Three of the major American championships have been decided in the past month, the most important of them being that of the United States Auto Club. From the time that the green flag fell to start the first race of the season at Phoenix on March 29th there never seemed to be much doubt that Al Unser was going to win this year’s USAC Championship. Driving the Ford-powered Colts (née Lolas) that are owned by ParneIli Jones and Vel Miletich and prepared by George Bignotti, Jimmy Dilamarter and Charles Tabbuchi, the younger of the two Unser brothers, took the lead in the championship by winning the first race and then stayed in front by finishing third in the next two events. Came the Indianapolis 500 and there was no touching Unser as he won the pole position and then led all but 10 of the 200 laps on the way to an overwhelming victory. It was a lucrative victory not only in terms of dollars (over £113,000) but also in terms of points, for it raised his total to 1,790 points—over 700 more than Gurney or Andretti and over 1,000 more than McElreath. Unser didn’t make the winner’s circle in any of the next four races, but he finished all but one of them and ended the first half of the season with a great victory in the rain-drenched ninth race at the Indianapolis Raceway Park road circuit. His points total had now reached 2,690, far ahead of the 1968 and 1969 USAC champions—his older brother Bobby (1,500 points) who had just taken over second place from Andretti (1,485 points).
Al began the second half of the season just as he had begun the first half—with two victories within 24 hours, one on a dirt track and one on a paved oval. The inaugural California 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway was next and Unser appeared all set for a repeat of his runaway Indianapolis victory when his turbocharger failed with only 35 miles to go in the 500-mile race. The veteran Texan McElreath was the surprise winner of that one and his victory temporarily boosted him into second place in the standings. Within 24 hours of the California 500, however, Unser was back to his winning ways with another dirt-track victory. Indeed, that was the first of five consecutive victories—a winning streak that is still unbroken—and with them he put the 1970 USAC Championship out of reach of anyone else: With only one race remaining (on November 22) Al Unser now has 4,890 points, more than double the 2,260 points garnered by his brother Bobby, who is unbeatable for second in the standings. Third place is still in dispute, with McElreath (1,910 points) holding a slim lead over Mosley (1,900) and Andretti (1,815).
Whether he wins that final race or not, Al Unser can look back on a remarkable season. He has scored 10 victories in 17 races (equalling a record set by A. J. Foyt in 1964) and they include wins in every type of race that USAC runs—paved ovals (including the Indianapolis 500), dirt-track ovals (he won all four races on the dirt this year) and road circuits (at Indianapolis Raceway Park). He failed to finish only two of the 17 races and in the other five was never lower than fifth—being second once, third three times and fifth once.
On the same weekend that Unser was wrapping up the USAC Championship, his car owner, Parnelli Jones, together with George Follmer, was bringing the SCCA’s TransAm Championship back to Ford for the first time since 1967. The deciding event was the 10th race of the 11-race series at Seattle in which Jones scored a comfortable 19.6 sec. victory over Mark Donohue in one of Roger Penske’s American Motors Javelins. Sam Posey’s Dodge Challenger was third, followed by Follmer’s Mustang and Vic Elford and Ed Leslie in Jim Hall’s two Chaparral Camaros. And just to put the icing on the cake Jones and Follmer topped off the season by finishing first and second in the final race of the year, with Donohue third, Swede Savage and Dan Gurney fourth and fifth in the AAR Plymouth Barracudas, and Leslie sixth.
