Few Britons have featured in the results at the infamous Indianapolis 500, with the notable exceptions of Jim Clark and Graham. This year David Hobbs finished fifth in his Carling Black Label-sponsored, turbocharged Offenhauser-powered works McLaren M16C/D, while American team-mate Johnny Rutherford went on to win. Hobbs has kindly sent Motor Sport this account of the race and the build-up to it. The Northamptonshire-based driver currently spends most of his time in the USA, driving a Carl Hogan-prepared Formula 5000 Lola for Sterling industrial Securities, winning at Mosport as this account goes to Press.
I have seen more changes this year than they have ever had at Indianapolis in a long time, brought about by last year’s catastrophic race and also the supposed fuel crisis in the USA. The first change was that the month of May was reduced to three practice weeks. The cars were changed in that the wings came down to Formula One size, 43 inches wide instead of 65 inches, which they were last year, and we all had to use a lot less fuel both in the race and in practice. Practice fuel was always completely unrestricted, but this year only 300 gallons were allowed, which is about 500 miles; practice was cut down from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day to 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; qualifying was reduced from four days to just the two middle Saturdays and, of course, in the race we were reduced to 280 gallons of methanol instead of 350. So all this meant quite a lot of changes to the cars. The smaller wings meant slightly lower corner speeds and, of course, a lot less fuel for the race meant an awful lot less power.
The other changes were to the organising body, probably the most traumatic that they had had to go through for a long time. Harman Pengler, the Chief Steward, was replaced by Tom Binford, current director of ACCUS in America, which was of course a very difficult thing for the Speedway to bring themselves to do as Harman Pengler and Tony Hulman, owner of the Speedway, have been very close friends for many many years. But everybody felt that after last year’s disastrous start in the race and some very poor decisions which were made during the month, it was time they had a new steward. The final changes were to the track itself. Last year coming out of turn 4, where Swede Savage was killed, was a very dangerous bottleneck, particularly to people who were unused to the Speedway. It was more noticeable to them in that the wall tapered down and the track was reduced to its narrowest point just coming off one of these 190-mile-an-hour corners. Just after this narrow point was a little slot in the wall which was supposedly the pit entrance, but this year all this had been taken away, the wall had been pushed back about 100 ft., a great big new pit entrance made; the grass dug up, pavement and tarmac put down, and the pits lengthened. Each individual pit was lengthened from 30 ft. to 40 ft. which, of course, meant there was an awful lot more room in each pit and the pit lane itself was widened by about 6 ft., so all this made the physical contour of the track change a little bit too. I would personally like to see more changes made: I would like to see them pave all the grass on the inside of the turns, because it seems to rain here all through the month of May anyway, and we get the situation where if you spin off the wet grass doesn’t help you slow down much.
Because of these changes we finally arrived there on May 6th instead of the usual April 28th or 29th, and practice got under way. The shorter practice month was 3 welcome change, though, meaning that people had to start going fast much sooner, so we had a lot more cars out on the track on the first day and I was one of them in the new Carling Black Label McLaren. This was a brand new M16C/D, exactly the same as Johnny Rutherford’s. The final suspension settings had been fixed by Rutherford at a tyre test at Indianapolis in March, so my car started to go very well immediately. I was very impressed with the team all the time; they helped me a lot at the track, they looked after the car well and, of course, it was so nice to come in after doing a run and be able to talk to Gordon Coppuck, who designed the car, Tyler Alexander, who was a sort of overall chief of the Indianapolis team, and, of course, my own personal chief mechanic Hughie Absolym. Ilughic was on Revson’s car last year, has been awarded the Chief Mechanic’s award here twice before, is very, very well known in Indianapolis, and also knows a lot about Indianapolis racing, which is a big help. Last year was a bit of a shot in the dark, the blind leading the blind with Roy Wood’s team, in that none of us had had much lady experience before.
On the first day I lapped at about 179 m.p.h. The fastest run of the day was Bobby Unser at 188. Only three or four went over 180, so we were doing quite well, though obviously with a fair way to go and one of my first impressions of the team was that they didn’t try to rush me on. No one was going around with long faces saying, “Why isn’t Hobbs up there with Bobby?” They were all very good about it and said, “Ah, well. Just let it come, you know. Give yourself a bit of time.” But with the practice restrictions we couldn’t wait too long and, of course, the first qualifying was on the Saturday which was only four days away by this stage. Johnny Rutherford, by the way, didn’t go out at all on the first day. On the second day I went out again and got the speed to 185. Bobby Unser didn’t go any faster, in fact he went slower at about 186, Mike Mosley did 185 (Ntosley’s always very fast here), and I think only five people were over 180 all day. Rutherford then went out and showed everybody what the McLaren team were all about this year by doing 191 on his second lap, which was all a bit disturbing for me, and even more disturbing for the other competitors. The Viceroy super team at this stage were not showing us anything. Mario Andretti was trying the new 1974 Maurice Philippe designed Viceroy Parnellt Jones car, which wasn’t doing anything at all. Al Unser was using his Eagle, which they had bought last year and Mario had his back-up Eagle in the garage ready to go. At this stage Al in his Eagle was only doing speeds in the region of 180-181 and Mario was doing 173 in the new Philippe car, so they were all a bit down in the mouth.
