This year’s Indianapolis 500 produced one of the most popular winners of modern times when Andretti drove his turbo-Ford-powered Brawner-Hawk, owned by Granatelli, to a record victory in the 53rd annual renewal of this American classic. For Andretti it was a just reward for his skill and courage; and for Granatelli it meant the end of 23 years of heartbreaks as an owner, a sponsor and an entrant. Just three days before final qualifying Andretti’s chances of even making the race hovered near disaster. Coming into the final turn on a practice run, the right rear hub had failed on his 4-w-d Lotus 64 and shed the wheel. The car smashed into the wall at 150 m.p.h., showering wreckage in all directions and bursting into flames. Andretti escaped with second degree burns to part of his face but the very next morning, his blistered skin still painful, he was back on the track in his back-up Hawk trying to achieve in two days what had taken two weeks in the Lotus. He is not known as the Peerless Paisano for nothing. (The defective Lotus hub was found to have been incorrectly heat-treated. Chapman had the remaining hubs modified and then tried to get new ones made, but time ran out and the Lotuses for Andretti’s team-mates, Hill and Rindt, were withdrawn.)
With only two days for qualifying (the first weekend was washed out by rain) most of the leading drivers played it safe and were happy just to get into the 33-car field. Foyt, the tough Texan bidding to become the first four-time winner of the 500, won the pole position with a four-lap average of 170.568 m.p.h. in his conservative but thoroughly prepared turbo-Ford Coyote. (On the day that Andretti crashed Foyt lapped the 2.5-mile Speedway at 172.315 m.p.h.—the fastest speed ever recorded by a piston-engined car and only a fraction off the 172.877 m.p.h. turned by Leonard in last year’s turbine-powered Lotus 56.) Andretti was the second fastest qualifier at 169.851—after only two days to sort out the Hawk—and 1968 winner Bobby Unser filled out the front row with 169.683 in his 4-w-d turbo-Offy Lola T152, an updated version of last year’s T150. Donohue, the U.S. road-racing champion for the past two years but a rookie at Indianapolis, confirmed his great ability by qualifying fourth fastest at 168.903 in his similar Lola T152. Gurney and Leonard were 10th and 11th fastest in their 1969 Eagles (Gurney’s with a stock block Ford and Leonard’s with a turbo-Ford), but Hulme in the only other 1969 Eagle had to settle for 25th place. Brabham, who had not intended to drive but gradually caught the bug as the month wore on, was in 29th place in his Repco-Brabham and his team-mate Revson just made the field in last place when the gun sounded to end qualifications.
For Andretti, the easiest part of the race was the first five laps. He won the drag race into the first corner and led those first five laps from team-mates Foyt and McCluskey in their Coyotes. Then trouble struck. Andretti’s engine began to overheat and he dropped to third. The racing had ended, but then began a much tougher 490-mile mental battle as he forced himself to restrict his pace to one the temperature gauges would accept. His willpower won out over his competitive instincts. Foyt and McCluskey dominated the first 100 miles, until McCluskey ran out of fuel just before his planned refuelling stop. Approaching 200 miles there was still only five seconds separating the first four cars—Foyt leading, Andretti, the veteran Ruby who had charged up from 20th in his turbo-Offy Mongoose, and Leonard. At this point the race turned in Andretti’s favour. First Foyt fell back with a broken turbocharger fitting and then Andretti swapped the lead with Ruby for 26 laps until Ruby’s second fuel stop, when a refuelling hose jammed and ripped a hole in the bladder as Ruby pulled away a fraction too soon. It was the third time in four years that this likeable driver was sidelined while leading. A long pit stop by Leonard put him out of contention and on the 106th lap Andretti went into a lead he never relinquished. Gurney’s stock block Ford didn’t have the power of the turbocharged engines but for the second year in a row he drove his Eagle to second place. Bobby Unser’s Lola and Kenyon’s Gerhardt took third and fourth places, while Revson drove a superbly paced race to come from last to fifth in his Brabham. Leonard was sixth, Donohue seventh (an over-rich engine and magneto failure holding him back), and Foyt eighth.—D. G.