With each team able to count its best nine finishes, Ford won the championship by 72 points to American Motors’ 59 points. Chevrolet was third with 40 points, while Dodge and Plymouth, both severely affected by budget cutbacks early in the season, trailed with 18 and 15 points respectively. It was not an unexpected result and the points totals certainly don’t reflect the fact that the TransAm series, particularly in the second half of the season, provided possibly the best racing of the SCCA’s three professional series and certainly gave the spectators the best value for their money. In both 1968 and 1969 Penske’s Camaros won the championship for Chevrolet, but this year, he, like almost everyone else, was running with different cars and/or drivers. Only Bud Moore’s works Mustang team was held over virtually intact and no one was too surprised when they romped off with the first four races (Jones winning three and Follmer one). By this time, however, several of the other teams, and particularly Penake’s, had got their new cars sorted out and were able to exert much heavier pressure on the Fords. The result was that for five straight races the Mustangs were shut out of the winner’s corral (although Follmer continued picking up points with three second places and one third). The first break in Ford’s armour was achieved when Donohue’s Javelin won the fifth race at Bridgehampton. Milt Minter surprised all the works teams when he won the sixth event in an independent Camaro, but Donohue made it three out of four when he won the next two races. It was Vic Elford’s turn next and his inspired performance in the rain at Watkins Glen gave Hall’s Camaros their first and only victory of the year. By now, however, Moore’s team had regrouped its forces, eliminated the weaknesses that showed up under pressure from the other teams and came back to win the final two races and the championship.
As the flag fell to end the final TransAm race of the year it signalled also the end of Dan Gurney’s illustrious career as a driver. “I am 39,” Gurney said as he explained his retirement, “and although there are many examples of athletes succeeding in competition after that age, I’ve found that I’ve been getting more and more interested in some of the other aspects of racing . . . I will remain very active in racing, but not as a driver.” Gurney said he will form a new subsidiary of All American Racers to be called Dan Gurney Racing and that with two drivers (one presumably Savage) he will direct his main effort at USAC’s Championship Division and at the same club’s recently announced Road Racing Division.
Gurney’s racing career began in 1955 and over the next 15 years he becarne one of the best and probably the most versatile of all American drivers He has driven and won in virtually every type of racing—Formula One, endurance events, sports cars, stock cars and USAC Championship machines. He joined the Ferrari grand prix team within four years of his first race (1959) and then drove for BRM (1960), Porsche (1961-63), Brabham (1964-65) and his own AAR team (1966-68). He has scored four Grande Epreuve victories—the French GP for Porsche in 1962, the French and Mexican GPs for Brabham in 1964, and perhaps his most satisfying victory of all, the Belgian GP in 1967 in his own Eagle. In endurance events he has been victorious at Le Mans, the Nurburgring and Sebring; in stock cars he has won the 500-mile NASCAR race at Riverside five times in six years; and he has won or finished in the top three in almost every USAC road race he has entered. He was responsible for getting Ford and Colin Chapman together at Indianapolis (including paying Chapman’s round-trip air fare) and in the past three years he has finished third once and second twice in the Indianapolis 500. It is a record unmatched by any American road-racing driver and if there is any consolation in Gurney’s retirement it is that his infectious grin will be even more visible now that he has hung up his helmet.
The third American championship to be decided in the past month was the SCCA’s Continental series for Formula A (5000) cars and for the first time in the history of any major American championship the title went to a Canadian. The winner was John Cannon of Montreal, driving a McLaren M1OB powered by a fuel-injected Chevrolet. Cannon has been a dominant figure in the series ever since he won the first race in April, but it is a good indication of the fairly evenly matched competition in the Continental series that Cannon had to persevere to the 12th race. in the 13-race series before he could claim the championship. Victory in that 12th race (the only one held since last month) actually went to George Follmer, who proved once again that his Lotus 70, still powered by a carburetter-equipped Ford engine, is more than a match for the fuel-injected Chevrolets. Follmer set a new Formula A qualifying record to put his Lotus-Ford on the pole and then led every lap on his way to a 57-sec. victory and Formula A race record. David Hobbs, whose Surtees TS5A picked up two firsts and a third in the previous three races, shared the front row with Follmer and was battling with Cannon for second place early in the race when Cannon’s car suddenly jumped out of gear. The two cars tangled, the Surtees retired with suspension damage and Cannon went on to finish second to Follmer. With one race remaining, Cannon now has 129 points. Hutchison has 91 points, but his second place could still be usurped by either of the next three drivers—Ron Grable with 72 points or Hobbs and Follmer with 71 points each.—D. G.