We were running very low boost in an effort to get good fuel consumption, needing to get something over 1.8 miles to the gallon, which sounds horrible, but in actual fact it’s a heck of a lot better than these cars have been getting in past years when they have been down to 1.2 to 1.4 miles to the gallon. This year we had to do over 1.8 to get through on our fuel allotment and I was running about 75 inches of mercury on the gauge in my car and Johnny was running 79. Eighty was the legal limit for qualifying, which was another little stumbling block we were to come against on the Saturday of qualifying, in that the organisers bolted a valve on to the inlet manifold, set to blow off at 271 lbs, per sq. inch. In the end, of course, everybody had to fit one of these valves, so there was no point in trying to practice at much over 80 inches of mercury because you would have to have it all cut down again on qualifying day. The handling changes quite a bit on these cars as the engine power goes up or down, so we were running very conservatively and also getting extremely good fuel consumption— about 1.95 to the gallon which obviously was going to he plenty for us.
Johnny Rutherford started to help me with advice after watching me going through some of the turns. It looks so easy at Indianapolis, for left-handers all appear the same, but in actual fact they are all incredibly different. I always find turn 3 the easiest for some inexplicable reason and turn 1 the most difficult, which is a shame because it’s the one just past the pits so everyone can hear you back-off while they don’t see me doing my thing through to doing a few odd laps with a lot more boost than usual to try to frighten the opposition. The whole thing is quite extraordinary, not like Formula One or Formula 5000 at all. Al Unser at last got his Eagle into the 190 bracket and did 191, Wally Dallenbach driving George Patrick’s STP Eagle, did 193 and so there were seven of us at over 190. Bobby Unser did 192 as well, so there were Foyt at 196, Dallenbach 193, Rutherford and Bobby Unser 192, Al Unser 191 and me 190-and-a-bit. I might point out that the weather on Thursday was absolutely ideal, being very still and clear and quite cool, which of course, helps these engines quite a lot. I think this was one of the reasons why everyone went so well on Thursday. On the Friday it was a bit windy and 1 was back down to about 188 miles an hour but then everybody else was running a bit slower on Friday as well.
So Saturday dawned for first day qualifying, The crowd was down this year, with a mere 200,000 people instead of last year’s record of about 250,000 to 275,000. It really is an experience for a European who is used to going to Mallory Park, Silverstone and Brands and seeing relatively sparse crowds, to see this huge stand absolutely packed with people just come to see everybody run four laps at a time. Quite extraordinary, in that a tremendous amount of people prefer the qualifying date to the race itself. It was a bit windy on Saturday and a little bit warmer again, which wasn’t going to help the qualifying speeds and as luck would have it at the Friday night draw for qualifying positions old A. J. Foyt drew No. 1, so he had the number one qualifying spot. We ran into one of the many Indianapolis wrangles which go on year in, year nut, in the morning when Johnny Rutherford blew his engine in the 1-hour pre-qualifying practice. They took the car away to the garage to change the engine in a fantastic time of 1 hour and 45 minutes—hut unfortunately he joined the line-up outside after 11 o’clock, apparently the deadline, so he was unable to qualify as what they call a first day qualifier. Unfortunately only first day qualifiers are able to run for pole, if you can understand all this, and so Ruther
ford was very upset because he was pretty convinced that he could get pole, as was the whole McLaren team. Anyway, A. J. took his run just after 11 o’clock, turned in some laps at about 190, and qualified at 191.632 thereby setting a target for all the rest of us to run at. Next to go was Bill Simpson in the American Kids Racer (they couldn’t find a sponsor so they distinguished it with this name) and he was a bit slower at 181. I was supposedly 19th in the queue but one or two people didn’t make it and I actually ran about 11th on the list. Unfortunately I followed Wally Dallenbach, which was the next point of contention. It turned out that he had a very large turbocharger on his car, so large, and it sucked in so much air, that in actual fact it bypassed the valve which was fitted in the manifold. This caused a lot of fuss among the other teams, because everybody felt he’d cheated which, of course, he had, but as he’d been using the valve nobody could really think of a suitable reason for disqualifying him, so Wally did the second fastest time to date at 189.683. I finally went out and did 184.833, which was a little bit disappointing because I’d hoped to qualify about 187-188. We’d have been doing it Ott 79 inches Of boost easily, but the thing that fouled us up was the valve; when they put the valve in and read the gauge it seemed to be reading very low, So they turned the boost up to