition, because of advertising contracts, the turbines were running on straight petrol in the race instead of kerosene, so that the lubricating qualities of the practice fuel were lost.

Hulme’s last-minute pit-stop to change a wheel was not without drama, for his pit-crew had the wrong jack, and Foyt and another driver rushed in and lifted the back of the car bodily, saving valuable seconds.—D. S. J.

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