Al Unser makes it two-in-a-row
Al Unser, the youngest member of the famous American motor-racing family, became the first man to win the Indianapolis 500 twice consecutively since Bill Vukovich made it two-in-a-row back in 1953-54.
Unser’s victory in the Johnny Lightning Special, a Ford-powered car built along Lola principles by George Bignotti and owned by Vel Miletich and Parnelli Jones, earned him $234,454, slightly less than he won last year.
His win was somewhat unexpected for throughout the month of unofficial trials, practice and then the actual qualifying, the only word one ever heard was McLaren. The 1971 wedge-shaped Offenhauser-powered McLaren M16 made everything else look out of date. The works Gulf cars of Peter Revson and Denny Hulme had the strong support of a customer model owned and prepared by Roger Penske Racing and driven by Mark Donohue.
Donohue it was that led the tremendous increase in speeds round the 2 1/2-mile oval up to 180-m.p.h. average in practice and looked like taking pole position with a speed of 177.087 m.p.h. for the average of three laps. But pole was snatched away from him by Peter Revson, who squeezed an extra 1.6 m.p.h. However one thing was certain, a McLaren victory was definitely on the cards.
In the shambles of a start, during which the pace car lost control and careered into a mobile photographers’ stand, injuring some members of the Press quite severely, it was Donohue who took the lead. Soon he was pulling away from the field at a second a lap, while Revson, who had made a bad start, was striving to make up several lost places. From the second row Hulme lost a lot of time with a huge spin and resultant pit stop.
There were several accidents during which both of the German-built McNamaras of Mario Andretti and Steve Krisloff had been eliminated as had the Penske-entered Lola driven by Britain’s David Hobbs, who was taking part in the event for the first time.
With the race little over quarter-distance old Donohue’s complete dominance of the 500 suddenly dissolved as the gearbox of the McLaren chewed itself up and the shining royal blue machine ground to a halt on turn four. Worse was to come for later Donohue’s abandoned machine was totally destroyed when a crashing car collected it and the two both burned out.
From then on the race was a battle between Al Unser and his teammate Joe Leonard, also driving a Bignotti-built car, with Lloyd Ruby and brother Bobby Unser also leading occasionally due to pit stops. However all three of Al Unser’s challengers were to drop by the wayside and it was the 1970 victor who came home to his second successive win. Peter Revson finally salvaged something for the name of McLaren by coming through to second place. A. J. Foyt finished yet again, this time in third spot ahead of Billy Vukovich, Jim Malloy and Donnie Allison, while the rest of the much reduced field were all lapped.