try to make sure we were getting our legal 80 inches. Unfortunately, this had upset the pick-up–when I lifted off for the corners the throttle response had completely gone to hell, so this in turn caused the car to understeer because I couldn’t get the power down. As it started to push through the corners then I had no power to get the back—well I wouldn’t say get the back round—but at least help the car through the turn, so we lost a bit of time there. just after my run there was a tiny sprinkle of rain, then Mike Mosley went out and did 185.3, just pushing me off fourth fastest of the day. Then it really rained and that completely washed out all the rest of the qualifying for that day. On Sunday it was very clear but very windy, which has a tremendously adverse effect on these cars at these very high speeds
and nobody did very much at all. We went out and had a very brief run and decided it wasn’t worth it and put the car away. Of course, normally the people that were in the queue for qualifying would have gone out on the Sunday, but this year they decided to make the qualifying just the two Saturdays, so Sunday was a bit of a wasted day. This affected me because it gave people like Mike Hiss and Mario Andretti another week to get their cars sorted out, for they could have all next week’s practice, whereas we had had our run and couldn’t have another try. It would have been nice to see them qualify on the Sunday because the weather was so rotten that they probably wouldn’t have gone as fast as me! Neither of them at that stage had gone as fast as I had so there was a very good chance that I would be on the second row.
Just as an aside here, on the Monday and Tuesday I went up to Detroit with Carling Black Label on a sponsorship sort of promotion tour and then I went off testing on the Wednesday and Thursday for Carl Hogan at Mid-Ohio. During the month of May I did a total of 62 interviews on behalf of Carling, with newspapers, small radio tapings and television interviews in Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and of course Indianapolis itself and my wife Margaret did about five or six interviews on tape and newspaper articles. This is the sort of thing, of course, that anyone who has a sponsor in the United States has to go through. We arrived back in Indianapolis on Friday to watch the qualifying on Saturday. Unfortunately for me it was a very nice day, very cool, with no wind at all, so I just knew that I was going to be bumped from the second row to at least the third and maybe the fourth row because it was obviously going to be a slightly faster day. The first run was by Gordon Johncock, who went out and pushed me down one place, the second runner was Mike Hiss, who promptly pushed
Johncock down one place and got himself on the front row with 187 and then Mario Andretti qualified at 186 putting himself on the second row. I finally ended up on the outside of the third row in 9th spot. Nobody went any faster. These people were allowed to bump me down because they had been in the queue before it rained on the previous Saturday and were, therefore, still classed as first day qualifiers. The last first day qualifier to run was in fact Mario, and everybody who ran after him hadn’t been in the line-up and, therefore, whatever speed they did they would be behind the first five rows. Of course it rained again then for about an hour and the track was closed for nearly four hours, not being opened again until 4.30, poor Johnny Rutherford, meanwhile, still not having made his run. He was the second man to go out after the track opened and his first lap was 192 as he had been really determined to, as he called it, “smoke old A. J.” In actual fact he ended up just a tick slower at just over 190, hut even so he had to start 25th on the grid, another dangerous anomaly that happens here at Speedway. After the second qualifying day we had another week of nothing to do and the track was closed from the Saturday afternoon right through until the Thursday, carburation day, during which time the track was opened for an hour and a half for, well, practice. My McLaren ran very ssell. I did 185, Rutherford did 191 on hardly any boost at all and everything looked set to be a very good race for the whole team. Foyt did 188. After the carburation we had pit practice, without engines running, so all the teams were frantically working out their strategy for changing the tyres and putting the fuel in the quickest way they possibly could, timing their own stops and, of course, everybody else’s stops. We also had a drivers meeting, which was a bit of a farce; every time anybody asked any awkward questions
they were immediately fobbed off to somebody else to be answered.
After that came the bicycle race. We didn’t do too badly but unfortunately, the most serious injury of the month took place In this race when a well known member of the Press and Foyt came together coming through turn 3 at approximately 15 miles an hour and the poor chap fell off his bike, suffering four broken ribs and a punctured lung, pretty ironic when you think of the speed that Foyt and others were due to go through that corner on the following Sunday during the race itself.
The weather during the month had been pretty unsettled, a lot of rain, a lot of very violent thunderstorms, high winds and tremendous variations in temperature. Some days we only had a high of about 50, other days we had highs well into the 80s, and everybody was sweating on the top line because one of the main reasons why last year’s race was such a tremendous disaster was the terrible weather before and during race day. The race was delayed for three days because of the weather and everybody this year was really very worried that the same thing might happen. Thankfully race day, Sunday, the first time the race has been held on a Sunday and not on Memorial Day itself, which is the Monday, dawned absolutely perfect weather for racing. It was clear, cool with very little wind, slightly overcast, so the sun wasn’t going to create any problems of glare or too much temperature and it just couldn’t have been better. We’d had our drivers meeting and had all been told to take it very, very steady at the start. I think the new Chief Steward, Torn Binford, was very nervous about the start and of course so were the drivers because of last year’s terrible crash when the flag dropped, and he was very insistent that anybody who tried to jump the start was going to be penalised at least one lap.
It’s a pretty nerve-racking three or four hours before the race, which is finally ended when Tony Hulman, the owner of the Speedway, says, “Gentlemen, start your engines,” in his quavering voice, the millions of balloons are sent up, the crowds go mad, everybody starts to cry, the engines start to roar— a very emotional experience. When the flag did drop this year two laps later it was an almost perfect start and I slotted in about 9th place, which is more or less what I expected. I started off on the outside of course, so I had to get down into the line and I was a bit worried about the man behind me, Dick Simon, trying to carve me up on the inside, but he didn’t. Well, as always happens in Indianapolis, millions of dollars of preparation and forethought very often come to an early end and both Mario Andretti and Gary Bettenhausen, both driving for the two best sponsored teams in the race, were out at the end of the first lap. Gary dropped a valve, and Mario holed a piston, which is an incredible thing to happen when you think of the time and money and general preparation which have gone into these cars. Dick Simon also dropped out on the first or second lap, but luckily there were no incidents, no spins nor crashes, and in actual fact the first yellow light didn’t come on for something like half an hour. Unfortunately, when I started the race the car didn’t feel right; the track conditions had changed a little bit and, of course, at those very high constant speeds, it doesn’t :ake much change to become very noticeable .n the car. Instead of under-steering, which Lt had done all through practice, it started to over-steer a little bit and in fact it got worse and worse and finally I had to make a it stop and have a tyre change at the rear, which of course was disastrous under the green light situation early in the race. Just about everybody passed me while I was in die pits and of course this put me right down to 21st place, which was a bit disheartening to say the least. We also made a change to the front wing, which is a very quick adjustment on the McLaren and after the pit stop the car did start to go better and I started to pick up speed again, but some of my laps were as low as 175 miles an hour when I had been pretty confident that I would be lapping at about 184 during the whole race. Rutherford, meanwhile had moved up from 25th to 4th in 10 laps and then he and Foyt were to fight for the lead for the next 100 odd laps, while I fought to come back from about 21st place. One chap who was running very well at this stage of the game was Tom Sneva, a rookie, who had started next to me on the 3rd row and at one stage got up as high as 3rd place, very close to Bobby Unser, who started on the inside of the third row, a very good show for the rookie. We seemed to run into a bit of bad luck with our pit stops; every time we stopped it was green and every time we went out it was yellow which makes a very serious difference at the speeds we’re talking about. People were dropping out pretty thick and fast, but there were still no really major spins, Jerry Karl touched the wall coming out of turn 4 (which we saw on a playback of the race in the evening), which looked pretty hair-raising. He iust grazed the wall with his outside tyres —which is cutting it a bit too fine for my liking—and, subsequently, spun violently at turn 3 and ran into the wall. His was the Drily major crash of the day, in actual fact. Al Unser, in the other super team Viceroy Eagle, had the car drop out of gear while he was going at full chat and, of course, the valves hit the pistons, so he was side
lined. A. J. Foyt started to drop oil and was black flagged, went out again and in about two laps he came back and went straight into Gasoline Alley, a very disillusioned man, very upset because he really wanted to make this his fourth win. If and when he does win here next time, he’ll be the first man to have won this race four times in its history. Even to win it three times is a pretty good record!
This put Johnny Rutherford firmly in the lead, and in fact he was to lead for the next 100 laps, making a total of 122 laps in the lead. Bobby Unser was up to 2nd place and running very strongly—in fact if they hadn’t had a very bad pit stop when they couldn’t get a right rear wheel off, he might have given Johnny an even closer run for his money, instead of which he was beaten by 20 odd seconds. Billy Vukovich passed me when I made the first pit stop, so he was now two laps in front of me and running very strongly in about 5th place. Lloyd Ruby was running in 4th and Gordon Johncock was running 3rd. Johncock had a long pitstop when he ran out of fuel on the track and just managed to make it back to the pits, so that dropped him back a little bit (unfortunately not far enough) and Lloyd Ruby used his entire fuel allotment by the 188th lap, which, of course, dropped him right out of the running—they had some problem with a leak in the fuel injection system.
Other people to run into trouble who had been running quite well were Gerry Grant in his Cobra Firestone Eagle who had some mysterious engine malady and just cruised around for about the last 50 laps; Bill Simpson, in the American Kids racer had been running quite well until ho had some sort of engine problem; and Mike Hiss who had a mysterious engine failure—the engine just stopped on him but he was towed back to the pits and after working on it for a long time he continued to run, although he only completed 159 laps. So both of Roger Penske’s super team cars were out and by this time the third Viceroy super team car was out too, driven by Jan Opperman, a rookie to Indianapolis, but a very successful sprint driver. He had a big spin coming out of 3, spun right from 3 to 4, didn’t hit anything, but rather frightened himself, and they pushed the car away. Steve KrisilofT’s clutch had let go fairly early on—he was a man who could have been expected to go quite quickly. Mike Mosley dropped out very early on lap 6. So the race ran out luckily very uneventfully, with no big spins, no big crashes, no nasties at all, perfect weather and, of course, in Johnny Rutherford a very popular winner with everybody, especially Team McLaren! This was his first win in 11 attempts and he led for 122 laps. Bobby Unser was 20 sec. behind in 2nd place—he has won here once, finished 3rd once and 2nd once, and every other time he has never finished here—Billy Vukovich came 3rd, which of course, for him was terrific, for he came 2nd last year, Gordon Johncock came 4th, having won the shortened race last year in his STP Oil Treatment Eagle. Somebody by the name of David Hobbs was 5th in his Carling Black Label McLaren Offenhauscr—a little bit disappointed, as I felt that I should have per
haps come 3rd really, the way the car went potentially. I ran on slightly lower boost than we meant to run, because unfortunately the gauge had gone wrong and I had 25 gallons of fuel left when the race was over, which obviously meant we could have used a bit more power. Sixth was Jim McElreath in a Thermo King Eagle; 7th was Duane Carter, the first rookie and, of course, naturally enough, the Rookie of the Year, driving a Cobra Firestone; 8th was Bob Harkey in an Eagle; and 9th was Lloyd Ruby who had run out of fuel at 187 laps, so he was the first non-runner.
After the race there was much joy and drinking of Carling Black Label in the McLaren Garage in Gasoline Alley. The Garage suddenly filled with all sorts of friends shaking Johnny Rutherford and me by the hands and saying, “Hi, buddy, remember me from somewhere or other…?” Johnny was really flying high., terribly pleased to have won this race and, of course, the whole McLaren team was overjoyed. They have done so well at the Speedway in terms of speed and they run such an efficient little team, it has always been a shame they have never won one of these 500’s before. The nearest they have come was Peter Revson in 1971 when he was on pole and came 2nd to Al Unser, so for them it was a first time and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of people. Tyler Alexander and Teddy Mayer missed Monaco to be here, and I think they really deserved to win. The cars ran absolutely faultlessly and the engines ran faultlessly (of course, they do their own engines). It is, probably contrary to popular belief, one of the less well endowed teams in terms of finances. There was only one major sponsor here and that was Goodyear on both cars; Carling came along and sponsored my car, but when you think of the money that some of the teams, the Val’s PanicIli Jones outfit, Roger Penske and even Dan Gurney’s All-American Eagle, have behind them, they really are a very lightly sponsored team. And, of course, they put on a whole month of perfect running. I had no engine problems at all with my car, with neither the practice engine nor the racing engine. Johnny had one engine let go, which was one they were trying an experiment with and even then it wasn’t terribly serious, and on the carburation day he had another engine go, when the car dropped out of gear, which meant that the valves touched the pistons, as happened to Al Unser in the race. Apart from those little untoward incidents and the fact that Rutherford couldn’t run for pole, the whole thing ran absolutely perfectly—a very popular win and, of course, even more popular for Johnny because he picked up $240,000 odd, on Monday night, which finished off a rather nice month for him!
There is a possibility now that Johnny might run in the Formula 5000 series over here. He is very keen to go road racing and USAC and SCCA have made an agreement that USAC drivers can run in it. At the moment Carl Hogan is trying to think of a way of letting Johnny, or getting some finances together for Johnny to drive our second car, my back-up car, so we might see him with us on the road racing circuit before long.
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